Maryland sees racers in action

1,000 boats look on as seven craft compete in in-port race

Volvo Ocean Race

April 30, 2006|By ANNIE LINSKEY AND SAM SESSA | ANNIE LINSKEY AND SAM SESSA,SUN REPORTERS

Standing aboard the Volvo Ocean Race yacht movistar yesterday morning, crew member Jonathan Swain looked up at the clear skies, considered the prediction for light winds and said, "It is going to be a beautiful day -- just not for sailing."

He was right. Sort of. The perfect spring day drew an estimated 1,000 spectator boats to the Chesapeake Bay. Those aboard eagerly watched the seven Volvo Ocean boats compete in a round-the-buoys race.

The wind conditions -- shifty and 10 knots -- were not ideal for the 70-foot yachts, which are designed for windier conditions.

However, for movistar, which has been beset by major equipment failures throughout the race and has withdrawn from two legs, yesterday turned out to be a splendid day for sailing. The crew handily won the race, finishing 5 1/2 minutes ahead of second-place Brasil 1.

Afterward, the boats motored into the Inner Harbor, where tens of thousands of people cheered. For a Saturday, the crowd was larger than for any previous Baltimore Waterfront Festival, said Bill Gilmore, executive director of the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts.

The Volvo Ocean Race boats are in the sixth month of a round-the-world race and are in the middle of a three-week stopover in the Chesapeake. During the overall race, crews gain points in a variety of ways, including completing legs, going through scoring gates in the ocean and competing in in-port races. So far there have been five in-port races -- yesterday's was the only one to be sailed in U.S. waters.

The stakes were high yesterday -- with 1.5 points separating the second, third and fourth boats. "We all fight tooth and nail for every point we can get, or every half-point," said Stu Bannatyne, aboard movistar.

The racecourse was about 17 miles from the Inner Harbor, where the seven boats are docked until Thursday. The boats began leaving the docks about 8:30 a.m. and motored for two hours to get to the deep waters in the middle of the Chesapeake where the course was set.

A mix of spectator powerboats, multilevel cruisers, tall ships and sailboats bobbed in place at either end of the course. Coast Guard vessels zipped among them. Passengers onboard squinted and peered through binoculars, occasionally clapping and cheering.

The largest group of vessels sprawled near the course's southern side, said Maryland Natural Resources Police Capt. Lloyd Ingerson. Another pack of onlooking boats sat at the northern end, and a few followed the racers from afar. "Everything went very smoothly," Ingerson said.

On the ride out, Bannatyne explained the plan: Don't make any extra moves. "Maneuvers are very expensive on this race," he said. "When we tack, we lose two to three boat lengths."

In a crew briefing onboard, skipper Bouwe Bekking said: "It'll be shifty." A crew member said sarcastically, "Perfect." After the briefing, sailors munched on sandwiches and joked with each other. But as soon as the sails went up at 11:15, the mood became more serious.

The boats are fast, even in light air. movistar was moving as fast as the wind, going 10 knots in 10 knots of breeze, according to instruments mounted to the mast.

One crew member was hoisted up the mast to look for wind patterns. He held his arm out in one direction. Then Bekking tacked -- turned the boat -- with the sailor still dangling from the mast.

In the moments before the start gun, movistar jibed back and forth on the start line, passing other yachts with only several feet to spare. "Do you see ABN?" a crew member yelled, alerting Bekking that there was another boat near him.

Each boat was allowed to take three nonracing passengers. Tara Conner, the newly crowed Miss USA, and Roy Disney, a major shareholder and former senior executive with the Walt Disney Co., were on the Pirates of the Caribbean. Among those on the movistar was Jose Cusi, a Spaniard who owns the boat on which King Juan Carlos I of Spain prefers to sail.

Just as the race started, the wind shifted and most of the boats were late getting over the line; movistar tacked away from the fleet to go on the right side of the course -- and was behind several boats.

The sailors didn't make many mistakes in the race, and when things didn't go as planned, the fixes were smooth. While going around a buoy, the crew attempted a tricky maneuver in which they lowered the spinnaker -- a full, billowy sail -- only a fraction of a second before heading up wind.

The white sail floated toward the deck and then became tangled in the web of rigging and wires holding up the mast. A minute into the new leg of the race, the spinnaker was still on deck and parts of it ripped as the crew attempted to clear it from the boat.

But despite all this confusion, the boat never lost speed. As for the rips, crew members quickly sewed the sail below decks so it could be used again if needed.

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