After nearly three weeks of being bottled up in the Chesapeake Bay, the seven yachts of the Volvo Ocean Race headed back to the open sea yesterday on the strength of building breezes and a send-off party of several thousand spectator boats.
Under a milky blue sky, the boats raced from the starting line at Thomas Point Light off Anne Arundel County northward toward the Bay Bridge - where the old eastbound span had been given over to pedestrians and thousands more people took advantage of its distant view of the racers.
About a mile below the bridge, the yachts rounded a buoy, popped their large spinnakers and headed toward the mouth of the bay and a date with New York City as early as tonight - next stop in the round-the-world event that is among the world's most important sailing races.
Unlike four years ago, when inclement weather shooed away pleasure craft and canceled the Bay Bridge Walk, the race restart attracted about 3,500 boats stretching seven miles on both sides of the racecourse. Four of the 70-foot Volvo yachts caused some anxious moments when they ducked into the spectator boats near Kent Island, scattering them in every direction.
"There's no way we could have policed that many boats. People had to behave on their own," said Capt. Lloyd Ingerson of the Maryland Natural Resources Police. "Everything went well. We didn't have any major problems."
Many of the bridge walkers brought binoculars to get a view of the Volvo entries, but even without a pair, the view was just fine for Shirl Keehn, 71, of Odenton, who stopped near the top on her outing with her daughter, son-in-law, grandchildren and neighbors.
"Those boats are beautiful, aren't they?" she said, looking out over the water as the racers were rounding the buoy. "This is beautiful. You can see everything here."
Local organizers of the Volvo stopover said they were pleased with the visit, which drew 350,000 visitors to Baltimore's Inner Harbor and generated an estimated $50 million for the local economy. The yachts also attracted thousands to Annapolis' historic waterfront for its three-day Maritime Heritage Festival.
"What's happened, as it did at the 1997-98 Whitbread race and again at the 2001-02 Volvo, is the audience has expanded for sailing," said Lee Tawney, spokesman for Ocean Race Chesapeake, the local host. Yesterday morning teased sailors with winds of 15 knots - perfect for a drag race. But as they stood at Annapolis City Dock for the blessing of the fleet and departure ceremony, the breezes gradually dwindled to about nine knots.
Hundreds of people lined the dock as crew members hugged loved ones and posed for photos.
The Rev. Mamie Williams, superintendent for the Annapolis District of the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church, offered a prayer and walked down the dock to bless each boat.
Then with music blaring, the yachts motored away. The crew of ABN AMRO Two, one of two Dutch entries, waved a handmade sign: "Thank you Baltimore/Annapolis."
The waning breeze and a strong ebbing tide made it difficult for the yachts jockeying for position moments before the 1 p.m. start.
In fact, the current proved to be more of a factor than the wind early on. Five of the boats made for the eastern shore, and two split for the western shore to take shelter from the tide coursing through the deep channel in the middle of the bay.
Brasil 1, which crossed the line first, made the lead stick as it rounded the windward buoy a mile south of the Bay Bridge. Movistar, winner of the in-port race, and Pirates of the Caribbean, the Disney-backed entry, made the turn about a minute apart followed closely by the two ABN AMRO boats. Ericsson Racing Team and Brunel, which chose the western shore for the run up the bay, brought up the rear.
Pirates skipper Paul Cayard made good on his dockside promise to give Brasil 1 and movistar, the Spanish entry, a run for their money. Cayard steered for the eastern shore and passed movistar to jump from third to second place. He then drew a bead on Brasil 1, which managed to hold on and reach an exit gate set up near the start line at Thomas Point.
Skippers and navigators expected the puffy winds to blossom as they moved toward the mouth of the bay. Stan Honey, the navigator of ABN AMRO One, the overall race leader, woke at 6 a.m. to review weather reports for the 400-mile leg to New York.
"The first part's the tricky part," he said of the run down the bay. "Most of the models are in agreement that we'll have wind of 20 to 30 knots, maybe up to 40 knots with the low-pressure system moving up the coast."
Cayard said that despite the brevity of the leg and proximity of the coastline, the race segment posed problems. Shoals and intense current near New York Harbor could be treacherous, and the rules regarding boat repairs during the 48-hour stopover might be problematic.
"We'll be sailing upwind 250 miles, so we have to make sure we don't break the boat," he said. "If we push it and break something, we face a dilemma. Do we take a two-hour penalty on the restart and put our shore crew on the boat, or do we try to fix it ourselves?"
The yachts, which began the race in Spain in November, will head back to Europe after the stopover in New York. They will cross the Atlantic and reach Portsmouth, England, late this month. The race moves to Rotterdam, Netherlands, before finishing the 31,000-mile circumnavigation in Gothenburg, Sweden, about June 17.
Volvo, which owns the race, has not indicated whether it will sponsor another in four firstname.lastname@example.org
Sun reporter Sandy Alexander contributed to this article.