Volvo race casting Maryland adrift

With no bay entry, global yacht race sailing to Boston

Sun Exclusive

May 03, 2007|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN REPORTER

After successfully playing host to the Volvo Ocean Race for three voyages, Baltimore and Annapolis will be left high and dry during the 2008-2009 sailing event.

Race officials are scheduled to announce tomorrow that Boston will be the North American stopover for the around-the-world race, according to a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts economic development office.

More than a sailboat race, the Volvo was a financial force in the region. A study conducted by state, regional and local economic development and tourism agencies estimated that a Maryland stopover generated $40 million.

The reason for being set adrift has nothing to do with a lack of hospitality or any mishaps during the 21-day stopover last April. Simply put, Boston will have a boat in the race and Baltimore and Annapolis will not.

"I'm not surprised," said Gregory Barnhill, chairman of Ocean Race Chesapeake, the local organizing committee. "The boats determine the race course. Given all the things we did right, we just didn't have that one element."

For all its nautical history and extensive maritime industry, the Chesapeake region does not have an individual or company willing to pay the equivalent of four or five years of stadium naming rights to be part of the eight-month around-the-world race.

"It is unfortunate, but it's not easy to find a sponsor with $20 million," said Hannah Byron, assistant secretary for tourism, film and the arts in the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development.

Puma, the outdoor clothing company with international public relations offices in Boston, agreed to sponsor a boat in return for the clothing and gear contract for the competition. The company, based in Germany, has hired Ken Reed, a Volvo race veteran and top-flight skipper, to lead its campaign.

The announcement on Boston's waterfront is expected to draw Boston's mayor and state officials, along with Reed, Puma executives and Glenn Bourke, chief executive officer of the Volvo Ocean Race.

"We're excited it's coming to town," said Kofi Jones, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development. "The governor is thrilled we've been invited to participate. Obviously, it's going to mean a lot as far as tourism and travel dollars are concerned."

But Massachusetts will learn what Maryland did: It's not all free money. Each visit, Ocean Race Chesapeake has had to raise $1.2 million in cash and $1 million in in-kind services to turn Baltimore's Inner Harbor into a race village. In addition, Annapolis spent $600,000 last year to dredge the harbor so that the 70-foot sailboats could tie up at City Dock.

"We're disappointed, but we're glad to have had it for three years," said Tracy Baskerville of the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts. "It is an economic loss for the city and state, but maybe someday it will come back."

Barnhill said he began to feel that the Volvo was sailing away not long after the boats left the Chesapeake Bay last May for a pit stop in New York before returning to Europe for the finish. As discussions with Bourke continued, the outcome became more apparent.

"We nibbled around the edge of the cookie a lot," Barnhill said. "We've done this successfully three times. When you've had a partnership like that and you know each other so well, they knew what we could offer. It wasn't like we could produce a fourth-quarter `Hail Mary.'"

Seeking to tap new markets, race organizers hope to add stops in the Middle East, Southeast Asia and India, and two ports in China to the 38,650-nautical-mile course that begins in Alicante, Spain. That might mean dropping other ports that can't find a $20 million sponsor.

In the 32-year history of the race, more than two dozen cities around the world have served as ports. The United States was ignored until the 1989-1990 edition, when Fort Lauderdale, Fla., was added. It was replaced for one year by Miami, which was dropped because of poor visibility and low attendance.

Baltimore and Annapolis gained entree to the 1997-1998 race, then known as the Whitbread, when local businessman George Collins agreed to finance Chessie Racing, which eventually finished sixth. Four years later, the Chesapeake region got the nod without a local boat, because it was clear the new Volvo team valued the stability of returning to a known port.

Before the 2005-2006 race, two attempts to establish a local syndicate failed to gain financial support. However, Baltimore and Annapolis were chosen again on the strength of the organizing skills of Ocean Race Chesapeake and contributions from businesses such as Constellation Energy and Comcast that kept the stopover deficit-free. By comparison, Volvo had to foot the bill for the New York stop last May.

Annapolis Mayor Ellen O. Moyer said that without a local boat, the outcome "was expected."

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