Volvo race return here seen likely

Sailing event officials give area high rating for '05-06


January 08, 2003|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

If the Volvo Ocean Race makes just one U.S. stopover on its nine-month jaunt around the world in 2005-06, Baltimore-Annapolis appears to be the most likely port of call.

In a move to save money and attract a larger field of competitors, race officials are expected to trim the number of stops from 10 to about six and eliminate one of two U.S. ports. The route and other race specifics will be announced at a news conference on Feb. 11 in Auckland, New Zealand, the site of the America's Cup competition.

Gregory Barnhill, president of Ocean Race Chesapeake Inc., says that while Volvo officials have not told him of their decision, he is "cautiously optimistic" that Baltimore and Annapolis will play host to a third consecutive race.

"They're keeping their cards close to the vest, but we've had some very positive conversations with them," said Barnhill, managing director of Deutsche Bank Securities Inc.

Other potential U.S. stopovers are southern Florida, Charleston, S.C., New York and Newport, R.I.

The economic impact of last year's local stopover is still being tallied, Barnhill said, but in 1998 it generated $26.2 million in direct spending and had a total economic impact of $52.4 million.

Volvo officials were effusive in their praise of the Chesapeake region during their stay, and eight months has done nothing to dampen that.

"Baltimore has been really super and it's on our hits list," said race spokeswoman Lizzie Green. "We're still doing some negotiating, but it would be really strange if we didn't go back to Baltimore."

The Chesapeake region, with its sailing heritage and proven ability to draw hundreds of thousands of spectators, also is considered the bid to beat by many Volvo corporate sponsors and competitors.

SEB, Northern Europe's largest bank and a boat sponsor in the 2001-02 race, praised Chesapeake organizers in a recently published book for their "incredibly professional arrangements," which it said were "the exact opposite of Miami," the other U.S. stopover.

Most of the eight race skippers also gave high marks to the nine-day stay in Baltimore and two days in Annapolis. American John Kostecki, who drove illbruck Challenge to victory, said he prefers eliminating Sydney, Miami and one of the four European cities.

Local race officials say if the Volvo race returns here, they hope one of the boats will be a local entry, which was not the case last year. In the 1997-98 campaign, then called the Whitbread, Chessie Racing was financed by George Collins, former chief executive of T. Rowe Price Associates Inc.

"We have put together a syndicate exploratory committee of six or seven people to look at a U.S. syndicate, but more specifically a regional one," said Lee Tawney, secretary of Ocean Race Chesapeake. "It is a completely private-sector group to help identify potential financial backers."

Tawney said the group was formed last April after the Volvo boats departed Annapolis for the last three legs of the race, but in-depth discussions were put on hold until the announcement on the 2005-06 stopovers.

No matter what changes Volvo officials announce next month, the race is sailing into stiff competition for talent and sponsor dollars.

The defense of the America's Cup most likely will come during the same period, but a bigger threat is being posed by "The Race," an around-the-world dash in giant multi-hull boats that will be run next year and in 2006. Already, The Race has signed up past Volvo winners Kostecki, Grant Dalton, Ross Field and Paul Cayard and veteran skippers Neal McDonald and Roger Nilson.

In an effort to retain its reputation as the premier global race and get expenses under control, Volvo has replaced chief executive Helge Alten with Glenn Bourke, a much-decorated Australian sailor and Olympian. He supervised the sailing venue at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney and directed the successful $15 million illbruck Challenge campaign.

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