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Original Issue

Down to the sea in blips


Everybody remembers that Annapolis is down here, tucked back inside Chesapeake Bay, and Newport is up there, 473 nautical miles away on the stony shores of Rhode Island. The geography is easy. But anybody mad enough to race between the two points—over trackless water and under sail—would do well to sign Ed Cotter to navigate. Ed Cotter knows the quickest way.

Outwardly, Cotter is a retired Coast Guard captain, a man of close-cut, steely hair and suitably weather-beaten face. But on the inside he is fully computerized, mentally ticking off his own version of ocean-racing penalties: when the fore-deck crew goofs a sail change, he charges them the minutes it takes to set things right. If the helmsman bobbles, Cotter adds a few more. On the other hand, if a buoy does not loom up out of the ocean fog exactly where Cotter says it will, he penalizes himself in his running figures. The total often adds up to victory. Mister Computer navigated Carina to a win in the 1970 Bermuda race, he has successfully navigated those racing celebrities Sorcery and Salty Goose, and while he is quick to point out that "the first prerequisite of a good navigator is to sail on a fast boat," it seemed particularly fitting last week when Cotter was on a winner again.

A fleet of 81 sleek boats sailed out of Annapolis on a Saturday, and 57 hours, 19 minutes later, the 68-foot ketch Equation crossed the Newport finish line. It was more than a case of just beating the field; she was first to finish, first in class, she swept the fleet on handicap and she broke the 1965 record set by Escapade by a snappy four hours, 18 minutes.

Equation is a sharp-nosed, slender, fierce-looking creature owned by John Potter, a Long Island millionaire who races because he insists on racing—despite the fact that it makes him fearfully seasick. "I'm too old to know better," he explains. But in return for his time spent at the rail, Potter wants to win, and when he commissioned the boat—a two-master in this day of single-stickers—he spared no expense.

So Equation's equation was loaded with dollar signs. For one thing, she comes with a space-age ventral fin of a centerboard that hauls up and down like a drop keel—the 10,000-pound device rises and falls hydraulically with a few hearty turns of a handle. Very hearty turns. "When it comes time to pull it up," says crewman Bob Morton, "everybody runs the other way."

For another thing, while many owners lavish money on sails and skimp elsewhere, Potter outfitted Equation below-decks like a mini-version of NASA's Mission Control. Cotter was surrounded by practically every navigational device known to modern seagoing, operating in a wonderland of knobs and control panels that include Omega, Loran and depth-sounding gear. The boat looked as if it could make it to the moon.

But spaceships have it easy; the real trick for Equation lay in making the fastest run to Newport through uncaring seas. Before the race weathermen promised warm, moist days fed by a southerly breeze. "Not a thing they said came true," grumped F. X. McGeady of Chance, an also-ran that did not finish until Wednesday (though she still beat several boats in). "It was cold. It was wet. It was rough. We saw the sun twice."

But in sun or squall, the special agony of this race lies in getting out of Chesapeake Bay. It is big, muddy, vicious and beshoaled, a sailing maze. Once out of the bay the Atlantic often serves up violent seas and an age-old problem: does one follow the rhumb line (the shortest possible course) to Block Island south of Newport, or does one play the beach as far up the coast as possible? Answer: one makes it up as one goes along.

As the scratch boat Equation beat across the start line off Annapolis with Class I, 13 of them were rail down and footing fast in 18-knot headwinds. Ahead lay Cape Charles, 130 miles south, and the smaller boats that had started earlier. Already a dot on the gray horizon ahead was Lightnin', a 38-foot sloop whose skipper, world champion Ted Turner, was intent on pulling off another coup, as he had with American Eagle in 1969. (Performing well, Turner easily took Class V in 56 hours, five minutes, corrected time, defeating most of the boats in the bigger classes and finishing a creditable 15th overall.)

Beating with the wind dead ahead is not exactly Equation's favorite posture—nor, with her deep centerboard, is it going close inshore. But still, less than eight hours after the start, Equation had left 1971 winner Sorcery behind and begun to chew purposefully through the small fry. At 3:50 a.m. Sunday she was passing the Chesapeake Bay bridge-tunnel. The wind swung southwest, the crew hung out a spinnaker and, as if turned loose, the big beauty bolted away. "We all breathed a sigh of relief," Cotter said later. "We could see nobody astern."

But where was the promised southerly? Not out in the ocean. As the morning wore on, instead of pushing them along the rhumb line, the wind backed north, and before long, down came the spinnaker and out came the jibs; she was gradually heading toward the beach. Other sail changes came quickly and for the thousandth time Potter wondered what made him go to sea for fun. Equation shot through the short, pitched seas in a smother of foam, bumping, lurching and writhing—decidedly sickening.

By Cape Henlopen, Equation was drawing farther away from the rhumb line and closer and closer to shore. But a tack offshore would take her farther from Newport. It was, says Cotter, "a classic dilemma in sailing; we were wondering what the hell to do." Rough sea and all, an executive meeting was called. The ruling was, "Head in 'til we hit sand." And everybody hunkered down and hoped for a lift—a shift in wind direction that would swing the big boat back.

It came magically out of the dark Sunday night at 9:30 p.m. The wind switched to the east and rather than being jammed inshore, Equation could turn and head for home. A few minutes later two crewmen tentatively and innocently allowed that a record run was shaping up. The others turned on them. "Don't even talk record or you'll jinx it," they yelled.

The good breeze, and silence, carried Equation in. It was 11:18 Monday night when she crossed the line under a flare. And then came the jinx: no sooner had Equation doused her sails than the wind died, leaving Sorcery and the 60-foot Running Tide to wallow across two and four hours later, with all the smaller boats strung out far behind.

Ashore, there were trophies all around, four for Equation plus a promised silver tray for the navigator. Cotter took it in stride. He calmly finished his luncheon Bloody Mary, leaned back and added things up. By his personal inner computer, the time had come out perfectly, as he knew it would.


THE BOAT WITH THE CRAZY KEEL hauls for Newport while its navigator, Ed Cotter, is surrounded by the latest electronic gear as he charts Equation's victory.