Sailors going nowhere without sea of green

Pair's plans for Volvo entry have millions of problems


January 13, 2004|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

John Alden and Patrick Bischoff are trying to build a sailboat that could take them around the world or leave them high and dry.

Last summer, the Annapolis sailors announced their intention to compete in the 2005 Volvo Ocean Race as Team Kan-Do, giving the Chesapeake Bay region the entry it lacked on the last go-round.

Now, all they need is a crew. And a fast boat. And $16 million to $18 million, first installment due in June.

The sailing community's response has been gale force. More than 300 people answered the call for a mixed crew of amateurs and professionals, "from Iceland to New Zealand, Chile to China. Olympians, America's Cup crew and Volvo veterans," said Bischoff.

Ditto political and civic leaders, drawn to the glamour of an international event, and Volvo organizers, who crave the lucrative U.S. market.

The business community's reaction, however, has been more like a zephyr.

If Alden and Bischoff can't scrape together a down payment for a 70-foot yacht sleek enough to rocket across 500 miles of ocean a day and tough enough to withstand the ice and wind of the Roaring Forties in the Southern Ocean, Kan-Do may sink without a trace.

"We need to have $2 1/2 million soon," said Bischoff. "If it happens six months from now, it's too late. We need angel money now."

More is at stake than one boat. The future of the Volvo Ocean Race in the United States also could ride on what Alden and Bischoff can, or can't, do.

The last Volvo, in 2001-2002, attracted only eight competitors - the fewest in the 30-year history of the race-none a U.S. entry. So far, none of the corporations that sponsored a boat has re-enlisted for the next campaign.

This time, the combined port of Baltimore and Annapolis is the only U.S. stopover in the nine-leg, seven-month race.

Volvo organizers hope that a local boat would draw more spectators to the Inner Harbor and City Dock in April 2006, which, in turn, will mean more U.S. visibility and satisfaction for corporate sponsors.

Beyond the benefit to Volvo, a viable Team Kan-Do would send a strong signal that financial muscle backs the boast that Annapolis is "The Sailing Capital of America," said Mayor Ellen Moyer.

But with the economy still recovering and international corporations worried about stability in the Middle East, sponsorships are tough to come by.

The opportunity to land a company with worldwide recognition fell through, forcing Alden and Bischoff to look closer to home for smaller investors.

Bischoff explained the changing strategy in football terms: "We were going for the long bomb. Now we're working on our ground game."

But a ground game takes time, and "time is not our friend," Alden acknowledged.

The Kan-Do chairmen are not neophytes in the corporate world. Alden, with a doctorate in education and statistics, has held senior management positions with a number of companies, including Texas Instruments. Bischoff, a native of Germany, helped found several software and computer systems companies.

Unlike most other racing syndicates, which operate behind closed doors, Kan-Do's successes and failures are playing out in public.

"Transparency is part of the game plan," Alden said. "We're building on the Chessie legacy."

In 1997-1998, the region's entry into what was then called the Whitbread Round the World Race was Chessie Racing, led by local financial executive George Collins. The boat, which finished sixth in a field of nine, was part of the Living Classrooms Foundation program.

The Kan-Do team said that by having an open-door policy, it can tap into "a wealth of empathy that we never could have imagined," said Bischoff. "We have a supportive network of friends beyond the region."

The two men feel openness and grass-roots support will make the syndicate attractive to deep-pocket sponsors, but admit it hasn't happened yet.

There is some small comfort in the fact that they aren't the only ones with their hands out.

Volvo organizers have received 30 other preliminary entries, including four from U.S. syndicates. All have filed a $2,800 deposit (the entry fee is about $600,000), but most have requested confidentiality while they negotiate with potential sponsors.

But announcements of financial partnerships have been almost nonexistent.

"It's not just Kan-Do struggling," said America's Cup veteran and ESPN and NBC sailing commentator Gary Jobson.

The only entry that seems to be financially set is the one blessed by Spain's King Juan Carlos I, an avid yachtsman who announced his intentions to sail after his country was named the starting port for the race.

Complicating matters for syndicates is the organizers' decision to super-size the boats this campaign, abandoning the 60-foot yachts of the last three races in favor of an untested 70-foot model.

Organizers had tried to cut costs by preventing syndicates from building multiple boats to end up with one fast one, yet the new technology is so complex it is breathtakingly expensive.

"Syndicates are chasing a moving target. Early money counts for everything," said Jobson. "They need to order materials, electronics, carbon fiber. It's not all sitting on a shelf."

Volvo racing veterans say investors are reluctant to spend now, when the payoff is almost two years away.

Alden said he understands the mind-set, but noted that Kan-Do would be a "floating billboard" capable of getting publicity from its launch through the race.

Experts, including Jobson, believe boats must be under construction by June at the latest and completed by next spring. Crews will need the time from launch to the Nov. 5, 2005, start to familiarize themselves with the boat, sail it to Spain and complete final tuneups.

With its mixed crew of amateurs and professionals, Kan-Do's task would be even harder.

"It is daunting and doable. We have 23 months, but they'll go by like that," Bischoff said, snapping his fingers.

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