The America's Cup is brimming with Chesapeake sailors these days: Grant Spanhake and Ross Halcrow trimming sails on Young America, Gavin Brady and Terry Hutchinson on AmericaOne, Tucker Thompson with America True, Dave Scott on the Swiss FAST 2000 and four guys from Annapolis on Hawaii-based Abracadabra.
Of them all, Hutchinson and Abracadabra tactician Chris Larson landed the toughest jobs. Larson advises Olympic silver medalist John Kolius when to tack and jibe and where the puffs and shifts of wind are likely to come from next. Hutchinson trims the huge mainsail for five-time Cup competitor Paul Cayard on AmericaOne, a job he has never done for anyone else.
"When they first asked me, I said, 'There's probably 30 guys around who can do it better than I can,' " said Hutchinson modestly. "That's probably still true. But a lot of people on the boat are helping me. Things are evolving for us. Our learning curve is vertical, which is good. We've got plenty of room to improve over the next four months."
Hutchinson and Larson, who was 1997 U.S. yachtsman of the year, are perennial J-24 and J-22 champions, more used to facing each other in their own little boats with the tiller in hand than in towering yachts in the world's top regatta with someone else driving. Both are learning on the job. Larson didn't get the call to join Abracadabra until September after on-and-off negotiations with Dennis Conner's Stars & Stripes fell through.
"I sent them an e-mail in September and got a response right back," said Larson. "A week and a half later I was getting plane tickets." He arrived with his wife, Victoria, on Sept. 30 and went sailing for the first time on the newer of two Abracadabras when it was finally ready for sea Oct. 3, just 15 days before the regatta began.
He had never sailed with Kolius before, but was acquainted with at least three shipmates, Greg Gendell, Per Andersson and Jonathan Swain, all fellow Annapolitans.
"I had two weeks to figure out the America's Cup," said Larson, who was surprised by the amount of paperwork and politics that go into a campaign as competitors battle with organizers and rivals over the way racing will run.
When not in meetings, he's working to forge a working relationship with Kolius that banks on trust and mutual respect, not something you create overnight.
"We've been three weeks together," he said last week during the first round of challenger trials. "I'm getting a sense of what he wants to know and what he wants to hear. I was glad to get a few races under our belt. In the heat of battle, things get tense, particularly on the starting line. We've come a long way."
Abracadabra won four of 10 outings in the first round to wind up eighth in the standings, while Hutchinson and the AmericaOne crew are tied for second in the 11-boat challenger field at 8-2. Abracadabra faces an uphill battle. The Hawaiian team had strong financial support in the early going from Jim Andrews, the wealthy orthopedist who treats U.S. sports superstars for knee, shoulder and elbow troubles, and the medical organization with which he is affiliated, HealthSouth. But funds grew scarcer as the Cup neared and it wasn't until September, when Amway founder Rich DeVos came in with an infusion of cash, that Abracadabra got a second wind.
AmericaOne, by contrast, is one of the early favorites to survive four months of trials and make it to the Cup match in February against Team New Zealand, the defender.
But there's much work still to do, said Hutchinson, who had four months of training with Cayard before racing began. "When I started, I thought, 'Okay, I can wing it. I have enough experience with 40- and 50-foot boats.'
"But these boats are so dependent on me doing my job right. The mainsail is huge--probably 70 percent of the sail area going upwind--and the techniques of trimming are very subtle. I know what I need to do but it's not so easy to do it. You want to smoke the main when you turn downwind [let it out fast to flatten and depower the boat for the turn], but if I ease too fast, things break, and if I don't, Paul can't turn the boat. You have to find the middle ground.
"For sure I'm still developing," said Hutchinson, who grew up in Harwood, Md., and was an all-American sailor at Old Dominion University. "Everybody on the boat is very critical, which is good. It makes me better. It's all so new. There's a lot of trial by error."
"These boats are very difficult to steer," said his longtime small-boat rival Larson. "A one-knot change in wind pressure makes a huge difference in how you sail--optimum angles to the wind, trim of the sails, optimum speed. John basically has to keep his head in the boat, focusing on that all the time.
"I'm the head-out-of-the-boat person. My job is to paint a picture for him of how things are going: 'The other boat is on our hip, they're lifting in the puffs, maybe it's a net gain for them but we can't tack and cross.'
"It takes awhile to find out what he wants to hear and what he wants to not hear. I have to give him what he needs so he can drive fast and not worry about the information he's getting, which is why confidence is so important. You have to be able to trust that the other guy is doing his job."
For all the difficulties, these Chesapeake sailors are happy to be here. The America's Cup, said Larson, "is the last little thing I wanted to check off my list as a thing to be part of."
"There's no doubt," said Hutchinson, "that these five months are making me a better sailor and a better helmsman, which is the long-term goal. I want to be next in line for Cayard's job, and this is a way to learn--from the guy who's been there."