World's best set for Santa Maria Cup

Match races pits teams in round-robin tourney


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

Barely a month after one international group of sailors leaves Chesapeake Bay, another one arrives.

Some of the top women sailors in the world are in Annapolis this week for the BoatUS Santa Maria Cup regatta, a series of match races that opens tomorrow in the mouth of the Severn River. And though this group may not be as high on the glamour scale as the women of the Volvo Ocean Race, they are as accomplished in their own right.

There's Marie Bjorling, of Sweden, the No. 1 women's match racer. She arrives after placing second last month in the Women's World Match Race Championships in Calpe, Spain. There's Elizabeth Bayliss, of California, who improved from ninth to sixth in the rankings by winning that regatta.

There's Annapolis' Sandy Grosvenor, a Santa Maria Cup veteran who recently won the Sundance Cup in Texas, and Giulia Conti, 16, the 2001 Italian Women's Match Race champion and easily the youngest skipper competing.

"There are some women on the course who are old enough to be her mother," says Margaret Podlich, a BoatUS spokeswoman who will compete on Grosvenor's team. "She's not even old enough to drink, but, boy, is she a good match racer," says Podlich.

Unlike fleet racing, in which all boats of a class start together, match racing is a one-on-one challenge in evenly matched boats - J22 sloops in this case, chartered from local owners for the regatta. Two teams go at each other in short, intense races that last barely 20 minutes. They change boats after each race and go again against different teams in the round-robin tournament.

And though the Volvo racers are professionals who can make more than $100,000 a year, the Santa Maria sailors are strictly amateurs. There's no money to be won - in fact, individual competitors pay their own way to the regatta - and the television coverage is pretty much limited to the local cable access channel.

So why do they do this?

"Match racing is pretty addictive," says Grosvenor, a software developer who uses up much of her vacation time and often takes unpaid leave to race. "It's more unabashedly competitive than fleet racing. Things happen quickly. It's just you and the other boat, and either you're first or you're last. It takes a Type A personality."

Other U.S. skippers include Charlie Arms, the director of sailing for the California Maritime Museum Academy and third-place finisher at the Sundance Cup; Deborah Willits, who sails out of the Houston Yacht Club; and Carol Cronin, a freelance writer who is third in the International Sailing Federation Yngling rankings.

In addition to Bjorling and Conti, the European entries are Sabrina Gurioli, of Italy, ranked ninth in the world, and French sailors Marie Faure, who finished second at the Rolex Osprey Cup, and Capucine Pin, who is active on an Australian Mumm 30 team that placed first at the 2002 Key West Race Week.

The Santa Maria Cup was born in 1990 in Baltimore's Inner Harbor as the distaff version of the Columbus Cup, an open match race event. Podlich, who sailed in those first races, recalls trying to keep track of the number of laps they had made around the buoys.

"We had to do so many laps we lost count, so we had to write it down on the deck every time we finished a lap," she says.

Within three years, interest in the Columbus Cup faded as interest in the Santa Maria races grew, part of a burgeoning movement in women's sailing that led to the America3 America's Cup campaign in 1995 and the all-women's crews in the 1997-1998 Whitbread Round the World Race and its successor, this year's Volvo Ocean Race.

The Santa Maria Cup moved to Annapolis in 1994 and the Eastport Yacht Club became the organizing sponsor. BoatUS, a marine supply house that offers insurance programs for boaters and lobbies on recreational boating issues, became the title sponsor two years later and began supplying sails for some of the races.

The Eastport club supplies the army of volunteers necessary for such an operation.

"We need to charter the racers, or borrow some if we can," says Jeff Borland, who with his wife, Sharon, coordinates volunteers for the event. "We need a race committee, repair boats, boats for the umpires. Sometimes, we have 20 to 30 people on the water in addition to the racers."

The club also finds local residents to provide housing for the competitors, serve food and staff the registration and weigh-in tables.

Each team of four can have a combined weight of no more than 605 pounds.

The races - two laps against the wind and two with the wind around inflatable balls set about a quarter of a mile apart - begin at 9 a.m. tomorrow through Friday within sight of the Eastport Yacht Club. The semifinals and finals will move farther out into the mouth of the Severn on Saturday to get away from the hordes of weekend recreational boaters.

Sailing facts

What: Santa Maria Cup, match racing for top women sailors

When: Tomorrow, 9 a.m., through Saturday

Where: Mouth of the Severn River, near the Eastport Yacht Club in Annapolis

Information: 410-263-0415 or

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