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Sailing well in varying conditions, starting conservatively and keeping a close eye on the competition put Annapolis sailor Chris Larson at the top of the heap by 4 1/2 points in the J/22 Midwinter Championship Regatta, conducted by the St. Petersburg Yacht Club on Florida'sGulf Coast last Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

The 48-boat fleet,including top one-design sailors from across the nation, sailed a six-race, one-throwout series in wind conditions ranging from moderately heavy to light.

Larson, who moved to Annapolis from his native Florida late last year and is associated with North Sails, was College Sailor of the Year in 1988 and a gold medalist at the 1987 Pan-Am Games.

He is well-known in national and international sailing circles for strong performances in big-boat, one-designs classes such as Ultimate 30s, and particularly in J/24s and J/22s. Last year, he won the Nations Cup Match Racing World Championship.

Larson's crew for the J/22 Midwinters was made up of noted New England J/24 and J/22 sailors Hale Walcoff, John Alofsin and Nelly Rostrand.

"It was really tough, probably the toughest J/22 regatta I've ever been to," Larson said, noting that there were many national and international champions in the fleet.

"The entire thing came down to the last two races. We thought there were going to be seven (races), but then there was no wind the lastday.

"In the sixth race, especially, we had to watch the guys that could have beaten us in the regatta and we stayed ahead of the people we needed to be ahead of to win."

Three races were completed onThursday, and a second group of three went off on Friday, but a scheduled seventh race on Saturday was canceled when the wind never materialized.

"The first couple of races, it was blowing pretty hard, in the 15- to 18-(knot) range," Larson said. "Then, it died down for the third to about four to six.

"Friday's conditions were about thesame. It blew 15 or so for the first race, then gradually died down to five to eight by the end of the day."

Larson attributed part ofhis regatta-leading 13.5 points, based on scores of 4-2-1 on Thursday and 1-10-6 on Friday -- with the fifth-race 10th as his throwout --to being conservative, particularly when starting.

"There was a lot of current running back and forth through the starting area and a lot of people were over-anxious on the starts," Larson explained. "There were a lot of re-starts because of that, so they were using the black flag a lot."

The dreaded black flag, a code flag "Zulu" hoisted by the race committee after a general recall, means sudden death -- in this fleet of 48, a score of 49 points and a score sheet listingof DNS (Did Not Start) -- to anyone starting early on the restart.

The black flag was in use for the starts of at least four of the series' six races.

"We were watching a lot of guys starting down near the pin end, which was pretty well favored, going over early," Larson said. "The first day, especially, we were more conservative, starting about a third of the way down, to see what would happen and kind of letting the rest of them self-destruct down there."

In Thursday's second race, when the flag was first used, more than 20 percent ofthe fleet -- 11 teams -- was penalized, but the sailors seemed to learn a lesson from it.

Although the next day's second race saw eight teams flagged out, in the majority of black-flagged races, three orfewer teams were nailed with the penalty.

The black flag's toll clearly showed in the final outcome for several otherwise talented teams.

Among those suffering its effects most was Annapolitan CharlieOgletree, who finished 22nd after a premature start in the first race and black flags in the second and third, despite sailing Friday's three races to exceptional finishes of 7-1-1.

Another noted victim of the black flag was Flying Dutchman World Champion and U.S. SailingTeam member Paul Foerster, who finished 12th overall after black flags in the final two races of the series, one of which he had to keep along with respectable finishes of 3-3-9-4.

In addition to Larson and Ogletree, other members of the Annapolis J/22 fleet who took teams to St. Pete for the Midwinters included Andy Hughes, placing 15th; Drew Donald, 19th; and Greg Gendell, 26th.


1. Chris Larson, Annapolis, 13.5 (4-2-1-1-(10)-6); 2.Terry Flynn, Houston, Texas, 18 (2-5-6-2-3-(13)); 3. Steve Ulian, Marblehead, Maine, 21.5 (1-1-7-(PMS)-4-9); 4. Peter Merrifield, New Orleans, La., 34 (10-6-11-3-(13)-4); 5. Bill Draheim, Austin, Texas, 35 ((9)-8-8-5-6-8); 6. Farley Fontenot, Houston, 40 (6-(20)- 3-6-9-16); 7. Scott Elliott, Charlotte, N.C., 52 (14-4-5-(21)-15- 14); 8. Mike Dow, (address unavailable), 57 (15-9-16-(28)-2-15); 9. Terry Hutchinson, Traverse City, Miss., 57 ((DNF)-7-27-12-8-3); 10. John Hayes, Newport, R.I., 59 (11-(DNS)-12-15-19-2); 15. Andy Hughes, Annapolis, 77 ((22)-12-10-19-18-18); 19. Andrew Donald, Annapolis, 85 (12-(DNS)-23-23-7-20); 22. Charlie Ogletree, Annapolis, 106.5 ((PMS)-DNS-DNS-7-1-1); 26. Greg Gendell, Severna Park, 112 ((DNF)-19-20-26-25-22).

Nancy Noyes is a member of the Chesapeake Bay Yacht Racing Association and has been racing on the bay for about five years. Her Sailing columnappears every Wednesday and Sunday in the Anne Arundel County Sun.

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