Detour to Md. has turned out fine

The Chesapeake may not seem an obvious stopover for the Volvo Ocean Race, but the area offers strong local organizations and an enthusiastic public

April 23, 2006|By ANNIE LINSKEY | ANNIE LINSKEY,SUN REPORTER

If you looked at a map of Earth and tried to plan a round-the-world ocean race, Baltimore might not seem an obvious place to stop. In fact, the route here looks a little like somebody made a wrong turn and dead-ended in Charm City.

Other cities around the world that play host to the 35,000-mile Volvo Ocean Race this year perch directly on the sea so that skippers don't need to pick their way through crab pots and miles of shallow water.

Nevertheless, this is the third straight time that the ocean racing yachts have made the 120-mile slog from the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay in Norfolk, Va., to Baltimore. The first boat drifted in Monday for a three-week stopover, kicking off an event that is expected to draw a half-million people to see the boats and to generate $52 million in economic activity. The only other U.S. port the boats will visit is New York City, for a two-day pit stop.

The reason the race came to Baltimore in the first place is a story of force of will by a small group of local sailors. The reason it stays is in part due to an organization that doesn't dissolve when the race is over and to proximity to a major population center that the race sponsors hope will absorb their branding.

"I would never say anyone has a lock on anything in regards to the Volvo Ocean Race," said Janet Baxter, the president of U.S. Sailing, the largest sailboat racing association in the country. "But it would be a question of `Why not Baltimore?'"

Putting the race somewhere else, she said, "really is a move. You've educated the public; you've educated the volunteers."

After every Volvo competition -- this year's race ends in June in Sweden -- the racetrack changes. Volvo management will look at sailing factors, such as how well the ports were equipped to handle the race, and nonrace factors, including media penetration and regional enthusiasm. Cities must bid for the race.

"Don't expect to hear for about a year," said Glenn Bourke, the chief executive officer of Ocean Race Chesapeake.

Nine-year campaign

The eight-month-long race has been sailed every four years since 1973. It is part of the Triple Crown of sailing; the other points are the Olympics and the America's Cup.

Other cities weren't picked for various reasons.

Newport, R.I., which bills itself as the "Sailing Capital of the World," was dismissed in part because of concerns about quirky spring weather. New York Harbor was saddled with security and cost concerns and, as with the city's 2012 Olympic bid, seemed to lack local enthusiasm. Charleston, S.C., while attractive for many reasons, didn't have the organizational know-how and financial underpinnings.

Baltimore and Annapolis won the right to be a stopover in 1997-1998 after a nine-year campaign by a small group of local sailors, including ESPN commentator Gary Jobson.

The lobbying campaign moved in starts and spurts, with the race management saying no to Baltimore in favor of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in 1990.

"My read on it was they were unprepared to make a leap of faith and go up the Chesapeake," said Lee Tawney, a secretary of Ocean Race Chesapeake, the local organization in charge of the Maryland stop.

Jobson, an internationally known sailor who lives in Annapolis, spent the next couple of years quietly but persistently chatting with skippers and talking up the Chesapeake Bay. Also, the fan turnout in Fort Lauderdale wasn't what race organizers had hoped for.

So in 1994, after going to Fort Lauderdale for a second time, race executives renewed their interest in Baltimore, a historic port that was heavily promoting its revitalized waterfront. It also happened to be just up the Chesapeake from Annapolis, another "sailing capital."

"There was enthusiasm everywhere," Jobson said.

This time local businessman George Collins agreed to finance a local entry, Chessie Racing, and a deal was struck. And in 1998, an estimated half-million people came out to view the boats for what was then known as the Whitbread Round the World Race and to talk to sailors.

Although ownership of the race changed hands from an English brewery to a Swedish carmaker and no one stepped forward to fill Collins' shoes, the ability of Baltimore and Annapolis civic leaders to put on a good show with plenty of spectators helped ensure the region a second visit in 2001-2002. Despite a drop in attendance for the second visit, Volvo gave the nod for a third visit to Baltimore.

The Volvo Ocean Race's Baltimore stopover is a complicated endeavor. In a sense, there are two events going on at once -- the race (the boats arrived here from Brazil and leave here for New York, with an in-port race April 29 in the bay) and a sponsorship bonanza. On its own, either would be difficult to coordinate.

Once the boats arrive in Baltimore, huge cranes haul them from the water.

There has to be space for sail-makers and boat-builders to repair damage. There has to be a race village where sponsors can set up shop, and a place where people who don't follow sailing will gather.

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