At Sea

Water Log: The crew aboard a 'backup' for one of the Volvo racing boats battles fickle winds and heavy sails in a run up the East Coast.

April 27, 2002|By Joe DeCarlo | Joe DeCarlo,SUN STAFF

"The spinnaker has to come down - now!" Skipper Jim Stone bellows.

Crewmate Jan Koekemoer, a 260-pound rugby player turned professional sailor, grabs the line at the aft end of the huge, white sail. Three more of us join in.

"Release!" the skipper shouts.

The instant the spinnaker is freed - so we can reel it aboard lest it land in the water - is the moment we know the untamed, Volvo 60 ocean-racing bronco we are sailing is clearly in charge.

The force of the billowing sail flings Jan across the deck like a puppet on a string, his hands and face pinned against the huge, beam-like boom below the mainsail. The rest of us, 600-plus pounds of crew, are flung as well.

Stunned, the four of us quickly peel ourselves off the boom. We pull at the sail furiously, pulling until all 3,000 square feet of sail is safely below deck.

We hover exhausted. The boat, we learn, can deliver pain.

We are the brand-new crew of one of the fastest sailing boats in the world - an ocean-racing Ferrari that can exceed speeds of 30 knots. And our "race" - right alongside the eight-boat fleet competing in the Volvo Ocean Race from Miami to Baltimore - is on. For four days and nights, we'll be at the boat's mercy.

Our boat, The Twin, is a beautiful beast - at one moment forgiving, at another ferocious. As we try to tame this amazing creature at odds with nature's forces and man's ingenuity, we'll experience exhilaration and frustration, heroism and humility, humor and tongue-lashings, gorgeous days and stunning nights. We'll experience speeds most sailors only dream about, and near-disasters all sailors dread. But mostly, we'll experience an unforgettable bond forged when 12 strangers work tirelessly as crewmates with one passion: sailing.

Our mission is to deliver The Twin, the "backup" boat of Swedish entry ASSA ABLOY, to Baltimore in time for it to make hospitality sails during its stopover in Baltimore and Annapolis. But we are also caretakers: The Twin serves as a spare-parts boat for the racer competing in the nine-month, round-the-world event. That means $500,000 of sail inventory, a $400,000 carbon-fiber mast, $65,000 in winches and other pricey equipment needed to arrive in Baltimore intact.

I landed a position as a crewmember on The Twin when ASSA ABLOY, a manufacturer of locks and security equipment, decided to fill six of its 12 crew positions with a mix of corporate employees and members of the press. All but one of us are experienced sailors, with more than 100 years of sailing combined. But aboard this complicated speed demon, we feel like rank amateurs.

Before departing Miami, our skipper gathers the crew.

"Men, we are racing to Baltimore," he says. "Our goal is to beat at least two of the racing boats up the coast." A few of us amateurs chime in that we want to beat the entire fleet.

"I like that," Stone says, smiling wryly. "But my job is to make sure these guys" - he points to the ASSA ABLOY racer - "finish first."

Beating any of the fleet into Baltimore, of course, is purely a dream. With only six pros among a crew of strangers, less than half the 17 sails the racers use available to us, and our role as a spare-parts boat, we know we can only sail so hard. We're eager to give it our all, but nobody wants to break things. When things break, lives are at risk.

High-tech equipment

Lives, in fact, are always at risk when sailing a high-tech boat like The Twin. That's why one may wonder why weekend sailors like us - three ASSA ABLOY executives, one Washington executive and two journalists in our 30s, 40s and 50s - would sign liability waivers to enter a lion's den in the middle of the sea.

The consensus: Opportunities of a lifetime come rarely. Only a handful of professionals, let alone recreational sailors, get to sail these creatures constructed of Kevlar and carbon. We're the chosen few. And we are fortunate to have an international crew of professionals.

Stone, 37, is an experienced, ocean-going sailor from Rhode Island and a strong leader, tough, but forgiving. Koekemoer, 29, from South Africa, resembles an NFL linebacker. Think Ray Lewis. Jan (pronounced yon) is so strong he is able to do with one hand what two of us often need four to do. Peter Thorin, 32, and Henrik Wikman, 26, are Swedes who grew up sailing. They are patient teachers and easygoing. "Good stuff!" is their motto.

Gerry Moosbrugger, 24, is from Germany by way of Austria. He has parlayed a boyhood passion for sailmaking into the rock-star job of sailmaker for two of the Volvo entries. He knows sails and will keep ours in perfect trim.

Then there's Josh Alexander, 26, a New Zealander who lives in Australia. His expertise - besides being able to swear like, well, a sailor - is carbon fiber, the bulletproof, stronger-than-steel technology that has enveloped high-end sail racing. He built our boat's mast at Carbon Tech Industries in Sydney and knows every bit of stress it can take. He is Skipper Jim's right-hand man.

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