Clear skies and a light shifting breeze greeted the best female sailors in the world as they sliced through Annapolis waters yesterday.
In town to compete in the Santa Maria Cup, the women got in a practice before the four-day regatta begins today.
The Santa Maria Cup is one of the most highly regarded women's match racing events in the world, with only the Olympics and World Championships outranking it. This year, it has attracted the top two female sailors in the world, and teams from France, Sweden, Bermuda and the United States. Of the 10 skippers invited to compete in this year's race, eight are ranked in the top 15 in the world.
"We have so many international teams clamoring to come to this event," said Jeff Boreland, the chairman of the race. "The international teams believe this is the event to come to."
The Santa Maria Cup is a match racing regatta, which means in each race only two boats sail against each another. The races are short and fast -- each lasting about 30 minutes (depending on the wind).
Because so many top racers are here, the race "could decide the top woman match racer, which makes it really exciting," said Margaret Podlich, an official with the BoatU.S. Foundation, a race sponsor. "It is really nice to have so many of the top players."
One of the top racers who will compete is Nancy Haberland, a former Olympic sailor who hails from Annapolis.
Eastport Yacht Club hosts the race each year. The regular regatta goes through Friday, and the top four teams will compete Saturday.
Despite the high-stakes race, the sailors who hung out at Eastport Yacht Club yesterday were relaxed, hugging old rivals and friends and sharing sun block. Each boat carries a skipper and a crew of three.
Some of the teams wore matching outfits. Everyone wore sunglasses and had bulky digital watches strapped to their wrists.
The Santa Maria Cup is raced in small keelboats called J-22s. The boats are chartered from private owners in Annapolis. Race staffers strip all of the original equipment -- the lines, the cleats, the sails -- and replace it with standard rigging. The idea is that each team will have nearly identical boats to race.
Although great pains were made to ensure all the boats were similar, the competitors were eager to see the equipment. During the regatta, the teams will switch boats after every race, so if there is a slow boat, each team will be equally handicapped by it.
"Today is a fine-tuning day," said Podlich, who has competed in the Santa Maria Cup. "A day to get to know the local conditions, to practice the turns and the spinnakers. It is a little early in most people's seasons -- they need to get the rusty spots cleaned up."
On the water, Charlie Arms' team from San Diego, Calif., wasted no time practicing maneuvers and getting to know their boat. Arms, who is ranked 35th in the world, has several years of experience sailing the J-22.
And she has some experience sailing the waters around Annapolis.
"The wind is light and shifty, and there is a current," said Arms, whose team has raced together before. "You have to be really awake. It'll be light and then a puff will come."
Yesterday, Arms first sailed upwind -- looking for another boat to "play with."
"We're trying to get a sense of our speed, how we compare to other boats," she said. "Can we point as high as them? Go as fast downwind?"
The other boats were already matched up, so she did boat-handling drills with her crew. They tacked repeatedly -- each time turning the boat efficiently so the sails hardly luffed -- or flapped -- as the bow briefly pointed into the wind before changing directions.
She pretended channel markers and speed buoys were race marks and rounded them tightly as if she were competing.
All went smoothly until the team attempted to raise and lower the brilliant blue spinnaker -- or "kite" as Arms called it.
The billowing sail briefly hit the water on the first attempt to take it down -- not a major problem for the casual sailor but possibly disastrous in a world-class regatta where every maneuver could win or lose the race.
The team adjusted and tried again. This time, the light-weight spinnaker wrapped around crewmember Karen Loutzenheiser like a shroud.
"I need to work on that. I'm on the wrong side," she called out.
By the third time, the team executed it perfectly.
Other teams also raised and lowered their spinnakers with varying degrees of smoothness.
The practice time was critical because many of the sailors almost never sail in the J-22. "If you want to practice [on one] you need to go to Denmark," said Swedish sailor Linda Harsjo. However, Arms and others agreed that the top sailors are not handicapped by the type of boat they sail in a particular regatta.
"The best sailors," Arms said, "can step into any boat and do well."