Issue: From the Chesapeake Bay Magazine Archives
Destination: Baltimore & Annapolis, MD

Volvo Ocean Race sailing  

When the Volvo Ocean race comes to Baltimore
and Annapolis this month, we boaters and other 
ordinary mortals can get in on the fun. Here's your 
guide to the hot tickets. [April 2006]

By Wendy Mitman Clarke
Photographs by John Bildahl

Sometime later this month—no one knows exactly when—a bunch of tired, smelly offshore sailors are going to arrive on the Chesapeake Bay. They'll be in dire need of good food, strong drink, great parties and a group hug from Baltimore and Annapolis—and they'll be getting all of that. And you, as Bay boaters, can do the same if you care to participate in what is arguably the biggest international yacht-racing hoedown in the United States this year, when the Volvo Ocean Race comes to town.

Every four years since 1973–74 the crewed round-the-world ocean race that's now called the Volvo Ocean Race  or VOR (originally the Whitbread, for the English brewing company that was its first sponsor) challenges dozens of sailors to hang it out on the hairy edge for 32,700 nautical miles or so toward a hoped-for finish—and even better, win. In that first year, competitors raced in a variety of custom and production boats only slightly modified for racing. This year, they're on a handful of high-tech, high-strung 70-foot speed demons (VO70s) with canting keels that can go upward of 30 knots—when they're not suffering dismastings, failing keel rams or other catastrophic things that happen at the bleeding edge of monohull ocean racing.

This year's race began last November in Vigo, Spain, and took racers through the Atlantic and Southern oceans en route to stops in Cape Town; Melbourne, Australia; Wellington, New Zealand; and Rio de Janeiro. On February 19 the boats left Brazil and headed for Baltimore, a 5,000-mile leg that would take them through the vagaries of the Intertropical Convergence Zone (better known as the Doldrums), the mysteries of the Bermuda Triangle and finally, as the race's website put it, the "minefield" of the Chesapeake Bay.

Sometime around April 18 they should be finishing just north of the Bay Bridge for a stop in Baltimore, a round-the-buoys race off the mouth of the Chester River, and then a brief visit to Annapolis. Then, on May 7, the boats will gather just south of the Bay Bridge to start a short leg to New York City. Then it's across the big pond to England (Portsmouth), the Netherlands (Rotterdam) and finally the big finish in Gothenburg, Sweden. It is, in short, a Very Big Deal in international yacht racing.

Baltimore and Annapolis were chosen as stopover ports for the first time in the 1997–98 race. With hometown favorite Chessie Racing inspiring the organizers, volunteers and sailing enthusiasts in the sail-crazy cities, the stopover was deemed one of the best ever. Since then, it's only gotten better.

This year's stopover will feature top local and national entertainers (including singer John Legend, hot off his three Grammy awards in February), what is arguably the biggest rum-and-beer sailors' kegger in the country, and young sailors with big dreams racing their Optis and one-design dinghies in the shadows of the VO70s. Here's our guide to help you Bay boaters out there find the hot tickets while the race is in town.

This is always a little tricky. For one thing, you never know when it will happen, exactly, and there's every chance it will be in the middle of the night. But if you keep an eye on the Volvo website (, click on "results and data" and then "position maps") you can get an accurate picture of where they are and how fast they're going, as well as an estimated finish time. (It can't hurt, either, to see to it that you get a phone call from your buddies down in Hampton, Va. or Solomons Island when they see them go by.) If the planets are in alignment, you have a fast boat and can play hooky, you can cruise out and watch them. It'll take your breath away, especially when you realize how far they have come and how hard they've sailed to be here. (It probably goes without saying, but we'll say it anyway: keep your distance. The rule is no closer than 200 feet.) In the past the finish line has been in front of Fort McHenry in Baltimore, but this year the line will be just north of the Bay Bridge near Baltimore Light—unless wind conditions are favorable for a finish in the harbor, says Lee Tawney, secretary of Ocean Race Chesapeake. (If you're boatless, a good bet is to take your beach chair and binoculars to Sandy Point State Park, if the finish is happening during park hours.)

For the first time, you'll have a chance to see the boats and crews actually compete in an in-port race this year. "You either want to watch the start or the day race just to see how these boats sail," says ESPN commentator and Bay sailor Gary Jobson. "They're quite the challenge." That race is on Saturday, April 29, starting at 1 p.m. on a course around buoys west of the mouth of the Chester River. Race officials won't set the course until that day, basing it on wind direction, but it will be a windward-leeward course with two- to three-mile legs, Tawney says. Again, the rule is to stay at least 200 feet from the boats. This race is for real marbles—points that accrue for each team. So it will be an excellent chance to see the teams and boats sailing like they mean it.

Baltimore's dance card for the VOR is jam-packed, all revolving around the Baltimore Waterfront Festival that will take place from April 27—the day the boats are scheduled to arrive in the Inner Harbor at their temporary docks in front of the Maryland Science Center—through May 3. People will have access to tour the docks and see the boats up close (visit the Ocean Race Chesapeake website to find out when, since at the time of this writing the plans weren't firm. It may also be possible to see the boats at Port Covington Marina where boats needing any repairs will be hauled out).

Throughout the festival there will be concerts, regattas and galas, but the hottest ticket is probably going to be the award ceremony and concert at the Hippodrome Theater on April 30 featuring the aforementioned John Legend. As of mid-February, 1,500 of the 2,300 tickets had already been sold at $100 each, Tawney says.

Earlier that day, at the World Trade Center at 2 p.m., Gary Jobson will moderate a free, public forum with the race crews and local interscholastic and college sailors. It's one of several events during the stopover geared to young sailors and high school and college sailing programs. "It's to give them a little inspiration," Jobson says. "And they also get some tips on technique."

According to Baltimore City dock-master Frances Knauff, the racing boats and several visiting ships will gobble up most of the public dockage in the Inner Harbor—especially on the finger piers and along the harbor's west wall. "We'll have no-docking signs posted where it's not available, or a boat or ship will be there," she says. Even dinghy space will be at a premium for those lucky enough to grab a spot in the Inner Harbor anchorage near the World Trade Center. Most marinas in Baltimore that regularly take transients said they had slips available as this issue went to press, but that's likely to change as the event draws near.

After the Parade of Sail from Baltimore on May 4 (remember the 200-foot stand-off), the VO70s will arrive in Annapolis and tie up at temporary piers off the City Dock. Throughout the winter a huge dredge barge could be seen working in the harbor—digging a narrow 18-foot channel for the Volvo boats, says harbormaster Ric Dahlgren (the 70-footers draw just under 15 feet—about a foot more than the harbor had to offer). That deepened channel will be denoted with state marker buoys. "We'll ask that when the Volvo boats are coming or going that people stay well clear of them, not only for security but because they're constrained by depth, and we don't want them to have to maneuver to miss anybody," Dahlgren says.

Most of Ego Alley will be closed off to boat traffic during the VOR's visit, which coincides with the May 4–7 Maryland Maritime Heritage Festival. There will be a viewing dock to see the boats while they're tied up in the harbor.

Of the many events during the Annapolis stopover, a few stand out. One is on Saturday May 6, when young sailors from several of the Volvo host countries will compete in the Ports Optimist Regatta. There will also be a high school regatta, the Gary Jobson Cup, that day.

The hottest ticket in Annapolis is the ponderously titled "Annapolis Salutes the 2006 Volvo Ocean Race," better known as the Eastport party. "It is the one to go to," Jobson says. "Everybody ends up there." Since the first stopover in 1998, Eastport Yacht Club and Severn Sailing Association have cleared their adjacent parking lots and invited 6,000 people to a gigantic regatta bash on the tip of the Eastport peninsula. "I don't think it would be wrong to say it's the largest sailors' party in the United States, if not the world," Tawney says. "It's nice and unpretentious and even the muckety-mucks end up going over there and having fun."

The first year it poured rain, "but all you could see was a sea of yellow slickers," says Clare Vanderbeek of EYC, the party's chairperson. "People had a fabulous time regardless," she says, andSailing World magazine dubbed it the best sailors' party in history. Since then it's only grown in reputation and organization. This year's event will feature seven musical acts—among them Dean Rosenthal, The Remnants and Them Eastport Oyster Boys. Phillips Seafood and Red, Hot & Blue will supply the food, and the all-important beer, wine and rum will come from Heineken, Amstel Light, Boordy Vineyards and, of course, Mount Gay. Tickets are $25, and party organizers suggest participants just plan on parking "somewhere in Eastport" and walking to the bash. There will be no public docking at EYC or SSA.

As for docking in Annapolis during the stopover, most local marinas that usually accept transients say they should have slips available, but again, we asked the question in late February. The sooner you call in reservations, the better. Dahlgren says about a third of the main mooring field in front of City Dock will not be available; that's where the VO70s will be. Boaters who usually dinghy into Ego Alley will have to find another place to land; Dahlgren says the best bets will be in Eastport or at Shipwright Street above the Spa Creek bridge. All of the mooring field above the bridge will be available.

The Restart

If you break out in hives maneuvering your boat around a lot of others, do yourself a favor and get a ride on someone else's fair yacht for the restart (or do something really different and watch it from the deck of the Liberty shipJohn W. Brown, which will embark from Baltimore on a special cruise for the race). The restart, at least the area outside of it, is just slightly controlled chaos—hundreds of boats jockeying for position outside a half-mile-wide exclusion zone that extends for five miles, from the Bay Bridge to Thomas Point. This year the restart will happen just south of the Bay Bridge (in the past it has been farther north), and then the boats will be sent northward briefly to round a mark so people participating in the Bay Bridge Walk will be able to see them before they head south down the Bay and on to New York City. Several dozen picket boats as well as the Coast Guard will be on hand to enforce the exclusion zone. It can get a little crazy out there, but the thrill of seeing these boats and racers off—nearing the end of their enormous adventure—is worth it.

Farr Yacht Design: The Next Generation 

Dozens of gleaming half-models decorate the reception area of Farr Yacht Design, Ltd., in Annapolis-- Illbruck, UBS Switzerland‚ New Zealand Endeavor, Steinlager, BMW Oracle Racing and more. It's a Wall of Fame of international sailboat racing. Farr designs all, the models represent decades of winners and contenders in the most demanding, high-stakes races on earth--the America's Cup, the Hobart-Sydney Race, and of course the Mount Everest of sailboat racing, the Volvo Ocean Race, formerly the Whitbread Round the World Race. These battles are fought by cutting-edge racing machines and their crews in all weather, through nearly all latitudes on the planet. And that drama, that grueling, heart-pounding, bronc-riding action is impossible to imagine in the quiet Eastport offices of Farr Yacht Design's all cool slate, gleaming surfaces and hushed, well modulated voices. 

"It has to be quiet so you can think," says Alon Finkelstein in the soft nasal twang of his South African homeland. Sandy-haired and compact, with a boyish and unassuming manner, 28-year-old Finkelstein is one of the next generation at Farr. Hired as a freelancer in 2000 to help research and design the 2003 America's Cup challenger, BMW Oracle Racing, he joined the firm in 2003 and he's one of several talented young marine engineers and naval architects who in recent years have swelled the ranks at Farr Yacht Design to 18. "We're a relatively large firm," says 27-year-old naval architect Luke Shingledecker, who joined in 2000. "And we have a relatively large degree of specialty." 

Specialties mean shared projects. So, unlike the early glory days of its founder, Bruce Farr, whose name is synonymous with grand prix sailing, this generation's fame goes to the firm, not the individual. But personal glory isn't the prod for these young sailor/designers who grew up on tales of Farr boats. Working here is better than winning the lottery. The lottery is only money. Farr Yacht Design is a way of life. "It's one of the premier, if not the premier yacht design firm in the world," agrees Shingledecker, who says he was very, very happy the day he was hired. 

"It was the place I wanted to be," says 25-year-old junior naval architect Bryan Baker. "I've had opportunities here I'd have had no place else. I've traveled. I was the eighteenth man on [BMW Oracle Racing] practice. I've sailed on Yellowjacket‚ and met [legendary] professional sailors." 

One measure of Farr Yacht Design's international standing is the Volvo Ocean Race itself. Four of the seven VO70s in the race--Movistar‚ Brasil 1‚ Ericsson Racing and Pirates of the Caribbean‚ (aka Black Pearl‚ Disney's entry, of course)--are Farr designs. Heady stuff, and half a world away--both literally and figuratively--from building single-handed dinghies in a cellar in New Zealand. Bruce Farr, a shy young Kiwi with a gift for math, a need for speed and an intense competitive drive, began designing and building his own racing dinghies at age 11 in 1960. By the time he was 15, he had paying customers--lured by his innovative designs. To that he added a sterling record on the racecourse, including, at 17, a sailing triple crown in 1966--the New Zealand national championship, the junior national championship and the designer's trophy. Farr's winning boat, his first Restricted Moth, a porcelain-thin open-ended wooden shell with a flagpole-high mast, was a quantum leap from the 10.5-foot Lightning-esque dinghy he had designed and built six years before. 

But while dinghies built Farr's national reputation, it was keel boats that launched him into international waters. In the early 1970s, working to the fledgling International Offshore Rule (IOR) for racing keel boats, Farr designs won the quarter-ton, half-ton, three-quarter-ton and one-ton world championships--wins that brought more design commissions. By then, he had a three-man shop. Then in 1979, Farr took on a full-fledged partner--friend and longtime competitor Russell Bowler. Bowler, an engineer and championship dinghy sailor and designer who had been winning races in his own sandwich-hulled boats, was fascinated with new materials. It was a good match. 

The only problem was, while New Zealand produces world-class sailors and yacht designers, it's at the end of the earth, an inconvenient trek for the high-powered skippers who wanted Farr designs. So in 1981, Farr and Bowler moved their shop to Annapolis. It was a leap of faith, but like a lot of their outside-the-box ideas, it worked. Commissions multiplied and with them, the need for more yacht designers. The biggest increase in numbers of both commissions and new hires has come over the past six years; since 2000, the firm has added seven designers. 

The increase has brought other changes. Russell Bowler is now president of the firm. Founder Bruce Farr, whose heart is more in design than administration, is now vice president and is back to hands-on with virtually every project that comes in the door. They've just launched a brokerage. 

Yet in some ways, Farr Yacht Design has returned to its roots. Like the firm's founder and early principals, this new generation of designers is comprised of highly competitive sailors, which gives them "street cred" with clients. It's also what set each of them on this career course in the first place. 

"I always knew I wanted to do something like this," says Shingledecker, captain of his college sailing team who graduated first in his class from Webb Institute. Finkelstein, a European Optimist champion with a love of math and science, was 16 when he set his sights on yacht design. But none of South Africa's colleges offered a degree in the subject. "So I did aeronautical engineering, which I thought would be pretty close," he says. 

It was close enough, coupled with a degree in marine engineering and naval architecture from the University of Michigan, to make him the "appendage guy" at Farr. Appendages include rudder, canards (long daggerboards) and the canting keel, whose bulb-ended length is shifted with hydraulic rams. Other designers specialize in deck layout, performance analysis, structural design, hydrostatics and hydrodynamics, sail plan and materials. "I do overall concept design and research," says Shingledecker. "I'm involved at the very beginning with the basics--hull shape, general look." 

This specialization could fracture focus, but these men know from their own racing experience that a boat is a total package, a three-dimensional puzzle comprised of intricate calculations that can all change with each tweak in design. As a result there is constant communication to keep everyone on the same page. There is also plenty of input from everyone involved. "I thought I'd be learning without talking," says Baker, "and [instead] I've been throwing my voice in. Everyone's ideas are welcome." Ideas are welcome because yacht design at the cutting edge is an evolving science. Computer modeling now speeds up hull design, a big change from last generation's hand calculations and physical-spine layout of the hull. Designers perpetually explore new materials. But tank-testing, which takes place at the Institute for Marine Dynamics in St. John's, Newfoundland, still requires a physical scale model--usually between 22 and 28 feet long. "The larger the model, the better the calculation," Shingledecker says. 

The number of models they tank-test for each project varies. For the new VO70s, they tank-tested about a dozen models using different appendages. For the America's Cup, the stratospheric budgets (to say nothing of the national self-esteem) involved increasing the tank-tests exponentially. "We [built and tank-tested] a few dozen models for the last America's Cup," Shingledecker says. 

To streamline this build-and-test phase, Bryan Baker wants to develop a Velocity Prediction Program (VPP) that will perfectly predict performance before any building begins. "I want to be able to look at boat A and boat B in concept and predict accurately which one will do better, how much better, and why," he explains. 

Yet despite all the calculations, tank-testing, prerace trials and shakedown sails, the real test is the race. The Volvo Ocean Race is extreme, screaming- into-Neptune's-maw sailing, and the boats are really pushing the envelope on design. Things go wrong. So far there have been a series of breakdowns and failures--deck delamination, hydraulic ram failures, cracked frames, a broken mast. 

"Every new class has teething problems," Finkelstein says. "Pirates launched very late and didn't have many miles on it to work out kinks, though Movistar had 20,000 miles under its keel and has had troubles too." Paul Cayard, skipper of Pirates‚ has characterized the fleet's problems as mere hiccups, noting that trying new things is how you go forward in the sport. And these VO70s, which look and sail like torpedoes with keels, have moved the sport fast-forward. The boats have set back-to-back 24-hour records for monohulls: speed, 22.75 knots; and distance, 546.14 nautical miles. 

Following the Volvo design rules, Farr designers produced a VO70 standard package that can be upgraded and modified for an individual racing team. Of the four Farr boats now racing in the VOR, three bought the standard package with a few modifications. The fourth customized--creating an additional consideration. The more customization on any design, the greater the need for secrecy. "The Open 60s, which are sailed around the world single-handed, are highly customized," says Finkelstein. "Each sailor wants specific things [that he doesn't want any competitor to know about]." 

The Volvo syndicates are equally secretive. Leakage is not an option. But maintaining secrecy can be tricky when providing design specifications for dozens of people including boatbuilders, fabricators, sailmakers and parts makers. "Nothing ever goes out of here without our having in hand a signed confidentiality agreement from everyone involved," says Jennifer Emmet, Russell Bowler's executive assistant. 

But since the firm often works simultaneously on several designs that will all eventually go head to head on the water, in-house secrecy is routine too. Designers must keep track of what is specific to each project and not share it with another. "We each work in our own department, and work collaboratively as well, but we try to separate out the unique ideas that each client brought to the table that can't be shared," says Finkelstein, acknowledging that it's a delicate balancing act. "It's a relationship between you and the client and it comes down to trust." 

They currently have about a half-dozen potentially competing projects going, evidence of the confidence the sailing community has in their integrity. "We have a good track record for keeping secrets," says Finkelstein. 

Though Farr teams also design performance boats and cruisers for such glitterati brand names as Beneteau, Concordia, Mumm and Baltic Yachts, about 60 percent of their business is offshore racing--high-stakes, megabucks stuff. Prestige, careers and lives ride on the decisions made all along the line. "You have to be on your game every single day," says Finkelstein. 

It's the Olympics of yacht design and demands commitment, discipline, sacrifice and heart. "The people here have huge knowledge and experience," says Baker. "I have so much to learn but everyone is very helpful. When you have a question they put their stuff down and help." The teamwork keeps everyone's game up. "My favorite thing about working here is the people," says Finkelstein. "They are extremely smart, extremely dedicated and passionate about what they do." 

This next generation at Farr Yacht Designs knows its work is tested at every race--no resting on laurels. Performance is the name of the game. Don't let the carpeted hush of these Eastport offices fool you. Yes it's quiet--but it's the kind of quiet that the whole world will hear sooner or later.