Unfurling their sails, turning some heads

A young crew of sailors gets to show it has what it takes when Amro commissions a second boat to race 'round the world.

Sailing

May 03, 2006|By CANDUS THOMSON | CANDUS THOMSON,SUN REPORTER

It's tough to break into the top tier of competitive sailing. Syndicates hire the big names, who in turn hire veteran sailors with robust resumes.

So when the managers of the ABN Amro entry in the Volvo Ocean Race announced they would be running a second boat crewed by a team of sailors under the age of 31, it was seen as a noble gesture destined for back-of-the-pack results.

Instead, it opened the talent floodgates and produced a crew that has turned heads and set records.

Eighteen hundred applicants applied for the 10 crew slots under skipper Sebastien Josse. And after screenings and sea trials, two Americans were among those who made the cut: Andrew Lewis of Hawaii and George Peet of Michigan.

Once the race began last November, ABN Amro Two got good fast and fast in a hurry.

Early in January, the boat set the record for a 24-hour run, chewing up 558 miles at an average speed of 23.3 knots. And with four legs to go in the global race, the yacht is in fourth place, just a half-point behind Pirates of the Caribbean.

For Lewis, 23, being selected meant making the jump from surfing at Diamond Head and competing at the highest level of international dinghy sailing to a 70-foot racing yacht capable of surviving the brutal conditions of the Southern Ocean.

"I'm really impressed on how well our boat is keeping together," he says. "At first, it was how the hell are we going to sail this with just 10 people. No chance, you know. Now, it's coming together really well."

He started competitive sailing in the Laser class, finishing fourth at the Youth World Championships in 1999 and third at the U.S. Olympic Trials in 2004. While single-day racing on much larger boats, he caught the eye of a North Sails representative, who not only suggested that the young sailor apply for the ABN Amro Two crew, but also put in a good word with Mike Sanderson, the skipper of ABN Amro One.

With two years of college left, Lewis was at a crossroads. He decided to take the plunge and hasn't regretted it, despite weeks of never being warm and dry and the lumps that come with blasting through mountainous waves at high speed.

"I've done 40,000 miles in the last eight months," he says. "We've done well, but I didn't think it was going to come this fast."

Peet, 26, was a year and a half out of college and on his way to dental school when he saw an advertisement on the sailing Web site Scuttlebutt and decided to try out for what he calls "the best sailboat race in the world."

He was a three-time All-American in college, but couldn't break into the elite level with its Volvo and America's Cup veterans and others with years of experience.

"That's kind of one of the problems with the sailing community. ... There's a small network of people, and people like sailing with certain people and have certain expectations," Peet says. "It's kind of ... an older group of guys ... It's hard to get fresh talent in there."

The Volvo has allowed the young sailors to mix and mix it up with sailing graybeards such as Paul Cayard, John Kostecki and Sanderson. Being the underdog definitely helped keep the pressure off and outside expectations low, he says.

But the real key to their success was the boat turned over to them by ABN Amro One.

"They built the boat, they did all the development. We just showed up and were handed an absolute weapon," he says.

Oddly for the Americans, their problems didn't surface until they were 22,000 miles into the competition and in home waters. First, the rigging snapped and required makeshift repairs to get up Chesapeake Bay, a mishap that dropped them from second place overall to third. Then during Saturday's bay race, the two Dutch boats lost their fuel, when the bottom dropped out of the breezes and most of the rest of the fleet scooted by.

From the Chesapeake, the Volvo boats will head to New York and then tear across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe and the end of the race in mid-June. Peet says he can't wait to get back home after the race and spread the word about the new opportunities in sailing.

"I don't have any money and I don't really have a home," Peet says. "But the lifestyle and opportunity have been unbelievable and well worth the sacrifice."

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

To hear a podcast of Candus Thomson interviewing Volvo sailors, go to baltimoresun.com, click on "podcasts" and then "Sun audio reports."

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