A 38-boat fleet rode a roller coaster of swells through the first race of the 2002 Etchells North American Championship Wednesday, led by Dennis Conner in defence of the title he won last year.
The unsummerlike scene also featured a lingering coastal fog that formed a daunting backdrop around the 1.75-nautical mile windward-leeward course set in the San Pedro Channel between Santa Catalina Island and the mainland.
Conner, with Peter Burton and Al Pleskus as crew, sailed from third place to first on the last leg of the nine-mile race to edge long time Etchells rival Jud Smith. and the Mark Thornburrow/Tim Parsons entry from Hong King after a two-hour battle.
The latter led at every mark before their disappointing defeat.
"They went to the wrong [side of the leeward] gate,"
Conner said. "The[south] gate was farther upwind. As soon as we went around we were ahead of them. We went around and tacked and they were inside of us."
From Parsons' view, "It was a great race until the last mark,"
he said. "There was a 20-degree shift just as we got to the gate. The wind shifted left and it was too late for us to do anything about it. If the wind had shifted a hundred yards earlier we would have gone to the other [side]."
That's where Smith and Conner went, in that order. Then a gear problem cost Smith the lead. "Whoever went around there should theoretically win the race,"
Smith said, and he might have if the gear that holds his mast forward downwind hadn't become entangled in the starboard jib sheet.
"So when we tacked we couldn't trim our jib in,"
Smith said. "Dennis got through us and that was it. That's the way it goes."
The wind was about 14 knots southwest at starting time, when there was one general recall, but after the first two legs the breeze started to fade to about 8 knots at the end. That left the sea condition out of proportion to the wind strength as the short, steep chop undulated through the crests and troughs of the 10-foot swells.
The swells, unusual even for the unprotected ocean course which the race committee selected Wednesday, were the product of Hurricane Hernan churning some 900 miles south off Cabo San Lucas and were expected to continue through the week. Competition continues until Saturday with two races daily.
"It wasn't that windy, but the swells were huge. On starboard tack, at the bottom of the swell you're in a light spot and at the top you're in a puff."
Parsons said, "We're visitors, so we can't tell the difference. It was a little bit like home, the conditions we see in Hong Kong."
Smith is confident he'll have a good week. "We feel like we have a boat speed edge, upwind and downwind, so we'll see what we can do with it."
The leaders (after 1 of 7 races):
1. Dennis Conner, San Diego,
2. Jud Smith, Marblehead, Mass.
3. Thornburrow/Parsons, Hong Kong,
4. Erik Bentzen, Seattle,
5. Dirk Kneulman, Burlington, Ontario.