Shallow end tests Kostecki in Volvo

Veteran sailor girds for in-port duties



Four years ago, John Kostecki was master of the seas as he circled the globe to win the Volvo Ocean Race. This year, his world is a lot smaller, but no less important.

Seven times during the 32,000-mile regatta, Kostecki will step aboard the Ericsson Racing Team yacht and call the shots during in-port races that will count for about 20 percent of the overall score. His first test will come tomorrow in Sanxenxo, Spain, a week before the race's first leg sails from nearby Vigo.

Kostecki will be in Maryland with the race during the three-week Baltimore-Annapolis stopover. The in-port race is set for April 29 just off the Magothy River.

He faces a formidable task. Getting a 70-foot yacht built for gale-force winds and towering waves of the Southern Ocean to behave like a weekend racer in the shallow confines of a harbor is like trying to turn the Queen Mary II into a cigarette boat.

"You're going to see some great sailors come in and have some very poor races," he predicted in a phone interview.

By any standard, the Pittsburgh native ranks among the world's great sailors. Besides winning the Volvo in 2002 as skipper of illbruck Challenge, Kostecki has a silver medal from the 1988 Olympics and has won 10 world championships in six classes.

The two-time Rolex Yachtsman of the Year also has been a tactician in four America's Cup campaigns. His global resume includes a stint as crew aboard Chessie Racing, the Maryland entry in the race in 1997-98, when it was called the Whitbread Round the World.

But this summer, Kostecki, 41, found himself a sailor without a boat after a dispute with BMW Oracle Racing, an America's Cup challenger, led to one of those "mutual decisions" that ended his days as tactician.

At the time, he hinted at another Volvo commitment, and Ericsson made good on it, naming Kostecki its 11th crew member at the 11th hour.

Skipper Neal McDonald, who led second-place Assa Abloy during the last Volvo, called his former rival "a great asset" not only during in-port racing, but as part of the global support team.

As the team's "Johnny come lately," Kostecki has been on a fast learning curve for the past six weeks, dealing with a new crew and with a boat that is radically different from the past two races.

The Volvo 70s are 10 feet longer, but weigh roughly the same as the Volvo 60s. They have canting, or pivoting, keels that swing 40 degrees from side to side during maneuvers, eliminating the need for tons of water ballast. The boats will carry fewer sails and crew.

"I'd heard stories about these boats, and they were everything I had heard and more," Kostecki said. "They're pretty awesome machines - bigger, faster and more powerful. They've got big sails, and they're heavily loaded because of the canting keel. I think they're going to be incredibly difficult to race around the world with only 10 guys on board as compared with 12 guys we had last time."

The new boats draw quite a bit more, meaning in-port racing will have an added degree of difficulty and danger.

"We're going to be going all out, no matter what. We're just going to have to be careful about it," he said. "I think the Baltimore race is going to be the most challenging one. It's a pretty tricky area. It could get pretty wild."

In-port racing also will cut into the time crews and boats have to heal. Previously, the stopovers were a place to schmooze with corporate sponsors and put the boats in dry dock.

Volvo Ocean Race chief Glenn Bourke acknowledged the new component might alter the way down time is used.

"It may mean that not everything aboard gets fixed," said Bourke, who was chief executive of illbruck Challenge. "It may mean setting priorities."

For the Baltimore-Annapolis race, there's an added difficulty factor: The Lands' End National Off-Shore One Design Regatta, which attracts about 300 boats, is scheduled for the same weekend on the other side of the Bay Bridge.

Kostecki was an early skeptic of the in-port component, and his attitude has only slightly softened.

"This is more like what we do in America's Cup. In general, you'll have to fix things quickly and get ready for off-shore again," he said. "I'm still not convinced that this is a good idea."


Volvo in-port races:

Sanxenxo, Spain, Nov. 5

Cape Town, South Africa, Dec. 26

Melbourne, Australia, Feb. 4

Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, March 26

Baltimore/Annapolis, April 26

Portsmouth, England, May 29

Rotterdam, The Netherlands, June 11

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