Columbus Cup puts a few new twists on old-style team sailboat racing event

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Imagine, if you will, a game between two teams of three in which the first member of either team to score by reaching a goal wins. The image is fairly easy to picture if the game is two-hand touch football or playground hoops.

Now take those six players and make them sailboats initiating play from a common starting line and maneuvering toward a common goal, with each boat's finishing position counting toward a team score.

The first image that comes to mind is confusion -- or maybe 10-year-olds turned loose in bumper cars or adults driving in a demolition derby.

But the game is team sailboat racing, an old competition format that is gaining widespread popularity and will be used with a few new twists in the Columbus Cup regatta to be sailed this week in Annapolis and Baltimore.

"This team racing thing has been around forever -- the British have been doing it, and it is fairly big in college sailing -- but it has never been done in big boats or for television or for spectators," Gary Jobson, yachting adviser for the Columbus Cup and ESPN sailing analyst, said last week.

"It is pretty exciting stuff because even though your team might have one boat in first place you can still lose, and that makes all the boats on the course factors in who wins."

The Columbus Cup will be a round-robin format opening in Annapolis on Tuesday and Wednesday and moving to Baltimore's Inner Harbor for semifinals and finals on Friday and -- Saturday.

Races will be sailed between two teams at a time, twice around short, windward-leeward courses and last about 30 minutes each. Scoring will be based on points equal to placing (1-2-3-4-5-6, total of 21), with scores of 10 or less guaranteeing a victory.

Chris Larson of North Sails in Annapolis and who will skipper one boat for Team Chesapeake said sailing tactics can be "very similar to basketball, where you would set a pick to let a teammate get past."

In sailing, of course, contact between boats is against the rules and picks will be set through positioning on the course.

In order to ensure optimum positioning, Larson said, the sailors will need to rethink their tactics.

"I guess the normal theory of sailboat racing is where you are trying to be the first around the weather mark," said Larson, a very successful racer in J-22s and J-24s. "In team racing it is a different mentality. What you are trying to do is pin out another boat so that one of your teammates can pass between you and the mark or get ahead of you. It is a different concept, really."

The ideal situation, said Navy sailing coach Brad Dellenbaugh, who also will skipper a Team Chesapeake boat, would be to get two of the three team boats around the mark 1-2, because even if the third boat finished sixth, the total score would be nine to the opponents' 12, and low score wins.

"It is the type of thing that is interesting because it is the only type of racing where it is advantageous to slow down," said Dellenbaugh. "You can't have one boat just go out on its own. If you do, then the other team will have three against two and they will attack them and move them back into fifth and sixth place."

The result would be a score of 12 (1-5-6) and a loss.

So in the prestart and probably through much of each race, there will be a flavor of the match-racing format the Columbus Cup used through its first five years in Baltimore -- and many of the out-of-town skippers in the regatta have been recruited from America's Cup campaigns where match racing is the only game played.

"The teams are quite interesting," said Jobson. "Team Chesapeake is probably the favorite on paper. You have Larson, who I think is excellent, Jim Brady [Olympic medalist and a

helmsman with Dennis Conner's Cup campaign], and Dellenbaugh, who is probably the authority on team racing in this country."

The PACT '95 team, represents another Cup defense syndicate and brings Ken Read, Kevin Mahaney and John Kostecki in as skippers, and each owns a houseful of sailing trophies.

Team Nippon, representing a Japanese challenge for the America's Cup, brings skippers Bill Campbell, three-time All-America at Navy and navigator on America3, Peter Evans, tactician on New Zealand's challenge for the last Cup, and John Cutler, an Olympic medalist in 1988 and tactician for Nippon's challenge in the last Cup trials.

The Santa Maria Cup Challenge Team, drawn from the top skippers in the women's match racing regatta held the past several springs at the Inner Harbor, brings in Dawn Riley, Paula Leewin and Hannah Swett.

Each skipper was permitted to bring a bowman along, but the balance of the five-man crew per boat will be drawn from a pool of Baltimore and Annapolis sailors.

The 31-foot Benteau sloops, which will be raced throughout this series, are the largest matched boats ever to be used in a team racing regatta, Jobson said, and each will fly spinnakers on the reaches.

"People haven't really done team racing in this style with spinnakers," said Dellenbaugh. "There are some areas that do team racing [in smaller boats] like Etchells and Solings on Long Island Sound. But that is not as aggressive as this might be with some of the world's top sailors."

To keep the action moving, the Columbus Cup also will be the first regatta to have on-the-water referees calling the fouls, as a .. field judge or head linesman might on a football field.

"The problem with [traditional] refereeing is that the competitors start protesting each other over every little thing with the attitude that when in doubt, protest," said Jobson. "We are going to be the first regatta ever to use pro-active referees so that, you and I, racing together, we can't say anything.

"But if one of our referees sees an incident he can hoist the flag. . . . Then the player can then do his penalty turn and sail on."

Offensive and defensive tactics during the races, Jobson said, might be defined in two approaches.

"Team racing has nothing to do with who is winning the race," Jobson said. "It is how you are positioned relative to your competition, and there are two basic game plans I think [people] will understand. You either go man-to-man, where everybody kind of pairs up, like in basketball, or you do kind of a loose zone -- you go left, you go right, I will take the middle of the course."

The tricky part for the skippers and crews will be deciding which will be more effective.

"Let's say one team has a really good skipper or there is one boat that is faster than the rest," Jobson said. "You might put two boats on it at the start and get it out of the race early. At the same time, you hope to spring your other boat, letting it sail on its own, knowing that it has a good chance to beat the other two.

"It is a real team sport. Everyone on the team scores and you live or die together."

COLUMBUS CUP

What: Columbus Cup sailing regatta, a round-robin, team-racing event among four teams of three boats each.

Where: Annapolis Harbor on Tuesday and Wednesday; Baltimore's Inner Harbor on Friday and Saturday.

When: Racing begins at noon on Tuesday and at 11 a.m. on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.

Viewing: Annapolis races may be seen from the Naval Academy sea wall; Baltimore races may be seen from Fort McHenry.

The skippers

Nippon (Red) -- Bill Campbell, John Cutler, Peter Evans.

PACT '95 (White) -- John Kostecki, Kevin Mahaney, Ken Read.

Team Chesapeake (Blue) -- Jim Brady, Brad Dellenbaugh, Chris Larson.

Santa Maria Challenge (Green) -- Dawn Riley, Hannah Swett, Paula Leewin.

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