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While the America's Cup continues to blast away at its own foot—until a recent ruling by Cup trustees allowing the challengers an extra month to name their boats, the challengers had threatened to boycott next year's event—an obscure all-female regatta held in September in Newport might restore credibility to sailboat racing. The Rolex International Women's Keelboat Championship (RIWKC) has the ingredients of a great regatta:
?Prestige. After the Olympics, the RIWKC is the premier women's sailing event. It used to be the top regatta, because until the '88 Games, the Olympics didn't have a women's sailing event.
?Danger. During Race 7 'at this year's RIWKC, as the fleet left a crowded starting line and scrambled for open air, Australia's Cookie Monster and Gangster from Rye, N.Y., inadvertently lined up on a head-on collision course. Sharon Pledge ran to the bow of Cookie Monster in an attempt to fend off the approaching vessel, but her leg got caught between the two 3,100-pound boats, each traveling at eight knots. She succeeded in preventing any significant damage to either boat. Unfortunately, her right foot was fractured and is still in a cast after several months.
?Suspense. After five days and seven races, this year's championship was won in a come-from-behind performance on the last leg of the last race.
?International flavor. Unlike the so-called World Series, the RIWKC draws talent from around the globe. This year, 46 boats from nine countries competed: one each from Holland, the British Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico; two each from New Zealand, Australia and Canada; five from Japan; and three Soviet boats. Or were they Russian boats?
"I really don't know," said U.S.S.R. Yacht Racing Federation vice-president Valentina Kouptsova. "We keep getting new information every day."
The Russians quickly became the darlings of the regatta, thanks largely to an outpouring of postcoup compassion. "If the coup had continued, our trip to the United States would have been impossible," said coach Viktor Kovalenko.
Even though the Russians made it to Newport, they weren't fully prepared for the championship. Heidi Backus-Riddle of Vermilion, Ohio, lent them a spinnaker. Other competitors donated foul-weather gear. And when a reporter asked to interview the top Soviet skipper, Larisa Moskalenko, Coach Kovalenko agreed, but on one condition—that the reporter give Kovalenko and four of his sailors a lift back to the crew's house, seven miles away. It seems the Russians hadn't rented enough cars.
Before this year's RIWKC, the Russians had little experience with keel-boats—much less J/24s—and this team had never sailed in international competition, period. In fact, until the Rolex Women's series was born in 1985, there was no regatta anywhere for women sailors to compete on a world-class level in anything bigger than a dinghy. The women who organized the RIWKC wanted to use a boat that would be taken seriously.
Their answer was the popular J/24, a highly maneuverable 24-foot racer that features all the string-pulling challenge of a big boat at a fraction of the cost. With 4,800 J's afloat, accessibility to the boats was no problem; it is the largest one-design keelboat on the planet. The J has a stationary lead keel instead of the retractable wooden or metal center-board found on dinghies. And because almost every America's Cup skipper is a closet J/24 sailor, the choice instantly gave the RIWKC respect.