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Weekend's Other Big Race

Sports: Long Beach's Congressional Cup sailing event is a quiet alternative to grand prix.

April 14, 2002|CARA MIA DiMASSA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It had turned into a beautiful day. The sun was up, seagulls were swooping overhead, and out on the water off Long Beach, 10 matching boats unfurled red, white and blue sails.

Onshore, a cell phone rang.

"I'm at the Long Beach Grand Prix," the man who answered it told his wife, drawing loud guffaws from the few dozen people sitting on bleachers at the edge of Long Beach's Belmont Pier.

The three-day auto grand prix may be the big crowd-drawer in Long Beach this weekend. But for the spectators who skipped work to take in five days of sailboat racing, the Long Beach Yacht Club's Congressional Cup was the only race in town.

In its 38th year, the Congressional Cup race has become a fixture on the international racing circuit. More than 325 volunteers, mostly members of the Long Beach Yacht Club, organize the annual regatta, which pits 10 six-man crews against one another in a series of match races.

This year's race has the added bonus of being a practice ground for the America's Cup race, sailing's premier matchup.

But whereas the Cup boats are high-tech marvels that can cost millions of dollars, the identical 37-foot Catalina boats in which each Congressional Cup team competes represent a return to the basics of sailing, said Mike Van Dyke, the club's principal race officer. "The America's Cup has become technology-driven," he said. "But in this race, the boats are identical, so it comes down to knowledge, experience and skill."

In match racing, teams compete head-to-head, and a "flight"--a series of five matchups, each starting a few minutes apart from one another--can last less than an hour. Once on the course, each boat must round the track twice, racing around two triangular orange buoys placed about half a mile apart and aligned with the wind's direction.

As long as competitors stay within the diamond-shaped boundaries of the course and round the appropriate markers along the way, the first boat across the finish is the winner. But how they do so is a decision made by a tactician on each boat. In sailing, the shortest distance between two points is not necessarily a straight line.

"It's like playing a chess match," said competitor Mike Pentecost of Long Beach.

Pentecost's teammates, a combination of Danish and American talent, sailed together for the first time only last Monday. Their skipper, 30-year-old Jes Gram-Hansen, is ranked No. 3 in the world in match racing. But unlike most of his competitors, Gram-Hansen is without a deep-pocketed sponsor. Gram-Hansen said he uses the prize money to pay the rent back home in Aahus, Denmark.

Crewman Kevin McCarthy, also of Long Beach, said the team came together quickly on the first day of practice under Gram-Hansen's leadership.

"We are all very interactive," McCarthy said. One guy "works the pit" (the area from which the boat is steered) while another "trims the main and drives the boat upwind."

As two boats rounded the orange buoy floating in the water at the north end of the course, they raised the smaller white sails that powered the boats into the wind. One more lap to go.

By the time the weekend is over, each Congressional Cup team will have competed in 16 flights. The top four teams after regular competition battled it out Saturday afternoon for the chance to win $25,000 in prize money and points toward the international Swedish Match Tour title. Luc Pillot, skipper of the French team "Le Defi," won the race's booby prize, a copy of Arthur Knapp's classic book, "Racing Your Boat Right," on Friday after finishing last with four wins and 12 losses.

Fans lined up along the pier used binoculars and camera lenses to zoom in on the action. They were quiet, mostly, concentrating on following the complex choreography as boats vied for position. On the water, more spectators camped out atop leisure boats.

As the 37-foot boats tilted and swung, passing within feet of each other on their way to the finish line, Jerry Bermingham, a sales representative from the Long Beach area, took in a breath of salty ocean air. He had spent most of his week sitting on the bleachers at the end of the pier. "I'd rather do this than work any day," he said. "I've loved this game forever; it's so spectacular to watch."

Then he whispered conspiratorially. "Just don't tell my boss I'm sitting out here."

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