ATHENS, Greece -- One by one, the flag spinnakers popped open as they caught the breeze, propelling a fleet of colorful 49ers downwind on the Saronic Gulf.
No one needed a program to figure out where these Olympic crews were from.
The Swiss boat rounded the windward mark first and hoisted a spinnaker with a red background and white cross, followed by the Ukraine boat and its blue-and-yellow chute, then the Brits with their Union Jack.
The Stars and Stripes spinnaker appeared when Tim Wadlow of Boston and Pete Spaulding of Miami rounded in eighth. The Rising Sun, a few tricolors, the crosses of the Scandinavian countries and even the flag of India were in the fleet as well.
The only problem was that there was only enough wind to fill the splashy sails on the high-performance skiffs for one race Tuesday, another frustrating day on the Saronic Gulf. The sea breeze and the northerly Meltemi battled for domination, leaving light, patchy wind. Wadlow and Spaulding were in fifth on the third of four legs, but fell back three spots.
"It was pretty sketchy today,'' Wadlow said. "Not the greatest conditions for racing.''
A strong Meltemi had blown out three scheduled 49er races Monday. But on Tuesday, two American skippers strengthened their standing.
Paul Foerster of Rockwall, Texas, and crew Kevin Burnham of Miami had finishes of 10th and fourth, respectively. They remained in second place but pulled within two points of Britain's Nick Rogers-Joe Glanfield with five races left. Foerster and Burnham are former silver medalists.
Mark Mendelblatt was 20th and sixth in the Laser class to move up to fourth, one point out of bronze medal position with seven races left.
Although it was an annoying day for the sailors, at least the 49ers looked sharp with the flag spinnakers.
"They're awesome,'' Wadlow said. "It's easier to know who your competition is, and it looks cool. Everybody loves it. You go out training at home with that kite on and everybody's going around in their power boats taking pictures of you and waving.''
The 49er class flew flag spinnakers during its Olympic debut on its home waters of Sydney Harbor in 2000, but only for the first two races. The chemical process used to emblazon the sails reduced their strength and a few small tears showed up in some of the sails. They were replaced by spinnakers in the colors of the Olympic rings: red, blue, green, yellow and black.
For these games, the spinnakers were sewn from pieces of colored silicon cloth.
"So like every single star is individually sewn into our kite,'' Wadlow said. "The amount of work that went into that spinnaker is just mind-numbing. A sailmaker looks at that and just goes, 'Oh my God.' It's like three spinnakers.''
Tuesday's wind was about 11 knots at the start and extremely patchy. The leaders were hurt when they sailed into a big wind hole on the last third of the final leg.
"The wind was filling from behind and boats would come up from behind going twice as fast as you, and they just carry the wind right up to you and then roll right over you,'' Wadlow said. "You might get a puff and sort of leapfrog back over them. It's what we call a bit random.''
The skiffs -- named for their 4.99-meter length -- were a big hit in Sydney and should be again, if they get a good breeze.
"It was so puffy and so shifty that it's the kind of day where tacking in the right place is 100 times more important than how fast you're going,'' Wadlow said.
Just after the finish, the wind dropped to practically nothing and the boats bobbed around under the blazing sun for almost two hours waiting to see if the breeze would fill in again. It didn't, and they came back to shore.
The 49ers have retractable wings and little natural stability. The crew, held by safety lines, prop themselves out over the water to try to keep the boat level.
The 49er is the only class scheduled for 16 races. Crews will be able to throw out their two worst finishes.
The other U.S. 470 crew, Katie McDowell of Barrington, R.I., and Isabelle Kinsolving of New York, were ninth and second to move up to seventh overall with five races left. Europe skipper Meg Galliard of Pelham, N.Y., was 14th and ninth, and is 10th overall after four races.
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press
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