Dawn Riley flew in from the West Coast yesterday, fresh from dedicating America True, the first new U.S. boat built for the 1999-2000 America's Cup. As the only woman ever to head an America's Cup campaign, it was a coup for the all-women's Santa Maria Cup in Annapolis to land her as a competitor.
But it says something about the changing fortunes of women in sailing that Riley, 34, is not even the favorite to win the match-racing event in J-22s that will run through this weekend out of Eastport Yacht Club.
How does she rate her chances against Betsy Alison of Newport, R.I., five-time yachtswoman of the year; Bermuda's Paula Lewin, the world's top-ranked women's match-racer; and eight other top women sailors and crews from around the world?
"You have to understand I haven't been doing much of this lately," laughed Riley, wiping sleep from her eyes after riding the red-eye cross-country. "Let's just say we're hoping to hold our own."
Some might be tempted to say the same for the chances of Riley's team in the America's Cup, which opens a five-month stand in October in Auckland, New Zealand, with 10 foreign challengers and the formidable Team New Zealand as defender. America True will have the first male-female crew in the 148-year history of the event and the only women sailors on any team in the regatta.
"We've talked about this a lot lately in team meetings -- what are our expectations?" she said. "It would be embarrassing for us not to make the [six-boat] semifinals, and a disappointment not to win the Cup."
She is already ahead of most rivals on one count: Riley's is the first of five U.S. teams to complete a boat for the event. She was reluctant to show much at ceremonies last week in San Francisco, where the $6 million yacht was sheathed in shrink-wrap plastic with styrofoam blocks strategically placed to conceal details of its shape.
Secrecy is a key to success in the modern Cup and America True won't be even partially unveiled until after it arrives in Auckland later this month. The sailing team will assemble and test it for three months before challenger trials start in the Hauraki Gulf in October.
In keeping with Riley's long-term commitment to open the Cup to new faces, the crew includes women in several key positions. Riley will work the halyards from the pit position as she did aboard Bill Koch's Mighty Mary on the all-women's Cup team in the 1995 defender trials at San Diego; other women expected on the 16-person crew include Olympian Leslie Egnot, Whitbread 'Round-the-World veteran Katie Pettibone and veteran U.S. big-boat sailors Merritt Carey and Liz Baylis. The helmsman is John Cutler, who steered the Japanese entry Nippon in the 1995 Cup.
Unlike fellow San Franciscan Paul Cayard, skipper and CEO of rival entry AmericaOne, Riley has no intention of steering her boat. "I have too much else to worry about on the financial and organizational ends," she said. "I'm doing so much, learning so much, it would be stupid to drive. When I go to work in the pit, it feels like home."
Riley, with two Whitbread campaigns and two America's Cups under her belt, has almost single-handedly guided America True to fruition. Does she consider it a big deal? "The big deal," she said, "is that everyone thought it was a joke and today we're doing as well as anyone."
For that she can thank Chris Coffin, a 41-year-old Chicago businessman who made a pile of money in the computer business and is turning it into a smaller pile by largely underwriting America True's $20 million budget. Riley found him as she roamed the country looking for backers three years ago, they hit it off and he has been writing checks since. "He sailed with us a couple of days and said, `Okay, I like the program, now what do we have to do to win?' " recalled Riley.
She has since landed some smaller sponsors and assembled 18 yacht clubs around the country that support America True, including Eastport Yacht Club, organizer of the Santa Maria Cup. That connection is what convinced her to do this women's regatta, even though Riley now believes, as a rule, women and men should race sailboats together, not separately.
The Santa Maria Cup runs through Sunday on the Severn River off Annapolis, with round-robin elimination rounds at 1 p.m. today through Saturday, then semifinals and finals starting at 9 a.m. on Sunday.
The format is match-racing, with skippers and their three-woman crews going head-to-head in two-boat matchups. The event also serves as the U.S. qualifying round for the women's match-racing world championships in Genoa, Italy, next fall.
Daily results are available on the Web site, www.eastportyc.org
CAPTION: Of heading a combined male-female crew in the upcoming America's Cup, Dawn Riley says: "Everyone thought it was a joke and today we're doing as well as anyone."