It's back to races for fleet in Volvo

Re-start near Bay Bridge ends 11-day, Leg 6 break

April 28, 2002|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The party's over.

It's time for the eight Volvo Ocean racers that have spent the past 11 days in Baltimore and Annapolis to return to sea for the next leg of their chase around the globe.

Leg 7 of the 32,700-nautical-mile voyage to La Rochelle, France, will start at 1 p.m. today just north of the Bay Bridge, with overall leader illbruck Challenge a solid favorite. Skipper John Kostecki stands to win the leg and probably the entire race, barring unforeseen disasters.

His crew is "really fired up" after its fourth-place finish in the sprint from Miami to Baltimore, Kostecki said at a pre-race news conference Thursday, and is ready to push for a top-three finish in this leg.

Illbruck has amassed 41 points with three first-place finishes, a second and two fourths. The boat could finish last in this leg and still be one point ahead of its nearest competitor, ASSA ABLOY, which has 34 points after the first six legs.

ASSA's skipper, Neal McDonald, said his crew will "just keep pushing hard" and "try to improve all the time."

After disappointing finishes in the first two legs, ASSA brought on Annapolis sailor Chris Larson to help with tactics and leapt from a back-of-the-pack boat to a challenger for the lead.

Meanwhile, Jez Fanstone, skipper of News Corp, said his crew is "pretty pumped" by its victory in the last leg and is "looking forward to the next leg."

News Corp is hanging in fourth place with 31 points.

The consensus among sailing writers is that illbruck is the boat best suited to the winds of the North Atlantic and probably will win this leg, solidifying its hold on first place.

The trans-Atlantic leg, which is expected to take 13 days, "tends to be a reaching leg," with wind coming from the center or behind the boat, said John Greenland of MadforSailing.com. And illbruck is "one of the faster reaching boats in the fleet."

In addition, the race committee has created a "no-sail" zone to avoid icebergs that will push the racers 1,450 miles south of where they would like to be and could add three days to their trip.

The northerly route they have been denied would take advantage of better winds and shorten their course by taking "the great circle" route. Yet the sailors say they are relieved to stay in clear water after their terrifying dash through ice fields in the Southern Ocean during Leg 4 from Auckland, New Zealand, to Rio de Janeiro.

News Corp survived a collision with a small iceberg during the trip between Antarctica and South America, but lost its rudder nine days later, and SEB lost its mast in a driving storm and had to drop out of the leg.

The race committee asked the skippers if they wanted ice restrictions before they left New Zealand, "and it was pretty unanimously, `no,' " said McDonald. "But afterward, the answer would have been `yes.' I've never been in such an unpleasant situation in my whole career."

The more southerly course favors illbruck, said Grant Dalton, skipper of Amer Sports One, which is in third place with 32 points.

"It cuts down on your options," he said.

Dalton, a veteran of five round-the-world campaigns, said he is ready to take "some calculated risks" crossing the Atlantic to try to catch illbruck in the standings.

His boat "likes to be light," he said, so he'll leave some things ashore he figures he won't absolutely need for this leg, change the kinds of sails he carries and use longer range, but less reliable, weather forecasts than other skippers in hopes of finding winds before they do.

And, like the other skippers, he is planning to cut north as soon as he gets past the iceberg zone to get back into the great circle route.

Team Tyco, at fifth place overall with 27 points, still has a chance for a podium finish. Steve Hayles, at 27 the youngest navigator in the fleet, said he and his mates are "comfortable with our crew, we're comfortable with our boat, and our approach to this leg will be the same as we have been doing.

"We're going to keep pushing hard."

The remaining three boats - SEB, djuice Dragons and Amer Sorts Too, the all-female crew, appear to be out of the running barring unforeseen disasters among the top five boats.

For the start today, race organizers have established a "no-spectator" zone to give the racers plenty of room to maneuver. The zone is roughly the width of the Bay Bridge center towers from Sandy Point Light at the mouth of the Magothy River to Thomas Point Light at the mouth of the South River.

The usual pre-start dance probably will be fairly tricky as forecasts call for showers and winds of 10 to 15 knots in the racers' faces, forcing them to tack back and forth across the bay maneuvering for position at the line.

A cold front expected tonight or early tomorrow may produce a northerly wind and give the sailors following breezes as they move south down the bay.

But the rivers, creeks and land masses of Chesapeake Bay create shifting breezes to plague the racers.

"I like to think of each leg as a separate race, and getting out of the Chesapeake is a race itself," said Lisa McDonald, skipper of Amer Sports Too. The bay trip is expected to take 1 1/2 days.

From La Rochelle, the race will go to Goteborg, Sweden, and will finish in Kiel, Germany, in June.

Sun staff writer Candus Thomson contributed to this article.

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