Sea of green, but no one at helm

Time is short for Disney to hire Volvo race skipper


April 03, 2005|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

When Disney's your name and a sailboat race around the world is your game, hiring a skipper might seem as simple as dialing up the biggest star you can find.

This voyage has big bucks and glamour written all over it. The media giant is expected to shovel as much as $16 million into its Volvo Ocean Race entry, a floating billboard for the Johnny Depp sequel, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest.

But lots of the world's best big-water sailors are already tied up in other projects, making for slim pickings. To borrow from a famous Disney tune, "It's a Small [Nautical] World."

Spokesmen for the Walt Disney Co., and the Volvo Ocean Race have been tight-lipped as syndicate officials sort through resumes.

However, time is growing short. With the race set to begin Nov. 5 off the coast of Spain, the clock is ticking louder than the one in Capt. Hook's crocodile, and longtime Disney employee Steamboat Willie is not an option.

"They have enough money," said Chris Larson, an Annapolis resident and Volvo veteran. "Money is not the most valuable resource. Time is."

Volvo Ocean Race chief executive officer Glenn Bourke promised the regatta would have an American boat. Gary Jobson, the nation's premier sailing commentator and author, insisted the commitment must go beyond corporate sponsorship.

"If it's going to be an American boat, it has to have an American skipper. Otherwise, forget it. There's nothing to rally around," said the Annapolis resident, who is considered instrumental in bringing the global race to Maryland.

"Our young people need to aspire to around-the-world racing," he said. "If we don't see an American crew, you can forget about around-the-world racing in this country. I'm adamant about that."

Choosing a U.S. skipper would hardly be a public relations concession because the past two winners were led by Americans. In 1997-98, Paul Cayard of San Francisco won aboard EF Language, a yacht bearing a Swedish flag. In 2001-02, the race was won by another Bay Area sailor, John Kostecki, who steered the German entry, illbruck Challenge.

Kostecki already has a job, as tactician for BMW Oracle Racing, a challenger in the 2007 America's Cup. With a Volvo win and an Olympic silver medal to his name, Kostecki told Sailing World last year, "The America's Cup is No. 1 in importance now for me."

Cayard won the global race on a boat run by Atlant Ocean Racing, the manager of the Disney boat. Last year, he finished a disappointing fifth in the Star class at the Athens Olympics.

A member of the Sailing Hall of Fame, Cayard has competed in five America's Cup campaigns, but in the book Fighting Finish, he calls the 1997-98 circumnavigation "the richest experience I have had in sports ... a lifetime achievement that very few people ever have the opportunity to accomplish."

At 45, Cayard may not want to spend seven months on a 70-foot boat, but the calendar on his Web site doesn't list any conflicting engagements.

Even without those two Volvo veterans, there's enough talent out there to make for some interesting Hot Stove League talk around the marinas.

The most obvious choice is Larson, 38, who had the Midas touch during the last Volvo, when he joined Assa Abloy as tactician and inshore helmsman just before the start of Leg 3 in Sydney. His expertise was instrumental in winning that leg, plus legs 5 and 8, for a second-place finish. The Swedish entry also was managed by Atlant Ocean Racing. This time, Larson's skills in short-course match racing would be an advantage during the seven in-port races, which are worth 20 percent of the score. With the folding of the Team Pinnacle syndicate late last year, the 1997 Rolex Yachtsman of the Year is without a boat. "I'm interested and I've been in touch with them," he says, "but I haven't heard anything."

Dawn Riley, 40, is a big-boat sailor with a big resume. The Michigan native was watch captain and engineer on Maiden, the all-women's team in the 1989-90 Whitbread, and skipper of Heineken, the all-women's team in the 1993-94 Whitbread. She has sailed in three America's Cup campaigns and managed one of them, America True, the first woman to hold that job. "That was big-girl stuff," says Jobson. "She'd do OK."

Robbie Haines, 51, has experience with another Disney venture - Roy Disney's faster-than-lightning Pyewacket, an 86-foot boat with a canting keel just like the Volvo 70 boats have. The California native and Olympic gold medalist managed the building project and has sailed the 20-crew "Maxi" boat in competition. Roy Disney is selling Pyewacket, so Haines might be looking for a challenge.

Paul Foerster, 41, won the Olympic gold medal last summer in the 470 dinghy class on the strength of his tremendous match race on the last day of competition against the British team. The 2004 Rolex Yachtsman of the Year also has a silver medal from the 2000 Olympics. "He's a terrific sailor and loves off-shore sailing," said Jobson.

Lisa McDonald, 34, was at the helm of the all-women's team, Amer Sports Too, during the last Volvo race. With her husband, Neal, the skipper of Assa Abloy in the last race, she had hopes of sailing in this Volvo race, but money has proven elusive. The veteran of two America's Cup campaigns, McDonald was crew in the 1997-98 Whitbread aboard EF Education, the second boat managed by Atlant Ocean Racing.

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