Light air

April 21, 2002

THE WIND dropped away to nothing somewhere around Smith Island. What a race. Eight fantastically honed, quiveringly energized, fabulously expensive sailboats -- world racers and veterans of the Southern Ocean, where wind and waves are death-dealing -- were left bobbing on the Chesapeake. At least, one sailor remarked, you could sit on the toilet without getting chucked off it.

It took hours and more hours, but, anyway, they're here. The eight entrants in the Volvo Ocean Race braved the rigors of the Patapsco and finally found their way to Baltimore. A welcome to them all. The Inner Harbor, its waters somehow turned the color of canned beef bouillon, was graced by their arrival.

The last time this race was held, four years ago and under the sponsorship of Whitbread, the Baltimore stop was a huge success. Crowds packed the harbor just for the pure pleasure of seeing a bunch of multimillion-dollar yachts that are uncomfortable, smelly and -- for the lucky few who sail them -- indescribably exhilarating. The city was such a hit that the organizers decided on a return visit.

This year's race, which began last September in England, has attracted a muted turnout on five continents. Baltimore, always quirky, needs once more to show how different it can be, and not just because a successful and hospitable interlude here would be further ammunition in the region's bid for the Summer Olympics in 2012.

Among the city's guests is a contender sponsored by a Swedish lock company, with pictures of keys on it. There's a boat crewed entirely by women. There's one with an Austrian in the crew -- an Austrian? These thoroughbreds are 64 feet long, light and tough. One of them clocked an unbelievable 36 knots while it dodged icebergs east of New Zealand.

OK, so maybe we gave them August weather in April. Fickle wind may be typical here, but it isn't exactly what Baltimore wants to be remembered by. Not to worry: There's still plenty of time before we send them on their way again -- from Annapolis on April 28 -- to order up some good brisk northwest breezes from, oh, Canada, maybe. Are you listening up there?

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