During a Baltimore break from the Volvo competition, nautical `doctors' patch craft damaged by Mother Nature

Making racers right after their oceanic ordeals

April 25, 2006|By ANNIE LINSKEY | ANNIE LINSKEY,SUN REPORTER

Using a sponge, a squeegee and a piece of fine sandpaper, Andy Walker smoothed the surface of a stabilizing fin, rubbing out the bumps and bruises left on the board as it protruded from under a yacht in the first half of a race around the world.

Nearby, Jerry Gale, a boat builder from a rival team in the Volvo Ocean Race, mixed a batch of bluish paste and scraped thin layers of it onto a spare rudder. Like doctors at a nautical hospital, the sailmakers, boat builders and riggers at a Baltimore marina are patching the damage inflicted by the fury of Mother Nature.

Dozens of the team members are stationed there, a scant mile from the corporate pavilions set up at the Inner Harbor, but this venue is less slick and more grit.

"They are the unsung heroes in any sailing project," said Paul Cayard, skipper of Pirates of the Caribbean. "The shore crew works super-long hours. If the equipment fails when you are out there - especially on a round-the-world race - that can be really bad."

The boats rest in cradles while men wearing white protective jumpsuits, masks and latex gloves repair and polish the hulls. Scraps of epoxy, sailcloth and cardboard litter the ground like used bandages and surgical gowns discarded in an operating room.

The working language at Port Covington Marine Center is English, but is flavored with Australian, New Zealand, British and Italian accents. Boatyard banter is accompanied by the beeping of machines in reverse and buzzing of crew members' saws and sanding.

Rod Jabin, who owns an Annapolis boatyard that specializes in sailboat racing, said most yards couldn't fix boats this cutting-edge.

"The normal rigging guy has probably never even seen the kind of rigging that these guys have," he said.

Before any work can start, every piece of equipment is removed from the boats and inspected. The sails go to mini-sail lofts in white tents near the boats, masts are propped on dollies and the hull is examined for delamination and cracks.

The boats "basically turn into big shells," said Walker, of the ABN Amro team.

Temporary boat trauma centers - like the one in Baltimore - have been constructed in the four other cities where the race stopped for extended periods. Unlike at those other ports, no boats have undergone major surgery here because nothing went significantly wrong on the last leg.

Several of the six boats went back into the water yesterday for practice sails because much of the work on them was finished last week and over the weekend. However, a seventh boat, that had dropped out of the race for several legs arrived only yesterday by container ship and needs to be entirely rigged.

On Sunday, the place was hopping. With a pair of oversize scissors, Pirates boatbuilder Gerardo Siciliano, 35, of Italy cut a fancy Kevlar and carbon fiber cloth and fashioned a protective cup. The new piece would prevent chafing on the rope that stabilizes the boat's bowsprit.

To glue the new part onto the boat, he boarded a wobbly platform that, at the push of a button, elevated him 15 feet in the air. "I was a little scared at first ... to work so high," Siciliano said.

When a rain cloud darkened the sky, crew members from various teams scurried to move their work inside the tents. That space, however, is mostly taken up by mini-sail lofts for quick repairs where work is done with giant sewing machines.

In the movistar tent, repairs to the sails are listed on a whiteboard. "The guys give us a job list off the boat," said Stewart Gray, 25 of Tasmania, a sailmaker. He showed off a 3-foot patch he finished in a mainsail. The patch goes straight through the movistar logo. The logo, he said, will be repainted before it is hoisted.

Gray said he did the repair when a designer, looking at a digital photo of the sail underway, did not like its shape. "We'll see a bump and then fix it" by slicing out bits of sail cloth, he said

While the tents and boats are not open to the public, plenty of Volvo sailors and crew mill around in public areas and plenty of work is being done outside the restricted area.

Tim Dean, with the Ericsson team, sat under his mast on a public bit of dock Sunday and cleaned the gooseneck - a joint where the mast and the boom connect.

When asked how many parts were on it, he paused and looked at the 103-foot black pole on a dolly.

"There are 109 technical drawings just for the mast," he said. "And that is for the fittings. It doesn't include the mast."

Teams "dye-test" the thousands of titanium blocks and pins used in the mast. It works like this: Riggers paint a thin layer of red dye over the fitting and then wipe it off. The dye remains in the cracks and reveals tiny signs of fatigue. Cracked parts are discarded.

Few spectators came to view the boats in dry dock over the weekend. Perhaps that is because the dock is hard to find - two U-turns are necessary for those coming from Baltimore. But those adventurous - and curious - enough to make the trip seemed pleased.

"They are incredible," said Andrew Cole, an Annapolis small-boat sailor. "They are like huge dinghies. You can tell they are meant to be sailed like giant dinghies."

annie.linskey@baltsun.com

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