Sailing bonanza bearing down

The Volvo Ocean Race arrives as early as today, promising swift yachts and a half-million tourists

April 17, 2006|By ANNIE LINSKEY AND CANDUS THOMSON | ANNIE LINSKEY AND CANDUS THOMSON,SUN REPORTERS

With white water crashing over their 70-foot yachts, Volvo Ocean Race sailors are closing in on Baltimore. The first of the six sailboats is expected as early as today.

While the yachts are docked for three weeks in Maryland, race organizers expect a half-million tourists to see the boats and pour $50 million into the economy.

"We have a U.S. boat in the race. We're hoping for two nice sunny weekends," said Lee Tawney, the secretary of Ocean Race Chesapeake, the group hosting the boats here.

The sailors, who left Brazil two weeks ago on this leg of the race, are six months into a round-the-world competition that is one of the most expensive and prestigious events in sailing. The race ends in June in Sweden. The yachts were designed for this race and cut though water like motorboats, at speeds faster than 20 mph.

The American boat, the Disney-sponsored Pirates of the Caribbean, was in third place for the Brazil-to-Baltimore leg. A seventh boat - Brunel from Australia - will join the other six in Baltimore and will take part in the rest of the race. Volvo Ocean Race boats will be visiting Maryland for the first time since the previous race, in 2002.

Mike Sanderson, the skipper of the Dutch ABN Amro One, said in an e-mail yesterday that he went slower over the weekend after the yacht was "leaping off the waves."

With such speed and battering comes danger. The boats are lightweight and untested. The 10-man crew of the Spanish Movistar nearly drowned off Cape Horn last month when their boat took on hundreds of gallons of ocean water and began to sink. They said they were saved by an extra, high-speed pump.

"They are pretty dramatic sailing machines," Tawney said.

Preparations for the boats - and for the throngs of expected viewers - have taken years. Workers dredged harbors in Baltimore and Annapolis. Construction at a Baltimore marina was rushed through for the boats. Futuristic corporate pavilions were being finished as recently as Saturday at the Inner Harbor's Rash Field by multinational shore crews who have leapfrogged around the world, setting up displays.

"It is like looking into a real long fire hose, and we're getting blasted in the face right now," said Tom Miller, who is in charge of logistics while the boats are in Maryland.

A respite

After the yachts finish this leg of the race near the Bay Bridge, they'll dock briefly in Baltimore so crew members can see their families and pop open bottles of champagne.

The sailors are exhausted - there is little room for creature comforts on the stripped-down boats. Crew members subsist on dried meals that are rehydrated with filtered ocean water. Bouwe Bekking, skipper of the Movistar, wrote an e-mail from the boat that his crew was "looking forward to a mega (healthy) burger."

Upon arrival in Baltimore, each boat will spend only about 45 minutes in the Inner Harbor before it is whisked off to the Port Covington Maritime Center marina. Cranes there will haul the boats out of the water for repairs.

The marina is where the true sailing geeks can glimpse each sleek boat and its 15-foot keel, the long fin that extends into the water, counterbalancing the sail. Three cradles - which will hold the boats when they are out of the water - had been completed by the weekend. The racing teams have tents topped with bright banners. Some tents included ad hoc sail lofts complete with sewing machines for minor repairs.

"It looks like a circus. All we need are some elephants," said Bob Brandon, the marina owner. The marina will be open to the public, but it isn't easy to find. Race organizers promised to put out signs to direct people.

On the harbor

Most casual race enthusiasts will probably wait to see the boats until April 27, when they will be tied up in a row on a 200-foot concrete dock near the Maryland Science Center.

Several corporate sponsors of the race have set up shop at Rash Field. The area has been "transformed from an empty field to a little city," said Miller.

The Ericsson pavilion, a two-story white building, "looks like a combination of a boat, a [mobile] phone and a spaceship. I don't know what it's supposed to be," said Doug Lambardi of Sweden, who was helping to construct it.

The interior has ribbing and is shaped like the inside of a racing yacht. A giant television screen shows video of the race. A second-floor deck looks out on the Inner Harbor and feels like the back of an expensive motor yacht. The space has a dual purpose: It is for the public to visit and for hundreds of Ericsson clients and executives to have meetings.

One door down, the ABN Amro team pavilion is more modest. "We designed it on napkins while eating chicken wings," said Paul Bouma, a builder who is part of the traveling shore team. In other ports, the team has had a more elaborate setup, but for Baltimore, team members bought a tent and lumber for the decking at Home Depot.

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