Coast Guard keeps America's Cup fans from making waves

The largest peacetime fleet of United States Coast Guard ships now lies off Rhode Island - not for nabbing drug smugglers or protecting US fisheries - but for patrolling the nautical paths of two 12-meter boats in the America's Cup race.

As crowds on shore cheered and bobbing pleasure boats honked their approval, the contenders headed out toward Rhode Island Sound Tuesday for their first race in the best-of-seven series. But officials were forced to postpone the match for a day due to erratic winds of only about six knots.

Two major concerns overshadow the Coast Guard's America's Cup operations. First is the possibility of unfavorable weather. The Coast Guard and the president of the New York Yachting Club, separately or jointly, can make the decision to postpone the race due to weather.

But high winds and storm conditions were far from being a problem on Tuesday, however, and weather forecasters were not optimistic about better conditions for starting the race Wednesday.

The more pressing concern for the Coast Guard is keeping an estimated 1,000 spectator craft just that - spectators.

''The name of the game is crowd control,'' says Capt. William C. Nolan, in charge of preventing the spectator fleet from encroaching upon the racing perimeter.

Part umpire, part traffic cop, the 38 Coast Guard ships under his command maneuver around a baseball-diamond-shaped perimeter, keeping floating onlookers away from the United States entry, Liberty, and its opponent, Australia II, as they tack back and forth along the triangular race path inside the restricted zone.

The size of the spectator fleet could play a major role in the outcome of the world's premier yachting event. It may block the normal swell of the ocean in the actual race area, causing a choppy-wave effect. And should an over-enthusiastic viewer break away from the flotilla and get too close to either Liberty or Australia II, the craft could deflect the wind, causing a loss of speed or handling to either of the competitors.

The Coast Guard establishes a viewing perimeter 100 yards from the actual course of the race. Two ships are anchored at ''home plate,'' or the starting point for each of the best-out-of-seven races. Three large cutters are anchored as boundary markers where first, second, and third base would be on this waterborne baseball field.

Coast Guard ships of various sizes continually steam just inside this perimeter for the duration of the race. Though considered unlikely, nothing in America's Cup rules precludes a participant from sailing into the crowd of pleasure craft as a racing tactic.

This year there will be a Coast Guard spotter in radio contact with Captain Nolan aboard the Goodyear blimp hovering overhead.

''It is an ideal platform to observe the race,'' says Goodyear spokesman William Gowen. ''Low-flying helicopters are most unwelcome. It goes without saying that the draft from their rotors could wreck havoc on the strategy of even the finest seamen.''

Spectator craft range in size from rowboats to the 670-foot British cruise ship RMS Brittanus, billed as the ''best hotel in Newport.''

This is the second time Nolan has been in charge of policing the 24.3-mile course. Besides the 38 Coast Guard ships, there are some 800 Coast Guard and 150 Navy personnel involved.

Units are brought in from as far south as New Jersey and as far north as Maine. Throughout September the Coast Guard still has sufficient units throughout the Northeast to cover its regular search-and-rescue patrols, Nolan says.

Due to the number of pleasure craft involved, the Coast Guard expects to respond to between 50 and 100 rescue calls each racing day.

''Headboats,'' those ships carrying spectators for money, are watched closely. ''We don't want to see an overloaded headboat, especially when everyone moves to one side for a better view of the competition,'' says Nolan.

Besides duties of crowd control, the Coast Guard captain checks the daily weather reports. If a storm is blowing or a fog building, he can cancel that day's race.

''Visibility is crucial with all those ships out there,'' he says. ''The race committee is more inclined to call the race due to high winds, (but) I watch for fog.''

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