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Boats Depart Boston but Can't Leave Danger Behind

By Angus Phillips
Sunday, May 17, 2009

BOSTON

The winner of the 2008-09 Volvo Ocean Race was all but decided as the seven-boat fleet departed this weekend on the last offshore leg of the 'round-the-world event, across the Atlantic to Ireland. Barring disaster, no one can catch Swedish Ericsson 4, with a 13 1/2 -point lead over second-place Spanish entry Telefonica Blue, before the finish next month in St. Petersburg, Russia.

But disaster is no stranger on the North Atlantic and no one takes the 2,500-mile crossing lightly. It's the leg that last time claimed the only fatality and only sinking since Volvo took on sponsorship a decade ago.

Dutchman Hans Hoerrevets, 32, was swept off ABN-Amro II at night in 30-knot winds and 15-foot seas on May 18, 2006; in a feat of seamanship, his mates recovered the body in windswept waves; two days later they rescued all 11 crew off rival Movistar when its keel snapped and the boat sank.

If the North Atlantic lacks the fearsome reputation of the Southern Ocean, the frigid sea that surrounds Antarctica where most of the VOR takes place, it's still no place for the unprepared. When the wind kicks up, the fragility of the super-fast Volvo 70 race boats only compounds the challenge.

"They're bloody dangerous," says Magnus Olssen, 60, skipper of fourth-place Ericsson 3 and a veteran of six 'round-the-world races. He was perched on the weather rail during a warmup to in-port races in Boston Harbor last weekend, schussing along at 18 knots in 14 knots of wind, when he beckoned me for a unique view.

"Down there is our keel," he said, gesturing to the water eight feet down. The long, tapered ballast bulb at the bottom was bright orange and stood out like a giant tropical fish. "It's cranked up to the maximum angle now, 40 degrees," said Olssen. "That's how we can pile so much sail on."

All seven of the VOR entries have "canting" keels. Powerful hydraulics lever the 14-foot-long keel fin and attached lead ballast bulb up to windward at a sharp angle, creating a counterweight against the force of wind on sails. When the keel is fully cranked to a 40-degree angle, it brings the boat flat even when overpowered, meaning sailors can keep big sails up in strong winds to go faster.

The technology, deployed on flat-bottomed, carbon fiber hulls with super-light rigging, sends the boats zipping down ocean waves at 30 and 40 knots, a dizzying speed to even the most seasoned sailor. Race organizers expect the fleet to arrive in Galway in less than a week -- a staggering average of more than 400 miles a day.

It puts tremendous strain on gear. "The loads on the backstays [supporting the mast] is 13 or 14 tons," Ericsson 3 bowman Brad Marsh said. "It's like hanging five or six automobiles off the mast with a rope."

Things break, and when rogue waves crash in unexpectedly to knock the feathery craft offline at night it's downright scary. "I've been caught out several times," said Rick Deppe, a veteran offshore racer who's circling the globe on third-place U.S. entry Puma as the media man onboard. His job is take photos and video to accompany daily e-mail reports of life at sea.

"It's not the big waves that worry you," said Deppe, who made video for the popular cable series "Deadliest Catch" about Alaskan commercial fishing before joining the VOR. "It's the ones that come in from the side when you don't expect them. That's when you want to be sure you're tied in."

VOR sailors wear harnesses that clip to stout fittings on the boat, but sometimes must unclip to move. That's what tripped up Hoerrevets, who was coming up from below to tame a flailing spinnaker and was swept over before he could clip in.

Deppe said sometimes even sturdy webbed harnesses are overpowered. A helmsman on Puma was nearly separated by a wave that swept the boat in the Southern Ocean. It left his harness frayed nearly through. "The power of the water," Deppe said, "is amazing."

The three-week stopover here was Boston's gain, the Chesapeake's loss. The VOR stopped in Baltimore/Annapolis the last three races but moved to New England when Boston-based Puma backed an entry this time. No one had unkind words for the Chesapeake, which proved one of most popular stops with big crowds at the Inner Harbor and Annapolis City Dock and a huge floating spectator fleet seeing the racers off to Europe.

Boston was a question mark but rose to the occasion. The VOR village was in an undeveloped pocket in the booming new downtown waterfront created when an ugly, elevated superhighway went underground in Boston's famous "Big Dig."

Gleaming new high-rises and brick walkways stand where a few years ago decrepit wooden wharves dominated. Also, the famously filthy harbor was upgraded by a new sewage plant on Deer Island. Suddenly, Boston has a clean, attractive harbor.

"It's shocking," said Puma skipper Ken Read, who studied at Boston University, "I probably sailed 1,000 races in the Charles River but we never sailed here."

Boston's Fan Pier buzzed with activity during the VOR as city-dwellers renewed acquaintance with their once-great sailing port. Then they were gone, the lightning-quick boats, bound for Ireland over a treacherous sea.

Notes: Washington boaters have their own races to look forward to next weekend: The Canoe Cruisers Association's annual Potomac Downriver Race is Saturday, starting at Great Falls Park on the Maryland side and ending at Sycamore Island. Canoeists and kayakers of intermediate skill and above are welcome. Visit http://www.ccadc.org and click on "notices" for details.

And the Storm Trysail Club and Hampton Yacht Club jointly revive the Down the Bay sailboat race from Annapolis to Hampton, which ran 59 times before it was dropped a decade ago. The start is 10:30 a.m. Friday at the mouth of the Severn River with 40 boats signed up. Check http://www.hamptonyc.com.

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