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Chessie, Zephyrus dismasted off N.C.; Key West leaders hit by severe storm south of Hatteras


The two boats leading the 1,000-mile Key West-to-Baltimore yacht race, Zephyrus and Chessie Racing, were both dismasted yesterday south of Cape Hatteras, apparently hit by the same violent squall.

Zephyrus, owned by California venture capitalist Bob McNeil, is co-skippered by professional Annapolis sailor and race consultant John Bertrand. Chessie is owned and skippered by Baltimore millionaire George Collins.

Navigator Larry Rosenthal relayed the news of Chessie's fate in a brief satellite phone call to Dick Neville, a member of the race-organizing Storm Trysail Yacht Club.

Rosenthal told Neville that all the crew were safe, and they planned to motor into Morehead City, N.C., about 60 miles away from the incident which occurred off Frying Pan Shoals.

Lori Rudiger, wife of Mark Rudiger, the navigator on Zephyrus, received an e-mail at her California home saying: "Bad news. Boat dismasted in 40 knots."

Earlier in the day, a 60-knot squall knocked down Saryah, the racing fleet's 130-foot "mother ship," causing severe sail damage, according to Neville. The vessel, used to relay daily position communications from the yachts to the race organizers, was continuing under motor.

"They have had some big storms through there for a while. There has been some severe weather for the last 12 hours," said Neville, whose membership in the Storm Trysail Yacht Club reflects his personal experience of heavy weather sailing: The club's members have to have sailed with just a trysail, the smallest sail for the worst conditions.

"At this time of year, you get fronts passing through, but some fronts are more violent than others. This one had a lot of squalls in it," said Neville.

The boats had not requested Coast Guard assistance, said Neville. The seven-boat racing fleet set sail from Key West in a near-dead calm on Easter Sunday, but the winds quickly piped up as they headed north along the Florida Keys to the Carolinas.

Even before the race started, the navigators were predicting a front off Cape Hatteras yesterday, as the boats passed through the area.

Both Zephyrus and Chessie carry satellite tracking systems which enable the race organizers to track its course. Before the dismasting, they appeared to be sailing at around 21 knots, in a south-westerly wind of about 25 knots. Afterward, their speed was nearer 5 knots.

Neville said he expected the crews of the stricken vessels to be clearing the debris from their 100 foot carbon-fiber masts and stainless steel rigging before heading toward the shore. Under the race rules, the boats had to carry enough fuel for 150 miles, and Chessie Racing filled her two tanks on Saturday night.

Neville said his conversation with Rosenthal was brief because the navigator wanted to save battery power in case of emergency need later. It was also garbled because the communications aerial is incorporated in the backstay, which helps hold the mast upright. It had apparently come down with the rest of the rigging.

"He was fine," said Neville. "He just wanted to make sure we knew they had a problem."

The masts came down about halfway into the race. Zephyrus, a 73-foot turbo-sled, was leading Chessie by three miles.

"The boats may have been close enough together to be able to get the full front of the same squall," said Lori Rudiger. "Forty knots is classified as a gale, which is not a big deal in terms of racing. Maybe it was a wind sheer or downblast. Maybe something like that happened."

Before the race, Collins, retired chief of Baltimore investment house T. Rowe Price, expressed concern about hitting a front off Cape Hatteras. His fear was that if it spawned a northeasterly wind this would pile the north-flowing Gulf Stream into steep waves, conditions that would test his boat, designed primarily for down-wind sailing.

But, according to Neville, a southwesterly was blowing and Zephyrus and Chessie were doing what both do best -- running before the wind -- when the masts came down.

"It's my understanding they were running hard when they lost the rig," said Neville.

With Zephyrus and Chessie out of the race, Blue Yankee, trailing by more than 30 miles when the squalls hit, is now expected to cross the Inner Harbor finishing line first overnight today or tomorrow. The rest of the fleet was sailing in this order last night: Javelin, Mensae, Volador and Ariel, a Swan 47 sailed by Jim Thompson from Oxford, Md., a new member of the Storm Trysail Yacht Club.

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