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The Race Is On

January 3, 2000

By Tim Zimmermann

January 3, 2000 After seven years, millions of dollars, plenty of setbacks, and enough skepticism to sink a fleet, six maxi-catamarans finally set out on Sunday from Barcelona to race around the world. Well, make that five. Team Legato, Tony Bullimore's 102-foot ride, stayed firmly attached to the dock, a victim of mutiny among the crew (three sailors either quit or were voted off the boat) and demands by Race organizers that Team Legato sail 150 additional qualification miles and paint its daggerboards fluorescent orange (a safety measure: so they can be seen easily from the air if the boat is upside down). By the time Bullimore sorted it all out, and made his start Monday morning, the rest of the fleet was hundreds of miles toward the first "gate" of the course, the Straits of Gibraltar.

Before the start, everyone from dockside pundits to opposing crews predicted that American skipper—and speed demon—Cam Lewis would set a blistering early pace in his 110-foot Team Adventure and then later flame out with some form of equipment failure in his relatively untested boat. Lewis did not disappoint at the start, gunning Team Adventure around the starting buoys at up to 25 knots, with a hull flying, and rocketing off toward Gibraltar with a 4 mile lead that he quickly built to almost 30 miles in the first 24 hours. Unfortunately for the chasing pack, which included Grant Dalton's Club Med, Steve Fossett's PlayStation, and Loick Peyron and Skip Novak's Innovation Explorer, Lewis and his crack crew showed no signs of driving their big cat beyond its limits. Just two days after the start, Lewis had shot out into the Atlantic, with Club Med and Innovation Explorer still chasing. Club Med's Grant Dalton could only give Lewis his due, admitting "Team Adventure is on fire. They are going quick, and sailing smart." Lewis, of course, was reveling in the attention and awe generated by his blazing start. "We are out in the Atlantic, shredding the big blue planet," he e-mailed happily from the boat. By Wednesday, however, light winds off the African coast had slowed his dive toward the equator, and Club Med had closed to within a few miles, despite the fact that skipper Dalton had been felled by the flu.

Shockingly, the one boat that did blow up early was the boat everyone believed to be most reliable: Steve Fossett's 125 foot PlayStation. With almost 16,000 miles under her keels, PlayStation was tipped as a top contender for victory by virtue of the fact that her crew had more time to work the kinks out. Unfortunately, PlayStation's new, high-tech, Cuben Fiber sails had not been given the same thorough workout. And while Cuben Fiber is generally lighter and stronger (and a whole lot more expensive) than conventional Spectra and Carbon sailcloths, PlayStation suffered two sail failures in the first two days. First, the head of a jib ripped out (it was repaired). Then, the clew, the aft corner which attaches the mainsail to the boom ripped out (it could not be repaired). With the failure of the mainsail, PlayStation was forced to put into Gibraltar in order to take aboard her spare, Spectra mainsail (which has survived 15,000 miles of sailing). Race rules require any boat that puts into port for repairs to remain in port for 48 hours, a huge time penalty that will likely doom any chance PlayStation has of winning The Race, unless Team Adventure, Club Med and Innovation Explorer all experience similar breakdowns along the way and also have to put into port.

At the back of the pack, the two older, smaller catamarans were having their troubles, too. Team Legato also watched its mainsail come apart at the seams, and Bullimore decided to join PlayStation in Gibraltar (where he also will have to remain for 48 hours). Polish skipper Roman Paszke and his 88-foot Warta-Polpharma had stayed with the big boys during the 18-mile starting prologue, but shortly thereafter broke 5 battens in the mainsail. Those were fixed at sea, but Race organizers asked Paszke to make a pit stop in Gibraltar so that his satellite dome can be repaired (he will not be assessed a penalty), leaving Warta-Polpharma also facing a huge gap to the lead boats.

With half the fleet in Gibraltar after just a few days, The Race for the moment belongs to the three Gilles Ollier-designed sisterships heading toward the equator, where the next big obstacle to the journey south to the Southern Ocean will be the light air region of the doldrums. Team Adventure, Club Med, and Innovation Explorer will have to sail smart, and take advantage of every little zephyr, if they are to clear that tricky zone—which French sailors refer to as the "Pot of Tar"—without letting the lagging three boats make up the lost miles. First boat out, though, will lead the descent past Brazil to the Roaring Forties, the westerly winds that will catapult the big cats around the bottom of the world.

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