Ocean race teams set sail for the bay's tricky waters


After five months of bone-jarring, teeth-rattling adventure at the earth's extremes, the sailors of the Volvo Ocean Race are on their way to Maryland, the Land of Pleasant Living.

If only the wind holds out.

The six yachts will leave Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, today for the 5,000-mile voyage north and arrive at the Inner Harbor around April 15. They will be on display as part of the Baltimore Waterfront Festival from April 27 until May 4, when they head to Annapolis for the three-day Maryland Maritime Heritage Festival.

But the cruel reality of the 32,700-mile global race is that for all the hardships competitors have faced, their toughest challenge may be here, where less is more.

The Chesapeake Bay is shallower than the Southern Ocean, with more obstacles than the southern Atlantic. Its winds can be maddening, fluctuating between light and whisper-like, with an occasional minigale thrown in for variety.

And that's not all.

As the Volvo Ocean Race Web site puts it, the bay "is virtually 120 miles of flat, tidal water, ring-fenced with muddy shoals, peppered with crab pot markers and bedeviled by light and fluky winds. The boat in the lead at the entrance to the Chesapeake will need to be sailing at 110 percent to stay there by the finish line."

In other words, sailors are going to have to work hard for their shore leave. But Volvo veterans say it's worth it.

Good hospitality

Since the race's first stopover here in 1998, when it was known as the Whitbread, competitors have raved about knowledgeable fans and terrific hospitality. SEB, Northern Europe's largest bank and a boat sponsor in the 2001-2002 race, praised Chesapeake organizers in a sailing book for their "incredibly professional arrangements."

In return, the race infuses the local economy with more than $52 million in direct and indirect revenue and adds luster to the Chesapeake Bay region's reputation as a premier sailing venue.

Organizers of the Baltimore portion of the stopover anticipate 500,000 visitors to the festival and the Volvo Race Village. In Annapolis, crowds are expected to fill City Dock to overflowing.

During the festival, the Downtown Sailing Center will offer lessons in the Inner Harbor. Tall ships from several nations will be moored nearby. And spectators will be able to board the Volvo boats and talk to the crews.

"It's really all about the boats," says Lee Tawney, a spokesman for the local organizing group, Ocean Race Chesapeake. "People are going to see some pretty extraordinary sailing machines."

The machines are different from the yachts used in the past two races. The Volvo Open 70s are 10 feet longer than the 60-foot boats they replaced. Meteor-fast and eggshell-fragile, they are capable of setting 24-hour distance records and coming perilously close to sinking.

As they have at four other stopovers, the Volvo racers will take part in an in-port race, which will be within sight of Downs Park in Pasadena.

"I don't think anything like this has happened on the Chesapeake Bay, ever," Tawney says.

The 70-foot boats, built for deep, blue water, will duel in close quarters in shallow waters, where a mistake could mean catastrophic damage.

"You're going to see some great sailors come in and have some very poor races," predicts John Kostecki, winner of the last Volvo race and newly named skipper of Ericsson Racing.

Major malfunctions

Since the race started in Vigo, Spain, in November, major malfunctions have troubled the fleet. Early in Leg One of the race, the Spanish entry movistar, and the Disney-backed Pirates of the Caribbean were forced from the race for major repairs. Ericsson Racing Team limped to the finish line with a damaged keel.

The second leg was no smoother. Two boats - Ericsson and Brasil 1 - were unable to finish. And last month, on the third leg, movistar began taking on water and almost sank off Cape Horn.

The seventh-place boat, the battered and financially pressed Brunel of Australia, is expected to arrive in Baltimore on a cargo ship. Grant Wharington, the syndicate's leader and irrepressible skipper, has paid $125,000 to re-enter the race, even though, with only 11.5 points, he has no chance of a top finish.

On top of the heap are the two Dutch boats, ABN AMRO One, with 52.5 points, and ABN AMRO Two, with 36.5 points.

Barring a major equipment failure, it will be difficult to beat the leader, which has dominated the competition. ABN AMRO One won three of four legs and three of four in-port races.

But the No. 2 and No. 3 spots overall are still very much up for grabs. Pirates is just 5 points behind the second Dutch boat, and movistar is a half-point further back.

On May 7, the yachts will leave Annapolis and sail south to a half-mile above Thomas Point Light for the restart of the race. Unlike last time, when the fleet streaked down the bay and out to sea, the start will direct the boats back toward the Bay Bridge, where they will turn and head south for the race to New York Harbor. The revised start will give Bay Bridge walkers extended views of the yachts and their race tactics.

From there, the Volvo returns to Europe for the final legs and the race's end June 18 in Gothenburg, Sweden. There, the winner will receive a Waterford crystal trophy called "Fighting Finish."



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