1st sailing race something to flip over, almost

April 30, 2006|By RICK MAESE

A day on the sailboat - knickers, a sun visor, a picnic basket. Maybe a cigar. My kind of afternoon. Women named Buffy and guys who are named Jim, but affectionately called Jimbo by their pals. A day on the sailboat.

Hardly fodder for the sports-talk shows. I mean, is sailing even a sport? (Maybe if you're willing to give a trophy to the wind?)

I kept thinking about these preconceived notions as the world splashed around me. I sat nervously still on a boat that was flying through the Inner Harbor. Four men were zigzagging across the boat as though national security was entirely dependent on them twirling some ropes and twisting cranks.

It was pandemonium. No brie. No baguettes. No glasses of wine. How did I get here? And where is Buffy?

A day earlier, I was invited aboard Tommy Hilfiger's 40-foot catamaran, one of the sailboats racing in the Extreme 40 competition, a part of the Volvo Ocean Race. The Volvo Ocean Race is similar to the America's Cup and takes place only once every four years. The Extreme 40s, I was told, are smaller boats and compete in shorter races. A good analogy might be comparing a sprinter to a marathon runner.

"A day on the sailboat? I'll bring the wine!"

"Wait," the voice on the other end of the phone said. "You do know how to swim, right?"

I barely had time to ponder the question before I found myself sitting scared stiff on Tommy's catamaran. It's not the sailboat I envisioned. In fact, it's sailing's version of an Indy car, consisting of a tall sail presiding over a pair of aerodynamic Twinkies, called hulls. The hulls are parallel to each other and connected by a fishnet that acts like a trampoline. Through the net, just a couple of feet below, you could see the water.

There'd have been no fear if this was a leisurely sail, but you should see these boats move. When they get a good gust, they fly as fast as 45 mph. Even when they're going just 10 mph, they tip on an angle, sending one of the two hulls up to 10 feet into the air.

Would we flip over? That's what I was thinking about. The race was about to start, and I locked my fingers around rope.

"We're in race mode," shouted crew member Stan Schreyer. "Get ready to go!" "Nine seconds," barked Randy Smyth, a two-time Olympic medalist and the Tommy captain. "Two lengths off ... Now bow down ... 5-4-3-2-1 ... "

It was similar to a countdown Smyth had told me about earlier, a story I wish I hadn't heard.

"They counted down for me - 5-4-3-2-1 - and I just did my thing," he said.

Smyth was Pierce Brosnan's skipper in the movie, The Thomas Crown Affair. He was sailing off the Connecticut shore, charged with performing a dangerous maneuver.

"Flipped her right over," he said with a chuckle.

I didn't laugh. He tattooed a visual on my brain that I just couldn't shake.

"Dig in!" yelled crew member Jonathan Farrar. "Dig in!"

"We should have a blast coming up," Smyth said. "Get ready for something."

I was. I was ready to scream. Ready to call for help. To empty my stomach. I was no longer wondering whether these were athletes; I was wondering whether they were sane.

Wind hit our sails and half the boat lifted off the water. I looked at Smyth and his three crew members. All smiles as we zipped through the Inner Harbor at a 30-degree angle.

Heading toward Pratt Street, we were in second place, trailing the Holmatro boat. The Tommy sailors weren't willing to let the wind do all the work. They flew across our fishnet trampoline with urgency, ducking under the swinging boom in a game of life-or-death limbo. Everything was fast-forward, and each crew member was constantly turning a crank, winding rope and shouting a foreign language only sailors seem to know.

"Chaos," said crew member Richard Feeney, "but it's organized chaos."

After the first turn, the Motorola boat moved into first, putting us in third. The wind in the harbor is confusing. The city buildings along the perimeter mean we could zip along at 20 mph and then slow to an immediate crawl. Smyth saw a wrinkle in the water. "We're out of here," he said, as we caught a puff.

Around the third turn, Motorola was in first, Holmatro second, and then us. The crew grew more frantic.

"We're going upwind," Farrar said. "Don't unroll."

"Feeney, I'm worried about ... " Schreyer couldn't finish his thought.

"I know, I know," Feeney said. "One thing at a time."

Soon, we caught a big gust. The boat was heeled over and we seemed to sail on an angle for an eternity. I could feel my lunch slide to one side of my stomach. The Tommy boat passed Motorola, inching our way into first.

"Good job!" Smyth shouted. They all continued to crank furiously. "It's not over yet, though."

We approached a final turn. "What's the possible maneuver?" Feeney asked.

"Jibe and chill," Schreyer said.

Chill? Finally, something I understood. But easier said than done. How could I chill as the boat again rolled to one side and we flew through the harbor toward the finish line?

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