Wind throws boats curve in bay battle

Dying currents set back finish of Volvo leg here

four race neck-and-neck

Bay takes wind out of race sails

Sailing

April 18, 2002|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

On a good day, the Chesapeake Bay can make a sailor's blood race and nerve endings tingle.

For the eight boats competing in the Volvo Ocean Race, that day wasn't yesterday.

After three days of sprinting up the East Coast from Miami, the 64-foot racing machines entered the bay with a little more than 100 miles to the finish line off Fort McHenry. There, the air went out of their sails and the salt water turned to molasses.

What had been anticipated as a jubilant, champagne-filled ride into Baltimore at 9 p.m. turned into a late-night creep into the sleeping city. The first boats were expected to finish after 2 a.m. today.

Sleep-deprived sailors with leaden arm muscles were mustering their remaining energy for frequent sail changes while trying to avoid making a mistake that could take their boat out of contention.

"Nerves of steel required out here," Amer Sports One skipper Grant Dalton reported on his Web site yesterday afternoon. "This is going to go right down to the wire. I've never felt it so tense before. You could cut the atmosphere on board."

At that time, four boats were within three miles of each other near the mouth of the Potomac River, each looking for the tiniest puff of breeze to pass the others. Crews were working against an ebbing tide that threatened to take back all their meager advances.

Amer Sports One was slogging along at 4.3 knots, but that was quick enough to pass leader News Corp, which was struggling at 4.2 knots. By 5 p.m., News Corp had regained the lead.

But the surprise has been ASSA ABLOY, which in six hours cut 11 miles from the leaders' margin and overtook illbruck Challenge, the race's overall leader. With Chris Larson of Annapolis, a short-race tactician, aboard, the boat was averaging 7.7 knots.

The Swedish boat was beset by problems near the midpoint of the race, first being forced to stop twice to remove gobs of seaweed from the rudder, keel and strut. Then, navigator Mark Rudiger said he accidentally hit the wrong switch in the dark, setting off an explosion that "almost sank the boat."

News Corp, owned by media baron Rupert Murdoch, also managed to pull itself out of a hole. After a horrendous start in Miami on Sunday that placed it nearly 10 minutes behind the pace, News Corp began an aggressive campaign of chasing down the leaders, succeeding in the early hours Tuesday.

But the boat was unable to shake Amer Sports One and illbruck Challenge, and the three reached the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay by late morning yesterday.

At 11 a.m., with 106 miles to the finish, News Corp and Amer Sports One were locked in a bow-to-bow duel, with ASSA ABLOY one mile behind and illbruck another mile back.

Fifty-five miles behind the leaders, Amer Sports Too, the all-woman boat, and djuice dragons were in a frantic battle to avoid last place, with the women holding a one-mile lead.

In between, involved in their own private struggles with the fickle winds and tricky currents, were SEB, 17 miles out of first place, and Tyco, which was 44 miles back.

Winds continued to drop through the late morning and early afternoon. From 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., the leaders traveled just 16 miles. News Corp had gained a one-mile edge on Amer Sports One and held a two-mile advantage over ASSA ABLOY and illbruck Challenge.

By 5 p.m., the three boats in the back of the pack - djuice, Tyco and Amer Sports Too - were 56 miles behind the leaders and separated from each other by one mile.

The Volvo, which attracts most of the world's greatest sailors, began in Southampton, England, on Sept. 23. The regatta made stops in South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil and Miami.

The boats will start Leg 7 from the Chesapeake Bay to La Rochelle, France, on April 28. They will then stop in Goteborg, Sweden, before finishing the 32,700-mile journey in Kiel, Germany, about June 9.

Volvo events

Today: Storm Trysail Hemingway Cup finish, at Rusty Scupper, Inner Harbor.

Tomorrow, 5 p.m.: Volvo Ocean Race Welcoming Ceremony at Harborplace Amphitheater.

April 25, 6 p.m.: Volvo Ocean Race prize giving, Power Plant Live.

April 26, 10 a.m.: Maryland Maritime Festival opens, Annapolis City Dock.

April 26, noon: Blessing of the Fleet and Parade of Sail to Annapolis, Inner Harbor West Wall.

April 26, 5 p.m.: Annapolis welcomes Volvo Ocean Race fleet, City Dock.

April 26, 6 p.m.: Annapolis/Eastport Volvo Ocean Race party, Eastport Yacht Club.

April 27, 10 a.m.: Volvo Skippers Forum, Annapolis City Dock.

April 27, 10 a.m.: Restart Festival at Sandy Point State Park opens.

April 28, 9 a.m.: Bay Bridge Walk.

April 28, 10 a.m.: Restart Festival at Sandy Point State Park.

April 28, 10 a.m.: Blessing of the Fleet, Annapolis City Dock. Volvo fleet leaves dock for starting area of Leg 7 to LaRochelle, France.

April 28, 1 p.m.: Restart of Volvo Ocean Race, Leg 7, Annapolis to LaRochelle, France, just north of Bay Bridge.

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