This time next year, about a half-dozen 70-foot yachts will sail up the Chesapeake Bay from Rio de Janeiro on the home stretch of the around-the-world regatta.
The Volvo Ocean Race fleet will attract global media attention and an estimated 450,000 spectators to the Inner Harbor and Annapolis City Dock.
The three-week stopover will be a whirlwind of dockside parties, autograph sessions and in-port races worth millions to the local economy.
With its $18 million boats, the Volvo is the nautical equivalent of an 800-pound gorilla, and with the America's Cup constitutes sailing's Magilla flotilla.
Folks who never think about sailboats will find themselves drawn to the water for a chance to look at what promises to be the biggest star of the race, the Disney-sponsored Pirates of the Caribbean boat.
The media giant will use its entry to promote the sequel, Dead Man's Chest, which opens next summer. Why, there's even Hollywood talk of the movie's star, Johnny Depp, an avid sailor, showing up for a look-see.
Local organizers said the pirate boat also is helping them recruit sponsors.
"Disney really changed the dynamic," said Gregory Barnhill, chairman of Ocean Race Chesapeake.
"It means more credibility and a lot more attention. The sponsors already on board are delighted and the ones thinking about it are coming to the table."
The pirate boat only accentuates the swashbuckling image polished by the Volvo sailors, who combine the finesse of America's Cup crews with the tough-as-nails endurance of Iditarod mushers.
"If you want to be a pirate, you have to be a Volvo sailor," said Andy Hindley, the race director.
But it's more than just an image.
"Most competitions take a few minutes or hours, but the Volvo is a sea marathon that takes a year of preparation and seven months to complete," said Gary Jobson, an America's Cup veteran and sailing commentator for NBC and ESPN.
"It's speeding through minefields of ice. It's leaving no stone unturned to find the last bit of speed. It's living for weeks on end with the bare minimum of comfort."
As it stands, the race will begin in 197 days from Vigo, Spain, with only seven competitors, the lowest number in the 30-year history of the race.
"Personally, I'm a little disappointed. I was always hoping for the same number [eight] as last time," Glenn Bourke, CEO of Volvo Ocean Race, acknowledged. "But with the global economy suffering, I think we've done quite well."
In addition to the Disney boat, there are entries from Australia, Brazil, Spain, Sweden, and two from the Netherlands. Four of the seven were designed by Farr Yacht Designs of Annapolis.
These global racers are much different than the ones sailed in the 2001-02 campaign. They are 10 feet longer, 25 days faster and a tad more civilized for the crew.
On April 5, the Spanish entry, Movistar, set a 24-hour speed record for a monohull boat, sailing 530 miles and averaging 22 knots.
But perhaps most importantly, the boats are being built as broadcast platforms, with fixed cameras on each, to give viewers a ride on the world's largest washing machine.
"It's 10 cameras on a boat 70 feet long and 18 feet wide. We'll capture everything, not just the sports action, but life aboard, as well," said Hindley.
"The system has a trigger so when the boat tips past a certain degree, the cameras click on automatically."
The bow man will even have a camera in his helmet so that viewers can get an eagle's eye image as he climbs the mast.
A "panic button" linked to a digital recording system will archive remarkable images, like the waterspout that came within a mile of several of the yachts during the last race.
"If you have a wipe-out in the Southern Ocean or a whale jumps across your bow, you can just hit the button to save it," Bourke said.
The Volvo is more than just a race and a tourist attraction, Bourke said.
Corporate sponsors of the yachts will use the stopovers to wine and dine customers, take them on boat rides and hold business meetings.
The state Department of Business and Economic Development and a private consulting firm hired by Volvo estimate the race to be worth more than $50 million to Maryland's economy.
Constellation Energy Group, the Baltimore-based parent of Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., is paying $500,000 to be title sponsor of the three-week party.
`A great catch'
"The Volvo is a great catch for Baltimore-Annapolis," said Michael Wallace, president of the Constellation Generation Group unit.
"I think it really says something about how a world organization like the Volvo organization views our area, and we're going to take advantage of being in the spotlight."
Wallace, a board member of Ocean Race Chesapeake, said the Disney pirate boat only adds to the educational component of the local stopover.