MONDAY, MAY 8, 2006

BALTIMORE The awkward moments for the leaders of the Volvo Ocean Race have been reserved for port.

There was the broken arm that the watch captain, Mark Christensen, suffered when he took a tumble as the crew docked the yacht in Cape Town. There were those two straggling performances during the inshore legs in Sanxenxo, Spain, in November and in Annapolis, Maryland, a week ago.

There was even the opening pitch by the captain, Mike Sanderson, at Tuesday night’s baseball game here at Camden Yards – a pitch that bounced before it crossed the plate, much to the amusement of Oriole fans who would not know their port from their starboard.

But put ABN AMRO One to sea with its wide beam and no-nonsense multinational crew, and there is nothing awkward about it. It has been slicing through the swells and crushing the suspense out of the quadrennial round-the- world Volvo race since the first ocean leg in November, and the Dutch boat without a single Dutch sailor now holds what looks suspiciously like an insurmountable lead over the rest of the fleet, with four of the nine offshore legs including the current one, from Annapolis to New York, still to be settled.

The boat that its crew has dubbed Black Betty has had too many edges: an edge in preparation time; an edge in finances; an edge in boat design; even an edge in boat redesign. It has all been very impressive as they have racked up the points and the nautical miles and the publicity for the Dutch bank that is bankrolling them.

Volvo Ocean Procession does not have nearly the same ring to it, but then that is hardly the leaders’ fault. Who’s to chastise a pleasant, competent bunch of sleep-deprived men with calluses on their calluses for getting the most out of themselves and their cleverly conceived yacht?

“Of course, we are surprised about the gap, but we are over the moon with the gap; long may it continue,” said Sanderson, an unpretentious 34-year- old who looks a few years older at this bleary stage.

The gap stood at 19.5 points heading into the current leg, a Sunday-to-Tuesday sprint. ABN AMRO One could finish in last place in the next two legs – or even skip the next two legs altogether – and still be guaranteed the lead, but none of the chase pack is expecting a sudden disappearing act.

“ABN AMRO One is just clearly in a class to itself in terms of the speed,” the veteran skipper Paul Cayard said as his Pirates of the Caribbean sat in third place. “They aren’t even really racing. They’re just riding on the boat that is going about a knot faster. In all the races I’ve done, there hasn’t been such a big speed discrepancy among the fleet.”

The discrepancy has its roots in the decision to hire Juan Kouyoumdjian, a young Argentine boat designer. The Annapolis-based company of Bruce Farr has long dominated the market for yachts in the Volvo race, formerly known as the Whitbread. Farr or his associates have designed every winner since 1985, and this time, the four other primary contenders turned to Farr again: Movistar, Pirates of the Caribbean, Brasil 1 and Ericsson Racing Team.

But ABN never even negotiated with Farr, choosing to work with Kouyoumdjian, a 34-year-old who made his name designing America’s Cup yachts and who is more commonly known in yachting circles – for obvious reasons – as Juan K.

Clearly, Juan K. got his sums and computer simulations right for the debut race of the Volvo 70 class, with its extra length and canting keel. Clearly, it was a masterly decision to build a surprisingly wide double-rudder boat that was optimized for 11 to 18 knots of wind yet very slow in light winds, as witness its sixth-place finish in Annapolis.

Farr’s people spent some of the Maryland stopover picking over the yachts they had designed to get an idea of what they could have done better. Cayard has his theory. He says Farr and his team miscalculated the point when the stability of a wider hull would begin to outweigh the benefits of a narrower hull, which generates less drag.

“Historically, the average wind speed around the world is 13 knots, and Farr must have thought the narrow boat would be the right beam for 13 knots,” Cayard said. “But in fact, because the sail plan powers the boat up more – probably – than they anticipated, the crossover is not 13 knots. It’s really 11 knots.”

What also helped ABN AMRO was having the time and money to run a two-boat program, the only one this year, so Sanderson and his crew could test the first boat out of the yard for several months and provide major input into how to improve the primary boat, which was still under construction.

The recent winners of the Volvo have usually been two-boat programs, but to limit costs, the race organizers adopted a rule this time that any boat built for the race would have to compete in the race. That dissuaded most of the entrants from building two, but ABN AMRO stuck to the traditional winner’s strategy and elected to use its first boat, nicknamed the White Boat, as a learning experience for young, gifted sailors, primarily in their 20s.

The surprise, after nearly five months of racing, is that the youngsters are in fourth place and just three points behind second-place Movistar, the Spanish-based boat that was one of the pre- race favorites. But Movistar, unlike the ABN boats, nearly sank in the early going because of issues with the new keel.

“We’ve had a lot of the breakages the other teams are having,” Sanderson said. “The difference is that we had a lot of those pre-race.”

ABN’s crew members are clearly sensitive to suggestions that they are simply along for the ride, that their