Shrouded in fog, racers charge to sea

Thousands watch sailors make aggressive start as they head for France

April 29, 2002|By Joel McCord and Candus Thomson | Joel McCord and Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

Bathed in mist and fog and surrounded by a mass of nearly 1,000 spectator boats, the yachts in the Volvo Ocean Race resumed their around-the-world voyage yesterday afternoon, charging under the Bay Bridge to begin a 3,400-mile trek to France.

In contrast to the chaotic start in Miami this month, all eight yachts crossed the line - just north of the bridge - cleanly in a tight cluster, with Swedish entry SEB a nose ahead of Amer Sports One to begin Leg 7 of the race.

The boats that straggled up Chesapeake Bay in fluky winds 10 days ago took off in building southerly breezes for their 118-mile drag race to the Virginia capes, where they will turn east and head for the Gulf Stream to help push them across the Atlantic.

Annapolis sailor Gavin Brady, a late addition to the SEB crew and short-course specialist, was at the helm in an attempt to help the green boat break its string of bad luck.

"It was a great start. We had good wind. SEB really nailed the start," said Gary Jobson, the ESPN sailing commentator and Annapolis resident.

Within seconds of crossing the line, the overall first- and second-place boats engaged in a high-speed game of chicken. The illbruck Challenge, which crossed the line closest to the Eastern Shore, tacked back toward the west into a collision course with ASSA ABLOY, being piloted by Annapolis resident Chris Larson.

The two multimillion-dollar boats came within a foot of each other before illbruck dropped behind ASSA's stern.

"I think Chris Larson was trying to push illbruck into a foul," said Jobson. "But illbruck played it conservatively."

Peter Craig, Volvo Chesapeake director, said the length of the starting line was more generous than in most yacht races and that helped create "an aggressive start."

While the 64-foot racers were aggressive, the spectator boats - ranging from 14-foot inflatables to the World War II Liberty ship John W. Brown - were well-behaved, staying out of the course as they chased the competitors down to Thomas Point Light, about 5 miles south of Annapolis. The Coast Guard reported few problems.

The inclement weather reduced the number of fans on the water and also eliminated thousands of spectators overhead. Organizers of the annual Bay Bridge Walk, scheduled to coincide with the restart, canceled the event. But that didn't prevent cars from slowing down to watch the spectacle below.

In Annapolis - the self-proclaimed sailing capital of America - crowds proved they were more than fair-weather fans.

`Real boating city'

Despite the drizzle, hundreds of race enthusiasts crowded City Dock for the 10 a.m. blessing of the fleet.

"We came out to support them. If people don't turn out, [the race] won't come back," said Jane Tucker, 40, who lives in downtown Annapolis.

Tucker, in her raingear, stood on a bench with her 2-year-old daughter in her arms to catch a glimpse of the boats as they set sail from Annapolis.

"This is cool," she said.

The Rev. William H. Peters Sr., of Mount Zion United Methodist Church in Eastport, and the Rev. Norman Crews, chaplain for the Annapolis Police Department, prayed for safe passage of the crews before they set sail for France.

Peters quoted from Psalms as he prayed for the sailors to be blessed with calm seas on their journey.

Betty Sullivan flew in from Arizona to wish her son, John Kostecki, well on the next leg of the race. He's skipper of illbruck Challenge.

"This is a real boating city," Sullivan said. "I just love Annapolis."

Event organizers estimated several thousand fans watched the fleet sail off yesterday, either from land or on sailboats.

Fight for second, third

Few sailing experts expect overall leader illbruck, with 41 points, to be knocked out of first place. Only a catastrophic equipment failure could change the outcome. The fight, they say, is for second and third.

ASSA has 34 points, two more than Amer Sports One. News Corp has 31 points; Tyco, 27; SEB and djuice dragons, 21 each; and the all-woman boat Amer Sports Too, 9. Boats receive eight points for a first-place finish on each of the nine legs, seven for second and so on, down to one for eighth.

With the tide against them, the boats tacked furiously to get past the bridge towers and into clearer wind before they started down the bay against the wind, with Amer Sports One, illbruck and ASSA ABLOY heading closer to the Eastern Shore for better wind.

While they battled it out on the east side of the course, SEB and News Corp, winner of the Miami-to- Baltimore leg, were racing side by side on the western side with djuice dragons and Team Tyco close behind. Amer Sports Too had fallen behind and was scrambling to catch up.

The fleet remained tightly packed as it came out of the starting corridor at Thomas Point Light with Amer Sports One in the lead followed within 35 seconds by SEB, News Corps and djuice. ASSA was fifth, 55 seconds behind the leader and a few seconds ahead of Tyco, illbruck and Amer Sports Too.

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