April is supposed to be one of the great months for sailing on the Chesapeake Bay. But don't try to tell that to the crews of the eight Volvo ocean racers that wallowed in glassy waters and fluky winds on their way to Baltimore on Leg 6 of the globe-girdling voyage.
Race organizers had hoped for a happy-hour finish on Wednesday with crowds of spectators lining the Inner Harbor sea walls to celebrate the arrival of the 64-foot yachts. But it was about 2:10 a.m. yesterday when News Corp finally crossed the finish line off Fort McHenry.
News Corp, bankrolled by media baron Rupert Murdoch, cruised in on a light southerly breeze, about four miles ahead of leg runner-up Amer Sports One.
The remaining boats in the lead group, ASSA ABLOY and illbruck Challenge, finished within an hour. Others made it in at various times yesterday, with the last boat, Amer Sports Too, finishing in midafternoon.
Uniformly, the sailors said weather conditions more characteristic of August made all the difference as the fleet spread out and collapsed like the bellows of an accordion with the changing winds.
"The wind was up and down and shut off at one point for us when we were actually in the lead," illbruck skipper John Kostecki said in dockside interviews. "Just tricky wind conditions, and we got on the wrong side."
Chaotic at both ends
The leg, which got off to a chaotic start in Miami on Sunday when six of the eight boats jumped the gun and had to re-start, ended with some controversy. Ross Field, campaign director for News Corp, argued that organizers should have shortened the course because of the light winds.
News Corp found itself sandwiched between a barge and a tanker on the Patapsco River, about a mile from the finish, with the breeze dying and its sails flapping aimlessly.
"We shouldn't have been in that situation," Field said. "We were very, very lucky this didn't end badly."
The race committee had a plan to shorten the course, setting the finish at the Bay Bridge, but didn't use it.
News Corp skipper Jez Fanstone called the situation "quite stressful."
"We were between a tanker and a barge in the narrowest part of the channel, in the trickiest possible position," he said. "Anyone [watching from shore] would have seen a bunch of lights converging and then hope that they had the same number of lights when they parted."
"The committee wanted to finish in Baltimore, they had the festivities set up there, and I don't think it would have changed the positions, so it was a good call," said Chris Larson, the Annapolis sailor who serves as tactician on ASSA ABLOY.
Volvo spokeswoman Lizzie Green said the race committee considered shortening the course but rejected the idea to be fair to trailing boats trying to catch the leader and because the wind had not died entirely.
By late yesterday, no one had complained to the committee, she said.
Sprint up the coast
News Corp started the 875- nautical mile sprint up the East Coast on Sunday in the worst possible position, dead last. But by Tuesday morning the bright-blue boat with Bart Simpson painted on the hull pointing the way had clawed into the lead. Fanstone, sailing aggressively, made up four miles in 12 hours to slip past then-leader illbruck, the favorite.
The fleet broke into three groups: News Corp, Amer Sports One, illbruck, the overall leader in points, and ASSA ABLOY fighting for first; SEB, Team Tyco and djuice dragons in the middle; and Amer Sports Too, which led in departing Miami, way behind.
Skipper Lisa McDonald of the all-female team broke off from the rest of the fleet, which was trying to catch a ride on the Gulf Stream, and took Amer Sports Too on a more direct route northeast. She said yesterday that she took a "calculated risk based on weather forecasts" that "turned out to be not correct."
By dawn Wednesday, the first group entered Chesapeake Bay and began trading the lead as the wind rose and fell.
By nightfall, the leading four boats were off Point Lookout, at the mouth of the Potomac, stretched over about five miles in the order they would eventually finish in.
About 1:30 a.m., News Corp appeared as a silhouette in the darkness outside the Key Bridge, cruising steadily at about 10 knots under a main and huge genoa headsail. The 64-foot racer worked its way up the Patapsco toward the flashing scarlet light that marked the finish as boats less than a third its length swarmed around it. The boats, filled with reporters, photographers and spectators, followed it to the line.
A cannon shot rang out from Pride of Baltimore II, anchored in the darkness on the other side of the river, to signal News Corp's victory.
A race for second?
The Volvo fleet will remain in Baltimore until April 26, when the boats leave for a parade of sail to Annapolis before the start on April 28 of the seventh leg -- 3,400 nautical miles to La Rochelle, France, After that, the race goes to Goteborg, Sweden, and finishes at Kiel, Germany, about June 9.
The overall leader, illbruck, which has finished first in three of the six legs and never lower than fourth, appears to have an unassailable lead with 41 points. ASSA ABLOY is second with 34.
Grant Dalton, skipper of Amer Sports One, which is third with 32 points, said yesterday that the German boat can't be beaten and the battle now is for second place.
"Most of the boats have said that or accepted that," he said.
But Fanstone, in fourth with 31, has not conceded.
"There are three legs left; anything can happen," he said. "We could have ended up fourth or fifth in this leg from where we were, and boats that were fourth or fifth could have ended up where we were."