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Rescue gives race a touch of drama

The Clearwater Cup has been, by definition and tradition, an offshore distance race that tests the skill and endurance of avid sailboat racers. In its 21st year, the race lived up to both definition and traditions as the 55 multihulls and monohulls weathered another wet and punishing overnight race on the Gulf of Mexico.

A parade of short, curling waves, driven by several days of strong southwest winds, pounded the boats and grew to 6 to 8 feet as the fleet sailed south toward the sea buoy at the mouth of Tampa Bay Saturday evening.

Despite the rough conditions, 33 of the 49 starters finished the race that began west of Clearwater Pier on Saturday afternoon.

John Scanlon's Roamin' Chariot wasn't so fortunate. As the 38-foot trimaran raced in the shallow water between Anclote Key and Three Rooker Bar, a series of large waves dropped the boat onto the sea bottom just before dark. The boat began taking on water and quickly flooded. "I was up to my chest in water before I came back on deck," said crew member Noel Robbins, who went below to send a mayday over the VHF radio.

Running Bear, skippered by Clearwater Yacht Club commodore David Billing, responded, and the Coast Guard asked it to assist. Scanlon was able to divert his boat to the northeast corner of Three Rooker Bar and drive it onto the beach.

Billing's boat stood by until a marine towing service arrived. Roamin' Chariot was safely beached, then returned to Clearwater and withdrew from the race. At the awards ceremony Sunday evening, Robbins presented Billing with an impromptu humanitarian award.

Top honors in the Non-spinnaker Class went to the top finisher, Bradenton's Hunter 37 Midnight Sun, skippered by Blaise Pierson. He covered the 59-mile course in just under 10 hours. Lyman White's F-25C trimaran Silverheels won the multihull division, sailing the middle-distance 85.4-mile course in 10 hours, 34 minutes.

Top finisher on the longest course was Rick Orchard's Melges 30 Grins, which covered the 106.6-mile route in 15 hours, 24 minutes. After handicap adjustments, the overall winner in Spinnaker Class A was the Beneteau 34 Kelly, skippered by Andy Cheney. Other class winners included Chris Taylor and Rod Koch's Holmes 27 Valu-Boat and Andes Racker's Sloop DeVille.

Conditions were ideal at 2 p.m. Saturday with 10- to 12-knot winds under sunny skies. As the leaders reached a channel marker near Anclote Key, the first mark in the course, small cells of thunderstorms formed on the horizon and created varying conditions along the course. The winds continued to build through the night, with sustained gusts over 20 knots and the occasional breaking waves smashing into the boats in the darkness.

Winning the Navigator's Trophy for the largest winning margin was Vladimir Kulinichenko, who handled navigation aboard Sloop DeVille.