George Szabo and crew Austin Sperry solved the weather riddles of Santa Monica Bay and made all the right moves to build an unbeatable lead in the first race of the Nautica 2002 Star Class World Championship Sunday, but their final opponent was time.
With light, shifty winds forcing the fleet of 105 boats to play beat the clock, the San Diego duo sailed across the finish line 3 minutes 21 seconds ahead of the 3 ½-hour deadline for the 10 ½- mile race, while a bunch of big names behind them prayed they wouldn't.
Szabo's finish made it an official race, leaving nine former world champions with finishes of 22nd or worst. Runners-up Mark Mansfield and crew Killean Collins of Ireland were 2 minutes 53 seconds behind, followed by 1990 winner Torben Grael of Brazil. San Francisco's Paul Cayard, the '88 champion, was delighted with seventh place.
"This is my 11th Worlds," Szabo said. "The first one I was in at Cannes we won a race but not since then. It's been a long time."
Szabo, 32, works for Mark Reynolds, a double Worlds and Olympic Star champion, at Quantum Sails in San Diego. He finished 77 places ahead of the boss.
"I didn't think he was going to make it," Reynolds said, "but it was kind of hard to hope that he wouldn't. Then the breeze came up."
Reynolds' 78th will probably be his one allowable discard of the six races scheduled through Friday. At least he hopes it will be.
Testimony to the inscrutable nature of the venue were the performances of some other former champions: Germany's Alexander Hagen, 23rd; Brazil's Alan Adler, 26th; Springfield, Illinois' Joe Londrigan, 31st; Australia's Colin Beashel, 41st; The Netherlands' defending champion Fredrik Loof, 47th; Canada's Ross Macdonald, 54th; Seattle's Bill Buchan, 60th, and San Diego's Eric Doyle, 64th.
Spain's Jose Maria Van Der Ploeg, the top-ranked Star sailor in the world, was 91st.
Their main problem was that they went left while Szabo went right. He said he started conservatively just to leeward of the middle committee boat because "I didn't have a real good feel for it."
But something told him to favor the right side of the course and, he said, "This is the first time the right paid. The left has been better [in tune-up events and practice races] the last few weeks."
Reynolds said, "We were ahead of him up the first beat, but then we went left and lost 50 boats."
Mansfield also avoided the left and led Szabo by a few boat lengths at the first weather mark two miles out to sea, but then he immediately jibed away to back where he'd come from as Szabo continued right and found a healthy lead when they converged at the leeward gate.
"We jibed because the breeze had been on that side," Mansfield said. "It was a gutsy move by him. He had a great race."
Sperry, 24, said, "We were a little worried about the time. That's cutting it a little too close for me. George did an excellent job playing the shifts up the beats."
Grael, on leave from Prada's America's Cup campaign, said, "It's not that there are so many big shifts but that the course is very long because there are so many boats, so even a 10-degree shift does a lot of damage."
Cayard found the day's forecast from the US Sailing Team amusing, especially the part that read: "A very patchy wind field is expected through the day with glassy holes interspersed with occasional stronger, streaky puffs. Late afternoon shows the best potential for more consistent flow, but this will be far from solid."
Cayard said, "That's the best definition of this place I've seen."
As it was, the race committee decided late Saturday night to move the starts from 1 to 2 p.m. because of a recent pattern of late-filling breeze.
Szabo is aware that the venue could turn around and bite him, too.
"Anything can happen," he said. "We still have a regatta on our hands."
Results, after one race:
1. George Szabo/Austin Sperry, USA, 1 pt
2. Mark Mansfield/Killean Collins, IRL, 2 pts
3. Torben Grael/Marcelo Ferreira, BRA, 3 pts
4. Paul-Ambroise Sevestre/Vincent Berenguier, FRA, 4 pts
5. Reinhard Schmidt/Jochen Wolfram, GER, 5 pts
6. Xavier Rohart/Yannick Adde, FRA, 6 pts
7. Paul Cayard/Hal Haenel, USA, 7 pts
8. Dave Watt/Alex Dunn, USA, 8 pts
9. Philippe Presti/Jean Philippe Saliou, FRA, 9 pts
10. Gonzalo Araujo/Marcos Iglesias, ESP, 10 pts