When all else failed to attract a viable American entry to this year's Volvo Ocean Race, organizers turned to a Mickey Mouse outfit.
The Walt Disney Co. confirmed yesterday that it is sponsoring a sleek, 70-foot yacht in the around-the-world regatta that begins in November as part of its promotion of the sequel to Pirates of the Caribbean.
The 32,700-mile race is scheduled to make its only U.S. stopover in Baltimore and Annapolis next spring. The boats will arrive in the Inner Harbor from Rio de Janeiro about April 20 and leave from Annapolis for New York Harbor on May 7. (The New York visit is a short, made-for-television event before the trans-Atlantic leg.)
"There is a natural synergy. It's a swashbuckling adventure of a movie for a swashbuckling adventure of a race," said Volvo Ocean Race spokesman Cameron Kelleher. "The market is ripe for everybody concerned."
The addition of a deep-pockets entry flying the U.S. flag generated a spinnaker-filling sigh of relief, as race organizers avoided a public relations and financial nightmare.
"It's huge," Volvo Ocean Race chief executive officer Glenn Bourke said of the need for a U.S. entry. "If you have a team from a port, [attendance] goes through the roof."
Two other American syndicates, Team Kan-Do and Pinnacle Race Management Group, withdrew when they could not attract financial backers.
During its last voyage in 2001-02, the Volvo race lacked an American boat. Crowds were nonexistent at the Miami stopover and smaller than expected in Baltimore and Annapolis, although bad weather may have played a role.
The lack of sizzle was especially noticeable because the 1997-98 version of the regatta had Chessie Racing, a local boat financed and skippered by Baltimore businessman George Collins. Collins included a curriculum that was used by area schools and brought busloads of students to the Inner Harbor during the two weeks the yachts were in port.
"The concept of Chessie brought people to our race village. Kids brought their parents," said Lee Tawney, spokesman for Ocean Race Chesapeake, the organizer of the local stopover. "The tie into Pirates of the Caribbean will attract the attention of children around the country."
The movie sequel, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, stars Johnny Depp, reprising his role as Capt. Jack Sparrow. Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards will join the cast as Depp's father. It is due out in July 2006, just after the race concludes.
"This changes the whole dynamic," said Annapolis Mayor Ellen Moyer. "Disney brings excitement to the event."
But while Pirate, the movie, has a cast, Pirate, the syndicate, is without boat and crew. Kelleher said the entry will have a "fairly strong American presence," with several U.S. skippers being considered.
Because time is growing short, the Disney entry will have to piggyback on the work of an existing syndicate, Atlant Ocean Racing, to get a boat in the water on time. The Swedish team, led by Volvo veterans Richard Brisius and Johan Salen, has hired Farr Yacht Design to design a two-boat campaign.
But, as of yesterday, the Annapolis-based design firm had not signed a contract to begin work on the Disney portion of the project.
"We're trying very hard to make this project ours," said Stephen Morris, company vice president. "But time is growing short."
The new Volvo yachts are 10 feet longer and more complex than those used in the previous campaign, making practice time precious for skipper and crew.
"We will be able to give them the best shot at getting a boat to the starting line," Morris said. "We can have them on the water by mid- to late summer."
The Disney entry brings to six the number of syndicates committed to compete in this year's race, which begins on Nov. 5 in Sanxenxo, Spain. One -- ABN AMRO of The Netherlands -- is building two boats.