Even the best-laid plans go awry. Bill Kardash worked out details to perfection when he shipped his 44-foot sloop, Aura, here in August, then organized his Annapolis-based crew to fly over and sail the week-long Swan World Championships out of the Aga Khan's ritzy Yacht Club Costa Smeralda.
Sounds like fun and so it seemed until the first turning mark of the first race Tuesday, when the 107-boat fleet swept around a forlorn Sardinian outcropping known to locals for its perils. A lighthouse marks the desolate Isola dei Monici (Island of the Monks), but makes no warning of the minefield of submerged rocks lurking alongside.
"My fault," said Kardash's tactician, Jahn Tehansky, who runs J-World's sailing instruction franchise in Annapolis. "I should never have left the cockpit. But a line got fouled on a winch when the spinnaker came down and I ran forward to free it.
"Bill said, 'Where do we go?' I said, 'Just follow somebody.' When I looked up, we were inside everybody and I went, 'Oh, ****!' "
Too late. Pounding along at seven knots, Aura's keel struck a staggering blow five feet down. The crew lost its footing and flew forward as the boat jerked to a halt. Aura lurched, slipped off, then struck again, this time landing on the rudder, a delicate, slender, elliptically shaped appendage made mostly of closed-cell foam.
The damage would have spelled disaster for lesser craft, but Swans are famously heavy-built. Kardash managed to wrench the 32-year-old Aura off the rocks and sent someone below to see if water was flooding the bilge. When it wasn't, he carried on, managing a remarkable fifth-place finish out of 43 boats in Class C/D despite the unscheduled grounding and uncertain damage.
Aura was not alone. The British boat Trumpeter of the Rock struck loud and hard at the same place, instantly earning the not-so-subtle sobriquet Trumpeter on the Rocks. Trumpeter also came off quickly and sailed on, and after finishing made a clever dash for the only shipyard in Porto Cervo, which was more bad luck for Kardash.
With Trumpeter hanging in the slings, there was no place to hoist Aura for overnight repairs. Kardash sent navigator Jared Leigh down with snorkel to assess damage; he came back waving an 18-inch shard of rudder, which he carried around the rest of the evening in his backpack for show-and-tell.
"I'd go down and look myself but I don't want to know," said Tehansky. "We're sailing tomorrow regardless and it's bad for morale."
Kardash invited me along for Day 2 and the wounded Aura held her own despite falling into a windless hole not far from the Isola dei Monici, where she was passed by about 50 bigger Swans. "It stinks being the little boat," grumped Tehansky, demonstrating how quickly perspective can change. Back home on the Chesapeake the blue 44-footer would be queen of most fleets; here in the land of the rich and famous it was dwarfed.
By the last leg of the 28-mile race Aura was dragging a sheaf of fiberglass from the rudder as another damaged chunk tore away. It waved behind the boat like a kelp frond, which is not fast. The extra drag slowed progress by half a knot but Kardash still managed a respectable 17th-place finish. Then the luck ran out.
Back at the yard, Aura was hauled and damage assessed. Bad news: She was out for two days. An angel from Olbia named Luciano appeared to make repairs and spent the long nights curing the fixes. "I'm from the Eastern Shore," grumbled mainsheet trimmer Rob Emmet. "We would have fixed that in no time back home -- just throw some filler in, wrap fiberglass tape around it and go racing. These people want to do it right!"
The unscheduled break gave the crew time to explore the arid, mountainous seasides of Sardinia, sample cafes and the seafood and putter around on motor scooters, which isn't all bad. It's a spectacular corner of the world just 150 miles from Rome, where the air is clean, the water clear and and the ambience is, well, let's just say the wives were not put off by the extra days off.
Meantime, racing carried on. At the grand prix end of the fleet, fashion magnate Leonardo Ferragamo and his brother Massimo squared off in identical new Swan 45s. Leonardo had Whitbread winner and U.S. Olympian Paul Cayard at his side whispering instructions, while Massimo had world match-racing champion Ed Baird from St. Petersburg, Fla., who enjoyed the chance to skip hurricane season back home.
The 107 Swans at this elegant regatta ranged in size from 40 feet to 80, with a 112-foot cruising model called Anemos grandly overseeing the action. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi dropped by to have lunch on Anemos and the Aga Khan himself, who founded the yachting center here in 1967, was sighted, as was his massive, jet-powered motor yacht, Shergar.
U.S. owners were scarce among the Euro-gentry, but I did run across one with intriguing credentials. Frank Savage was the lone African-American owner here, aboard his 56-footer, Lolita, which he named for his wife. At the owners' dinner, where the fare ranged from raw salmon to Belgian oysters and octopus, I asked where he was from.
"Born and raised in Washington, D.C.," said Savage, 66, proudly, "and I got all my education there." He graduated from Dunbar High, Howard University and D.C.-based Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He lives in Manhattan, where he worked in the financial trades, but maintains ties at Howard, where for years he was on the board of directors.
Lolita, he said, has been successful with an international crew, winning the U.S. National Swan Championships in 2001, taking second at Porto Cervo in 2002 and winning Antigua Race Week in 2003.
Why a Swan? "You want to feel loved," said Savage, nibbling an hors d'oeuvre at the yacht club owners' dinner, "and you should, for all the money these boats cost."