Not so much as a ripple stirred the glassy water in Ann Arbor on April 8 as 16 skippers huddled for a prerace briefing with Brad Dellenbaugh, the offshore sailing coach at the U.S. Naval Academy and the umpire of the day's regatta. Just as Dellenbaugh had promised, a steady eight-knot breeze gusted up right after he bade the sailors good luck. Conditions were clear and fine, except for a whiff of chlorine. The usual nautical scene ensued. Sails luffed, bows sliced the water and skippers squinted windward. But the entire spectacle took place on the University of Michigan's 50-meter pool.
Stadium sailing, the yachting equivalent of arena football, brings the high-seas maneuvers of match racing indoors. As America's Cup crews sparred off San Diego this spring, a scaled-down version of their event took place in pools in 16 cities across the U.S. Ann Arbor was the 12th stop on the tour, which culminated in San Diego, where the regional winners met in the championship regatta on May 13. "You've never sailed in a swimming pool before," Dellenbaugh told the skippers in Ann Arbor, "and you probably never will again."
Chevrolet dreamed up stadium sailing last summer as a way to publicize its sponsorship of America�, the syndicate that won the 1992 America's Cup and sought unsuccessfully to defend it this spring with a mostly female crew aboard a new yacht, Mighty Mary. Indoor sailing might have been dismissed as far-fetched were it not for Derrick Fries, a renowned Michigan racer and the master small-boat instructor at the U.S. Sailing Association, who endorsed the idea as a way to showcase grassroots participants in a sport often stigmatized as a pastime of the lockjawed blue-blazer set. "We're trying to redefine the culture of sailing," the 41-year-old Fries says. "We'd like it to undergo the same democratization tennis enjoyed in the 1970s. Stadium sailing could be the shift we need, ft could put sailing in a new light."
The first challenge for Fries, Dellenbaugh and Buddy Melges, the co-helmsman of the '92 America� team, was to find a boat that could be raced indoors without looking goofy. Dellenbaugh's brother Dave, who was Mighty Mary's, tactician and her only male crew member, had sailed in a stadium race in France in 1992 in which mini-twelves—12-foot replicas of the 12-meter yachts sailed in the America's Cup from 1958 to 1987—were used. And since the mid-'80s Melges had seen mini-twelves sailed near his boatyard on Wisconsin's Lake Geneva. Last fall Melges procured a few mini-twelves from local residents and businesses and shipped them to the University of Illinois in Chicago. There he, Dave Dellenbaugh and Fries—three of America's top helmsmen—were propelled by 12 poolside electric fans in circles around a 50-meter swimming pool.
With undersized rudders and 225-pound ballasts in their keels, the mini-twelves handled sluggishly. "The first time I got in the boat," Fries says, "I rammed right into the side of the pool because the steering is counterintuitive." Melges made the boats more maneuverable by shrinking jibs so they wouldn't drag across masts on tacks and by enlarging mainsails to provide more power. He also increased the number of fans to 24. "By the time we put the boat before the public in January," Melges says, "it was butter-smooth."
Watching the America's Cup, Damon Runyon once said, is as exciting as watching the grass grow. And indeed, to the uninitiated, yachting's premier event can seem like nothing more than a distant series of incomprehensible maneuvers. Did anyone really expect the indoor version to enthrall? "No way," says umpire Mary Savage. "Not until 500 people showed up at our inaugural event in Chicago. They were booing and screaming, 'Tack!' 'Don't tack!' 'Watch out!' The audience was so into it."
You won't see Dennis Conner in stadium sailing, but you will see local heroes performing for hometown crowds. For the Ann Arbor regatta the best 16 racers, ages 14 to 59, were picked from a pool of 150 applicants. They were a seasoned group, experienced in racing everything from lowly Sunfish to offshore yachts. But even Lake Huron's finest had never seen anything like this: Slouched inside the 12-foot boats like Grand Prix drivers scrunched into bumper cars, skippers steered with foot pedals while adjusting their jibs and mainsail sheets with their hands. Powered by winds from enormous electric fans at one end of the pool, the boats raced head-to-head around an upwind-downwind course modeled on those used in America's Cup competition. Racers with the lowest combined times in two heats advanced to the next round. Poolside umpires assessed penalties for illegal maneuvers, which sailors absolved by sailing a penalty circle. "It's totally, absolutely, entirely different from anything I've ever done in a sailboat," said quarter-finalist Josh Kerst, a 29-year-old engineer from Ann Arbor. "The only thing that's the same is my damp fanny."
In some ways stadium sailing is more demanding than the outdoor version. As they tried to adjust to steering with foot pedals, these experienced skippers swerved around the Michigan natatorium's pool like disoriented student drivers. "It's second nature for us to handle a tiller or a wheel," said Peter Shumaker, a Grosse Point, Mich., dentist. "All of a sudden we have to think with our feet and not with our hands." As if that weren't confusing enough, the skippers also had to jockey for position on the pool's restrictive playing field without colliding or drifting into the doldrums at the becalmed leeward end of the pool. "My feet were twitching in anticipation," said Kerst. "I forgot to breathe."
The odd demands of stadium sailing don't always favor the top seed. On the tour's San Francisco stop on Feb. 12, for example, a Navy F-18 fighter pilot named Robert Creighton filled in for a last-minute scratch. Because high-performance flying demands split-second footwork and what fighter pilots call "situational awareness," Creighton had an advantage over more experienced skippers. "Nobody had ever heard of him," says Dellenbaugh, "but you could see right away that he was used to all these variables. He was so smooth. He just hopped in and glided to an easy win."
Gaffes on the open sea are usually committed in blessed privacy, but stadium sailing's intimate surroundings afford no such luxury. Clumsy tacks or late starts elicit boisterous rebukes from the audience. Indeed, part of the sport's appeal is its slapstick aspect. As in peewee hockey or Ivy League football, anything can happen. The Ann Arbor peanut gallery erupted 300 strong when a sailor spent the better part of one race trying to extract his bow from the pool's starting-block holders while his rival circled the course. "It's like sailing the biggest offshore boat in the world," said Bruce Goldsmith, a Hillsdale, Mich., investment broker, who was eliminated in the quarterfinals by a mere .66 of a second. "There are three hundred backseat drivers cheering and criticizing."