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Local sailor will lead champion
One day before the final begins, Switzerland's Alinghi decides on Ed Baird for its helmsman.
By TERRY TOMALIN
Published June 23, 2007
Sailors liken the start of an America's Cup race to pro football's two-minute offense.
And St. Petersburg's Ed Baird will be in the middle of it beginning today. He was announced Friday as helmsman for the defending champion Swiss team.
"The pressure is intense. Make a mistake and it is all over, " local yacht-racing icon Charley Morgan said. "All eyes are on the helmsman because the race can literally be won or lost in the blink of an eye. To win, you have to be one cool character."
Top America's Cup helmsmen, like great Super Bowl quarterbacks, become household names. In sailing circles, Dennis Connor and Russell Coutts are every bit as famous Joe Montana and Peyton Manning.
Baird gets his turn to shine on the waters off Valencia, Spain, at the 32nd America's Cup.
"To tell you the truth, it is just an honor being here, " the 49-year-old father of three said just last week, before he was named helmsman for Alinghi. "Everybody here is at the top of their game. To be part of it is a little humbling."
Baird, who got his start racing dinghies at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club, will lead a 16-man crew under the Swiss flag against Team New Zealand when the best-of-nine series begins today on the Mediterranean.
"That is about as high as you can go, " said Frank Mendelblatt, whose son Mark also is in Spain, sailing with Team New Zealand. "In sailing, you have the Olympics, the around-the-world race and the America's Cup. Ed has been involved in all three. Not many people can say that."
Baird, who ran an unsuccessful America's Cup campaign in 1999 when his Young America cracked open and nearly sank in the Challenger Series, took his wife and family to Spain two years ago to help build a new Swiss team.
"If nothing else, this has been a great experience for the kids, " Baird said recently. "All three of them are speaking Spanish very well."
In addition to serving as a coach for 1995 winner Black Magic (which sent the trophy to New Zealand for the first time), Baird worked as a television commentator in 2003, when the landlocked Swiss defeated the sailing-mad Kiwis.
"Ed watched that whole series, and as a result, he knew both teams' strengths and weaknesses, " said Mendelblatt, former commodore of the SPYC. "When it comes to match racing, I don't think you will find anybody more knowledgeable."
Unlike fleet racing, the America's Cup is a showdown between two boats. Baird, who has won three World Match Racing titles, is considered a master of it.
"You either win or you lose, " said St. Petersburg's John Jennings, also an accomplished match racer. "There is no second."
Jennings said Baird's record on the match-racing circuit probably helped earn him the top spot on Alinghi. For the past two years, the Swiss have trained with three helmsmen: Baird, Peter Holmberg and Jochen Schuemann. Coutts, the New Zealander who led the Swiss to victory in 2003, had a falling out with management and left the team in 2004.
Fred Bickley, the current commodore of the SPYC, said he believes Baird's time in the international spotlight will help bring attention to St. Petersburg's youth sailing program.
"Like so many other great sailors, Ed got his start right here at the St. Petersburg Sailing Center, " Bickley said. "Our program is the envy of other sailing communities around the nation. I think Ed's role in the America's Cup will really put us on the map."
Baird should be ranked among other great Tampa Bay area athletes such as baseball Hall of Famer Wade Boggs, said Morgan, who served as helmsman for a boat he built called Heritage during the 1970 America's Cup defender trials.
"Being the helmsman at the start of an America's Cup race is like being a Top Gun fighter pilot headed into a dogfight, " Morgan said. "You have about 20 seconds to see who wins or dies. You have to think quickly. You need to make all the right moves."
VALENCIA, Spain - Team New Zealand won the coin toss to determine entry positions and will have the advantageous starboard side for the odd numbered races of the best-of-nine final.
Whether that provides a psychological boost in the repeat of the 2003 final - which the Swiss swept 5-0 in Auckland, New Zealand - is inconsequential to the Kiwis, its helmsman said.
"Certainly there are a lot of lessons we can take from 2003, " said Dean Barker, who is in his third America's Cup. "It made the guys a lot tougher mentally. But it's such a long time ago now that you have to let it go eventually."