Too-fast start stalls 6 of 8 boats

Only Amer Sports Too and ASSA ABLOY leave on time for Baltimore

April 15, 2002|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

MIAMI -- Before the restart of the Volvo Ocean Race, skippers and crew talked about the tricky conditions that awaited them up the East Coast and the Chesapeake Bay.

They were jumping the gun -- literally.

In a bizarre start off the coast of Miami Beach yesterday afternoon, six of the eight boats dashed across the start line ahead of the gun and had to circle back to try again.

Only Amer Sports Too, the all-woman boat, and ASSA ABLOY managed to get away cleanly on the three-day, 875-mile run up to Baltimore. The boats are skippered by Lisa McDonald and Neal McDonald, husband and wife.

Illbruck Challenge was first to note its error and turn back. Skipper John Kostecki lost about 15 seconds on his restart and began chasing down the leaders.

The other boats slowly responded to signals from the race committee, and their restarts put Amer Sports One in fourth place and SEB in fifth, followed by djuice dragons and Tyco. News Corp, media baron Rupert Murdoch's entry with the Bart Simpson main sail, was last to turn, having wrapped its spinnaker sail around the mast as the crew began to lower it.

Boats were maneuvering every which way, making the scene even more chaotic.

By outward appearances, the day shaped up as a perfect beginning for Leg 6 of the around-the-world race that started in Southampton, England, in September and will end in early June in Kiel, Germany. Skies were mostly sunny, winds were out of the south at 13 knots, with seas were running 4 to 5 feet.

The start wasn't considered difficult or technical, but all eight boats were jockeying to get closest to shore.

It appeared News Corp would cross the line first, followed by illbruck, SEB and Tyco. Observers were sympathizing with what seemed to be another poor start by Amer Sports Too and ASSA ABLOY.

Suddenly, ASSA ABLOY began turning away from the starting line, moving so swiftly that it didn't have time to pump water ballast from one side to the other. As the boat continued its turn, it tipped almost on its side before righting itself. Amer Sports Too needed no last-minute maneuvers to get across cleanly.

With 38 points, illbruck Challenge leads the way with what some believe is an insurmountable eight-point advantage. Kostecki says he knows the other boats are stalking him.

"When you are leading the regatta, nobody gives you a break," he says. "We have to hope they don't gang up on us."

ASSA ABLOY is in second place. Clustered together are Amer Sports One in third, with 25 points; Tyco, 24 points; and News Corp, 23. The last three boats are djuice, 19 points; SEB, 17; and Amer Sports Too, 8.

Staying ahead of the pack will require about 72 hours of nearly flawless tactics and navigation, Kostecki says. To do that, he dropped a trimmer from his crew and added a second navigator to have someone plotting the course the entire leg.

But other boats are looking for ways to get within striking distance of illbruck.

"There's a feeling that if it's going to happen, it's going to happen here," says Gary Jobson, sailing commentator, author and America's Cup winner who lives in Annapolis.

Several boats, including ASSA ABLOY, have sent crew members north to fly over the Chesapeake Bay and talk to experts. Others have made crew adjustments.

Chris Larson, an Annapolis resident and a short-race specialist, joined the crew of ASSA ABLOY on the previous leg from Rio de Janeiro to Miami and will be aboard this one.

"We're at match point, and we have to have a top-three finish in each of the last four legs while illbruck gets a throw-out," he says. "We have to get them nicked up a bit."

The skippers and their tacticians will have to decide how long to stay with the Gulf Stream, the fast-flowing river of warm water that runs up the southern East Coast before bending east, away from the shore. A good wind could prompt some boats to break away early, however.

"During the last race, when to exit the Gulf Stream decided first and second place," Kostecki said of the 1997-98 Whitbread Round the World Race.

Larson says the winner of the leg will be determined before the end of the first 24 hours, by which time the boats will be off Jacksonville, Fla.

The Chesapeake Bay, say the skippers, is the leg's final challenge, "a beast," says Lisa McDonald, skipper of Amer Sports Too.

Although a number of crew members and four of the eight skippers sailed the bay during the last edition of the contest in 1998, it remains a question mark and, perhaps, the great equalizer.

An ebbing tide and light winds can stall the boats' progress or push them back toward the mouth of the bay. Straying too close to the shores can lead to grounding.

"We're an ocean-going boat with a massive keel," says Neal McDonald. "Thirteen feet is a long way down, and we can't see down there. Then there are crab pots and fishing nets and all kinds of things."

Larson says ASSA ABLOY hopes to reach the mouth of the bay by 10 a.m. Wednesday and let an incoming tide help them reach the finish line by midnight and in first place.

"If we can be the first under the [Bay] Bridge and then up to Baltimore, that would be awesome," he said.

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