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Sailors in super-cats have tigers by the tail

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ABOARD CLUB MED -- At dawn today, veteran ocean racer Grant Dalton will sail this 110-foot maxi-catamaran out of New York, on course for the ultimate sailing challenge.

He may or may not set a speed record as he crosses the Atlantic in the world's fastest ocean racer. In any case, it would be just prelude.

The New Zealand skipper is gearing up for something more sensational: victory in what is called The Race.

The brevity of the title matches the simplicity of the challenge: to be the fastest sailor around the world, non-stop, in the boat of your choice.

There are no design restrictions or size limitations. It is a race so free of rules it makes the thoroughbreds of other classic sailing events -- such as the rugged Whitbread (now the Volvo) Round the World and the refined America's Cup round-the-buoys -- look like committee-designed boats.

"No limits," said Philippe Bourguignon, chairman and CEO of Club Med, the French resort company that owns Dalton's boat. "The idea is that the only limit is what technology allows at the time -- as long as it's safe.

The Race, which will start in Barcelona on New Year's Eve of the "real millennium," will pit some of the world's most daring sailors and most advanced yachts against the elements around South Africa's Cape of Good Hope, across the raging Southern Ocean, and past South America's Cape Horn.

The sheer openness of the competition has produced a new generation of wind-driven speed machines -- giant catamarans such as Dalton's Club Med and endurance sportsman Steve Fossett's 105-foot PlayStation.

The two boats were to race for the west-east transatlantic record starting today, but the weather refused to cooperate. Dalton decided to set out independently at dawn. Fossett will wait in New York for favorable weather to make his third attempt at the 10-year-old record.

"This will be our last transatlantic crossing this year, and we are committed to waiting for a proper weather pattern," said Fossett.

On his transatlantic way here, Dalton broke PlayStation's 24-hour sailing speed record by 45 miles, clocking up 625 miles at a staggering average speed of 26 mph. Fossett would like that record back.

Dalton also clipped 45 hours off Serge Madec's 12-year-old east-west transatlantic record, sailing from Cadiz, Spain, to San Salvador in 10 days, 14 hours, 54 minutes.

In The Race, the time to beat will be the 71 days, 14 hours, 22 minutes it took Olivier de Kerauson to complete his 1997 circumnavigation in a trimaran, although the courses are not identical and the record will not be directly in contest. Fosset believes he can finish the race in around 70 days; Dalton is looking at less than 65 days.

These new boats push the envelope of sailing so far they are running out of edge, as British ocean racer Pete Goss discovered.

No sooner was his super-cat launched than one of its pontoons snapped in moderate winds. Goss and his design team blame a construction error and are busy fixing the problem.

Fossett, balloonist as well as yachtsman, has also pressed the limit in PlayStation. On its first trans-Atlantic crossing in December, his boat became so over-powered that it threatened to pitch-pole in 62-knot winds. It took the crew a scary 10 minutes to regain control. Fossett has since set speed limits for certain wind conditions, and has had no further trouble.

Dalton, adopting a cautious approach from the outset, has avoided major mishap. He is currently working on an emergency braking system to keep his boat from running away. "It could be a race-winner if it keeps us intact," said Dalton. 'This race is not about being the fastest; it's about being the most reliable."

With these three super-cats preparing for the starting gun and at least another three boats expected to join the fleet, The Race will set the sailing pace for the new millenium.

"This is the start of a new adventure," said Dalton, whose previous experience as a blue-water racer has been on mono-hulls. "It's sort of moving on.

"We will be the proving ground of that adventure. The next time it will be a hell of a difficult race. But this one will have its moments, for sure."

On board Club Med, powering along at 28 knots in 18 knots of wind, you get an idea of what those moments will be like. The water literally hisses between the twin blue and white hulls. It runs up their sides to form a fan of fine spray that whips to the stern, soaking all in its way.

The straight destroyer bows cut easily through most of the gray Atlantic waves off New York's Ambrose Light. But occasionally, when the momentum of the boat and the motion of the water get out of sync, the cat rears up and slaps down with a thunderous clap, sending a cascade of water along the decks and exploding up through the trampoline netting between them.

It's a wild, wet ride as the leeward hull bites into the sea and its windward twin flies, showing its bright orange rudder, its prop shaft with the folded propeller, and its gray, retractable dagger board.

The young girl in a yellow bikini who decorates the hulls and sails as the symbol of the free spirit of Club Med's 120 international vacation villages, dives and frolics, mermaid-like, through the racing waters.

Dalton, veteran of five Whitbreads, four Sydney-Hobarts, and five Fastnets, wants to go still faster. He orders the genoa, a 2,798-square-foot sail, replaced by the 4,844-square-foot genaker.

"I'd like to try to fly with the genaker if you're happy with the rig," he shouts to the crew. Eyes glance up the 136-foot, rotating, carbon-wing mast. Dalton gets the thumbs up.

"Once we get round this marker, I'm going to pop it up a bit," he says, adding with a wicked grin: "Doing the wild thing."

You feel the hull press against the seat of your pants as you take a sea-borne elevator ride and Dalton shouts: "We're up."

Being perched so high is a reminder that catamarans can be prone to flip, and, unlike mono-hull yachts, they don't right themselves.

"We've thought about it," says Dalton. "Part of The Race is getting round in one piece. Part of the understanding is if you flip it, a) you might die; b) you won't win the race."

Just in case the worst happens, Club Med is equipped with four escape hatches to allow any crew members trapped inside the upturned hulls to swim to the surface.

One is at the aft navigation station, where New Zealand sail-maker Mike Quilter, navigator and weatherman, spends most of his time, trying to fathom out what Mother Nature has in store.

Like all the crew, he has been trained in underwater escape methods at the French Navy's submarine pens.

"Yes," says Quilter, a veteran of four Whitbreads and five America's Cups. "We're very conscious of flipping it upside down. In this boat, you tend to sail within its capabilities and back off.

The tennis-court-sized trampoline, which covers most of the boat's 6,222-square-foot surface, puts a lively spring in your step when moored. Now, at sea, it produces high jinks. The professional sailors bounce across it, like space-walkers, to tack, gybe and adjust sails as Dalton shouts commands into the wind whistling through the rigging.

With each change of course, everyone aboard must cross the webbing, a shifting, sheet-cob-webbed, obstacle course that could fit handily into a Marine Corps training program.

Four hours after hoisting the sails, we motor back to Manhattan's Chelsea Piers to moor astern of Fossett's PlayStation, and await the next move in a showdown that is to sailing what the O.K. Corral was to gun-slinging.

Closer to home: The deadline for entering the Governor's Race from Annapolis to St. Mary's College of Maryland on Aug. 4 is July 29. More than 100 boats have already paid the $75 registration fee for the overnight race on the Chesapeake Bay.

Latecomers can pay an extra $50 to join the fleet up until Aug. 1. For information, contact Mary Cowan at 301-862-0280, or e-mail her at: mecowan@osprey.smcm.edu.

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