Sailing : At Newport R.I., It's the Trials and Errors

The series of management blunders that has marred the United States Olympic Sailing Trials at Newport, R.I., sank to a new low when the race jury had to throw out Sunday's Flying Dutchman and Tornado races.

A turning mark on the Alpha course for the men's and women's 470 races Sunday was placed so close to a mark on the adjacent Bravo course for Tornados and Dutchmen that few of the latter competitors could tell them apart, and some rounded the wrong one.

In a meeting late Sunday night, the jury decided to erase the Tornado and Dutchman races from the series scoring because the situation had been "visually confusing," according to an event spokesperson.

That decision in turn led to a wave of requests Monday for redress from sailors who finished well. There was no racing scheduled Monday. The final five races are scheduled today through Saturday.

Star and Soling trials are being run at San Diego, the Finns at Marblehead.

Newport has the other five classes, including sailboards on a third course.

The Alpha and Bravo courses have been set 3 or 4 miles to sea off the head of Newport Harbor. They are on opposite sides of the Brenton Reef Tower, a tall, steel structure similar to an oil-drilling platform. Until Sunday, the competitors at least could tell the courses apart.

"The Alpha course wound up very close to the Bravo course," said a member of the Newport Olympic Sailing Trials executive group who asked not to be identified. "We wanted to get the Alpha course away from the shore, so we moved east about a mile.

"The Bravo course knew Alpha was moving east but didn't realize it was moving that far . . . well beyond the Brenton tower. The Bravo weather mark ended up roughly just below an extension of the Alpha circle starting line, out about half a mile.

"The Tornados all sailed to the proper weather mark the first time around. Some of the Dutchmen had trouble on the west side of the course because what looked like the weather mark was in fact the Alpha circle reach mark, so they went around that. And the Tornados the second time around also had some difficulty deciding which mark to go around."

As a result, runaway Tornado leaders Pete Melvin and crew Pat Muglia of Long Beach picked the wrong mark and finished fifth. Rivals Gary Knapp and Chris Steinfeld picked the right mark and won.

The Dutchman fleet was even more mixed up.

The marks are bright red inflatable buoys 3 feet in diameter, visible for several hundred yards.

Also, at Newport, there are no stake boats--anchored sailboats, usually with large square shapes that are run halfway up the mast--to indicate the general locations of the marks from a greater distance.

Stake boats are usually present in major regattas. They are being used on the single courses at San Diego and Marblehead. At San Diego, they are "unofficial" boats and not using the shapes, per instructions from the Olympic Yachting Committee.

"We actually thought they would be more a problem than a help," the Newport executive said of the stake boats. "If the (stake boat) isn't there, you've got a redressable situation."

Which they have, anyway.

"And you're tying up one boat that you may need to go and do something else," the executive added.

"With the size of the courses, if the marks are all put in the right places, they're not that hard to find. Even in this case, the marks weren't that hard to find."

Terry Harper, a Sail America executive who is chairman of the San Diego site, said, "There are inherent problems in using stake boats if you don't have extremely qualified people using them."

While insisting that stake boats are not an issue, the Newport executive also underlined the demands of the event, which requires quite a flotilla to keep everything going.

But it's difficult to believe that, even with three courses, a shortage of boats would be a problem at Newport--the yachting capital of the East Coast.

Andy Kostanecki, chairman of the Olympic Yachting Committee for the United States Yacht Racing Union, arrived in Newport as the controversy was peaking.

"I'm sick about it," Kostanecki said by phone. "I hate to see a race thrown out."

Kostanecki agreed with the Newport executive's views about stake boats, pointing out that Newport has special problems because "stake boats can get lost in fog, too."

He said the magnitude of the operation has caused glitches.

"This whole thing was put together by a variety of different clubs, and sometimes, if you haven't worked together, things get confused," Kostanecki said.

The problems at Newport became apparent early last week when the trials started.

John Shadden, a 470 sailor from Long Beach, noted before some of the problems surfaced, "The race management the first few days has left a lot to be desired."

And Shadden has little to complain about. After a second-place finish, which he was able to throw out, he has been credited with four consecutive victories.

"Our first race was only an hour and five minutes long," Shadden said. "That's not good at all. It doesn't give the better sailors a chance to use all their skills. Somebody else can get a break and luck into it."

In a Tornado race, Melvin and Knapp weren't forewarned that, because of a wind shift, a new weather mark was placed 400 yards to the left. They sailed around the old one, a half mile out of the way.

The rest of the fleet--far behind those two all week--was told, and Knapp temporarily lost his position, although he regained it later.

The race instructions don't require that the new mark be in place when the leaders round the previous mark. They must only be informed of the new compass bearing. But, in at least one race, the entire 470 fleet was more than halfway down a reach leg with the mark boat still motoring to the new location.

Fishing and private boats passing through the fleets, churning up water and air, have been a continual problem that the sailors have almost come to accept.

Until the weekend, there were no course marshals to keep such boats clear.

And, in an event that merits coverage, there won't be press boats until the last three days. San Diego and Marblehead have had press boats every day.

Is this any way to run an Olympic trials?

The question may be: Should the trials have been at Newport--or Marblehead or San Diego--in the first place?

All are notorious as light-wind areas. It will probably be very windy for the Olympics, as the OYC was somewhat surprised to discover during the Practice Regatta last September at Pusan, South Korea. By that time, however, the preparations for the trials were too far along, Kostanecki previously explained.

Pem Pleasants, the event chairman at Marblehead for the Eastern Yacht Club, said, "They tried to establish a venue here comparable to Pusan, and they found out they were wrong.

"We volunteered to make a change (and allow them to) select a more proper location."

Kostanecki said Monday: "Maybe we're gonna end up looking stupid (and) losing medals because we've got the 'wrong' people. But you'd better be prepared to sail in anything, and you're better off having a light-air sailor who can sail in heavy air, because a lot of heavy air sailors can't sail in light air at all.

"Besides, I don't know a single place in the U.S. where we could simulate the conditions over there." Kostanecki added that the cost of holding the trials at Hawaii would be prohibitive.

Some Southern California sailing leaders suspect the sites were selected with political influence from the Eastern sailing establishment, which already is no longer the host of the America's Cup races.

Whether that is true, the bungling in Newport has cost some of the competitors a race in what, to many, is the most important event of their careers.

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