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Field Notes: Cirque du Sailor

Outside magazine, August 1998

Field Notes: Cirque du Sailor

Amid big-league swells, the world's fastest ocean race runs aground in Baltimore
By Bucky BcMahon

Sometime before dawn on an otherwise ordinary Wednesday in spring, nine oceangoing sloops began feeling their way through the fogs and shoals of Chesapeake Bay, tacking west out of the Gulf Stream from Cape Hatteras. Ghosting along in single file, they might have been privateers on a raid, silent but for the soft luff of sails and the creak of shrouds, their Jolly Rogers the corporate emblems of computer manufacturers and cigarette makers. Beating against a light headwind, picking their way through an obstacle course of crab traps and lobster pots, the fleet of the Whitbread Round the World Race advanced on Baltimore.

On land, groundlings scurried about Baltimore's peppy museum — and eatery-filled Inner Harbor, busily pounding stakes and raising the big-tops of the Whitbread Race Village. Hot air hissed, and the Volvo balloon rose like a toadstool in the shadows of the city's skyscrapers. The shore crews had schlepped this mobile town of blue and white canvas most of the way around the world since the Whitbread start last September in Southampton, England, hopscotching tents and trinkets and sailing gear from Capetown, South Africa, to Fremantle, Australia. From Sydney, Australia, to Auckland, New Zealand. From Sƒo Sebastiƒo, Brazil, to Fort Lauderdale, and now, in late April, up into the Chesapeake, for eight days in Baltimore and four in Annapolis. In a month they'd be back in Southampton: Only a North Atlantic crossing to La Rochelle, France, and a sprint across the English Channel lay between the boats and the confettied finish of what some call the world's premier ocean race.

But first, Baltimore. Since Whitbread legs generally measure weeks and thousands of miles, stopovers mean a chance for crews to rest, regain their land legs, and repair broken gear. Of course, the flotilla had left Fort Lauderdale only two days before, so there wasn't much adjusting to be done. This set the sailors to grumbling: Why, in a 31,600-nautical-mile endurance test, were they, ocean sailors in ocean racers, tooling 130 miles in the wrong direction up a shallow bay to loiter in a city with all the glamour of Des Moines?

Because they were wooed, that's why. "Hey Sailor!" crowed a banner draped across the upper stories of Baltimore's Renaissance Harborplace Hotel. It was visible from the cheap seats at Camden Yards — a breathless come-on from a harlot with a heart of gold. For almost a decade, Baltimore's movers and shakers had flashed much upper thigh and lacy garter to lure the Whitbread to this shot-and-a-beer kind of town. They'd trumped invites from the swankier cities of Charleston, New York, and Newport to gain the honor (and the economic booty) of hosting the race. Then-governor William Schaefer pitched the Whitbread executives on their home turf in London. ESPN's "Mr. Sailing," commentator and Annapolis resident Gary Jobson, took Whitbread chief Ian Bailey-Willmot on a helicopter tour of the Bay. And George Collins, CEO of the Baltimore-based brokerage firm T. Rowe Price, sweetened the pot-to the tune of at least $7 million-by financing a local entry, Chessie Racing, ultimately resigning his post to organize Chessie's bid and to train as her coskipper.

When it came down to it, though, Whitbread organizers were simply looking for a town that could turn out a crowd. A big crowd. This year's race, they planned to announce, would be the last Whitbread: Volvo had bought the event from its brewmeister founders, and as the flock of Swedish suits put it, they would turn the Volvo Ocean Race into "the most famous sporting event in the world."Well. They wanted a crowd? Baltimore would scare up a crowd. Why, together Baltimore and Annapolis could muster a fleet of day-sailors to rival any on the globe. All the locals needed was an excuse to take the old tub out of the slip.

When the Whitbread 60s (named for their 60-foot maximum length at the waterline) filed past Fort McHenry, an armada of assorted spectator craft bobbed alongside, windbreakered waterfolk straining for close-ups of the world's fastest yachts manned by the world's best crews. No Intrepids, Sea Breezes, or Miss Lizzies here: Like stock cars and seemingly everything else these days, the boats bore the names of their sponsors, who in this case had ponied up more than $8 million each to have their logos plastered up one Kevlar side and down the other of a Whitbread 60. Into the harbor sailed Toshiba, Silk Cut, Merit Cup, Swedish Match, and Innovation Kvaerner, brokered by a Norwegian civil-engineering company. Here came the local favorite, Chessie Racing, and the surprise leg-seven victor and usual pack-chaser Brunel Sunergy, named for a Dutch power firm. Two boats flew the flag of the Swedish language-training company EFEducation: the sole women's entry, EFEducation, and the race leader, EFLanguage

Picnickers watched with binoculars from grassy Federal Hill. Local pubs readied their taps, each having chosen a pet boat. For this one day at least the tanned crews were big-time pro athletes. NFL big, even NBA big, and when the crews came lumbering off the boats, there came the fans. Fans! Sailing fans. Some 450,000 over the weekend, all trooping down to the Whitbread Village to see the yachts and press some sailing flesh. Never mind that many spectators had probably never heard of any of the participants, with the exception of Dennis Conner, who was Toshiba's part-time skipper. ("He's the bad boy," I overheard one woman inform her spouse. "That's right," the man said. "He is a bad boy.") And never mind that there wasn't very much directly Whitbread related to do. But still, you could check out the Photo Tent's glossy poster-size "Whitbread moments." Or snag some yachting togs at the Clothing Tent. Or head over to the Tandem Tent to click to the Whitbread Web site, which was fielding a startling average of five million hits a day. (Of course, you could do that at home, but where was the fun in that?)

Or — and this was cool — you could wait in line to walk the pontoon docks and gape at the pretty racing boats, tethered together like the exotic aquatic herd of some fabulously wealthy telecommunications sheik. And look! There were the sailors, some of them anyway, attending to brightwork on deck or ascending the 80-foot masts by rope and harness to fiddle with some gizmo up there.

It was a wonderful thing they were doing, these sailors, dangerous and difficult, and they did it very well indeed. "For a trophy and a handshake," as the saying went, though that was something of a relic of the old Whitbread days, when the bilges ran with rum and the race was equal parts skill and quixotic folly. The first Whitbread looped the globe in 1973-1974, a wild scramble contested by a mixed bag of amateurs and pros, in yachts large and small, with one thing in common: They wanted to test their mettle against the icebergs and gales of the Southern Ocean. Freezing storms in the Roaring Forties claimed three lives that year, and though the race, held every four years since, has incurred only one other onboard fatality (and a suicide on shore, if that tells you anything), it's still eminently dangerous, especially the two arduous Southern Ocean legs, the longest of which is nearly 7,000 nautical miles.

This year two boats had already been dismasted. One sailor had watched his finger get ripped off, caught in the mainsheet. Another had taken a steel rod in the eye. Most of the others merely coped with frostbite, heatstroke, broken bones, and a steady diet of ramen noodle soups, losing pounds and muscle mass during the long ocean reaches. They call the southern stretches the liquid Himalayas, the Everest of the sea.

But danger and jockeying aside, the fact is that by the time the race hit the bay it was all but over. EFLanguage had things well sewn up, with a commanding lead based on points earned on previous legs. On leg one, from Southampton to Capetown, then-underdog EFL had proved itself a fast boat with onboard chemistry and some secret weapons — like the "whomper" spinnaker it unfurled to the great alarm of the other crews, whose shore teams scrambled to construct whompers themselves. Team EF had taken a chance with open-water rookie Paul Cayard, a veteran of four America's Cup campaigns who was given the helm at the last minute after skipper Lawrie Smith jumped ship to captain Silk Cut. Cayard had seeded the multinational crew with a few fellow American racers: operations manager Kimo Worthington, former Olympic champ Steve Erickson, and crack navigator Mark Rudiger. All were Whitbread novices, and leg two, the Southern Ocean ordeal from Capetown to Fremantle, proved a disaster. But the rookies learned fast. On their next brush with the Antarctic seas, the 6,670-nautical-mile haul from Auckland around Cape Horn to Sƒo Sebastiƒo, EFL won by a five-day margin. Now it seemed that the only remaining question was, Who would get second place?

Past the outskirts of the Whitbread Village, beyond the Media Tent marking the border between promo-land and sailing-land, lurked Team EF — cozied up in the Container Village, the unprettified precincts of chain-link fencing where work for the boats was being done. A jumble of trailer-offices peopled by a massive 55-person support team aiding both EFLanguage and EFEducation, EFHQ looked and felt like a construction site, but one where the manual laborers were handsome and upper-middle-class and had really great skin.

There in one of the containers, prone on a pile of sails, lounged Marco Constant, EF Language's sailmaker and trimmer, gazing forlornly at his shattered wrist, a reminder that there really was a race going on. He had been in an unfortunate place at a very unfortunate time in the Gulf Stream. The wind kicked up to 20 knots from the northeast, right into the teeth of the north-flowing Stream — pounding the boat with the kind of squared-off 12-foot waves the crews call condos. Constant was slammed into the hull, his hand bent back into an interesting L-shape. He'd refused morphine, toughed it out in his bunk.

"This is bad," he said now. It looked bad: an apparatus of titanium pins screwed painfully into the flesh of the South African's freckled arm. "We always think we're invincible. But this has been a very humbling experience." Still, he didn't mind talking. Part of the job.

Constant talked mostly about his boss, Paul Cayard — the closest thing this year's Whitbread had to a celebrity. "He's a very charismatic guy," Constant said. "Not so much in what he says, but in what he does. If something needs doing, he'll just go on deck and start doing it. He makes you feel guilty, you know; if he's willing to work that hard to win, then so should you."

At the moment, the skipper himself was hunkered down in a nearby trailer holding a weather powwow with Rudiger, Worthington, and Roger "Clouds" Badham, Team EF's meteorological guru. Still several days before the restart of the 3,390-nautical-mile leap to La Rochelle, everything that could be ascertained about conditions in the North Atlantic was sure to be obsolete by race day. No matter. Cayard liked to err on the side of obsessive. And that was another reason he was winning.

Cayard's schedule allowed few windows for idle chitchat, so a meeting with the leader would have to wait. Which left time for a landlubber's tour of EFL. Over in the public relations trailer, Georgina "George" Hyde was happy to oblige. "Curt?" George called in posh British tones to Texan Curt Oetking, caught in a moment of relative idleness. "Would you mind giving Booky here a look at the boot?"

The "little yellow plastic boat,"as EFL's crew sometimes called her, had a slightly bowed deck (the better to shed Southern Ocean rogues) that, despite its no-slip surface, seemed about as stable as a wet bar of soap. The crew wore safety tethers, but the deck still looked all too easy to tumble off of.

"We consider falling overboard like a bullet to the head,"Oetking said. "It would just take too long to turn around and go looking for you. No way you'd survive."

He paused and then continued with a grin. "Yeah, lots of cold-water dunkings in the Southern Ocean. It's like a giant martini, and you're the olive."

Descending into the boat was like settling into the hull of an enormous kayak. The chemical smell of epoxy-filled foam was stifling in the gloom; there was little but empty space, and not much of that. Along both sides of the hull hung scanty web bunks, elongated net shopping bags that the sailors stuffed themselves into — securing themselves with pulleys and cleats — for the catnaps they called sleep. There was a tiny tilt-a-stove, uncomfortably close to a tiny tilt-a-potty. Oetking, as tall and rangy as Texans come, was wedged into the hull beside me. "Not much privacy, as you see."

It was a piece of work, the Whitbread 60 — not a wasted ounce. In the stern was the navigation station, a Lilliputian high-tech smorgasbord where Cayard and Rudiger conferred as weather faxes slithered forth from the machines, or where Rudiger sat alone, hollering course corrections up through a tube to the skipper. Sitting there like a Mercury astronaut, as Rudiger had done for a full 80 percent of the voyage so far, you could almost imagine what it was like: the roar of water under your feet, the shriek of the wind. Just a few days ago, in the seas that broke Constant's arm, Rudiger had sat right in this seat and dispatched his required daily E-mail to the Whitbread Web site: "THE GULF SCREAM SPRINGS ETERNAL (so far it has taken me five minutes to write this much)," he pecked. "Some of the drop-offs are so violent they sound like breaking glass in a car accident."

Yes, you could imagine that: Bam! Off the ceiling. Then, bam! Off the bottom. And all night long, and all the next day, and all the next day, too.

No, definitely not. You couldn't imagine that at all.

Unless you counted a tendency to refer to himself in the third person, Dennis Conner-style, the scouting book on Cayard was "no weaknesses." And there, standing outside his sponsor's tent, ready for lunch, was the man himself, familiar by now to millions from so many heroic Web images of his aquiline profile at the helm. Six-foot-two, with curly black hair, a matinee mustache, and a build like an NFL quarterback (to which he likens his role as skipper — "only you can't call time-out"), Cayard made you want to enlist on the spot.

We set off at double-time through the Village, the whole festive thing rising to a lunchtime simmer. Maori dancers stomped and shouted through the smoke of cooking crab cakes and steaming oysters in a tent dedicated, like a Disney "small world," to Whitbread ports of call. Out in the sunlight, costumed mariners led tours of tall ships. Plate spinners and Andean pipers worked the crowd. Paradoxically, if you sailed around the world with the Whitbread, the sea changed colors and moods, but the land always looked like this.

Cayard cast his peregrine gaze over the lines outside three restaurants before settling on the Inner Harbor Hooters. Here was pulchritude in little orange outfits, heaping platters of fatty food, big screen TVs — the antithesis of the spartan Whitbread fare. That was one of the toughest things about the race, Cayard said, the extraordinary contrasts. "You get down to real basics out there — no sleep, very little food — then suddenly you're back in the whirl and watching the NBA playoffs."

Cayard went on, spearing a piece of chicken to punctuate the point. "You've got 30 knots of wind. You've got 30-foot waves, snow on the deck, icebergs. I'd almost seen it all, but I hadn't seen that shit. If you could drop someone into the scene for an hour it would blow their minds. We were out there two weeks." Ouch. It was impossible to picture — harder still from the vantage point of a stool at Hooters.

So how was it that Cayard and a bunch of round-the-cans buoy racers were winning the Whitbread? Well, he said, you couldn't discount luck. Or work. The team's modus operandi was to hit the docks running. Let the other guys go on a three-day pub crawl. EFL would find out what was broken on the boat and fix it first and maybe drink later. Preferably never. "Adventure sailing has a history, way back to the clipper ships, of hard-drinking sailors,"Cayard said. "This event is growing out of that. We all have to behave in as professional a manner as possible in order to win and give maximum exposure to our sponsors."

True, true, this year's Whitbread had been a corporate smoochfest, its organizers brazenly going on about promotional opportunities and target audiences. And the sponsors had sent these sailors around the world, a perilous voyage on a piece of plastic, and they expected them to tell everyone about it — all the while mentioning their benefactor's name. Like so many sporting events these days, the Whitbread was, in a way, more business than sport. But could you just come right out and say that? Cayard could.

I didn't see cayard again until the Leg Seven Prize Giving Affair, when he loped across the stage of the Baltimore Convention Center to pick up the hardware for EFL's third-place finish in leg seven, and for a Communications Award won largely on the merits of Rudiger's ode "The Gulf Scream," which emcee Gary Jobson declaimed in oratorical fashion.

Above the stage a huge screen flashed Whitbread moments:prows cutting huge seas, grinning crew leaning out on a screaming reach. Race director Ian Bailey-Willmot reigned beneath it, a scowling old pirate minus the gold earring, attended by a row of Volvo CEOs looking like a brood of well-turned-out vultures. It was a semiformal affair — attendance required — and all crews were on hand, a wild corn field of sun-bleached hair waving above blue blazers. Not bad as theater, and it didn't run too long, this being the seventh such show and patience with the form perhaps running a bit thin.

Nor did the reception next door last overly long, with its ice sculpture of a W60 and complimentary champagne and the finest Chesapeake eats. Cayard moved through the room surrounded by a continually shifting circle of corporate swells. Marco Constant, back in good spirits, talked about bouldering at Hueco Tanks in Texas. The women of EFEducation — very French, very severe with journalists — mingled about, some sporting bare feet and silver toe rings. Soon everyone was eyeing the exits:The whole show was moving tomorrow, packing up and heading 20 miles down the Bay to Annapolis.

And when the Whitbread moved the next day, it moved with pageantry, in a "Parade of Sail," though the wind was fluky and everybody motored. There was Walter Cronkite, comfy aboard Chessie. There was Cayard on EFL, giving up the helm to the Volvo execs, informal in pullovers. And there was I, zipping about in EFL's sporty rigid inflatable boat, getting a hair-flattening, teeth-cleaning demonstration of EFL's 30-knot top speed from Team EF president Johan Sal‰n.

Annapolis was Baltimore all over again, though with more salty hardy-har, better, wood-paneled bars, and rain, lots of it, beating down on the radio-controlled mini yacht regatta and on the floating replica of a Sebago deck-shoe that puttered around the docks. It rained on the Revolutionary War skiff and on the yellow slickers of the 3,000 fans in Topsidered, no-socked "yachting casual," tossing back 10,000 rum drinks at the final blowout. Again the Whitbread screen projected Whitbread moments — the video sun almost too bright, the prows almost too proud. Standing next to me, a Swedish Match crewman read my mind. "Sometimes,"he offered, "you just want to go sailing."

And sail they did at last, real sailing, on a bright May 3, with Prince Albert schmoozing aboard Monaco's Merit Cup and the crew of Brunel Sunergy, those doughty Dutch tail-enders, misspelling out their gratitude to Baltimore and Annapolis with big, bold letters on their shirts: THNKAOUY! The crowds here had been the biggest yet, the fans as enthusiastic as those rabid sea dogs in Auckland. Maybe Baltimore wasn't so bad after all.

At precisely 1:45, the Whitbread Nine were freed by a cannon shot fired by the governor from a Coast Guard cutter. Boom! They were off. Slowly anyway, mainsails flapping in the light wind as they made their way down the Bay, bound for the North Atlantic. The spectator flotilla moved along the borders of the course, thick as fiberglass lava. Tiny distant cheers floated down from the Bay Bridge. Helicopters — media gulls — and small planes swooped overhead.

And on Media Boat 41, a crusty sailing reporter nearly elbowed me overboard in his effort to deliver a bon mot to the attractive young Annapolis economic development director. She'd scored some racer-quality foul-weather gear from one of the syndicates, and the reporter congratulated her on her cleverness. "Ah," he opined, surveying the scene as he squeezed in beside her, "the mating dance of the lead-bottomed money-grubbers!"

Soon, in just a few weeks in fact, the Whitbread yachts would be home in Southampton, the victorious Cayard hoisting the Volvo Trophy. And Baltimore would hold its breath until 2001, when the boats, they hoped, would come round again. Only this time, of course, they'd be the Volvo 60s.

Bucky McMahon is a frequent contributor to Outside.

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