The Ashley River was placid and the sun beat down warmly as Tim Fetsch stood on the deck of the sailboat Icarus at the City Marina this week. He worked a long needle to splice the boat’s main halyard.
“It won’t be like this out there,” Fetsch said with a laugh.
“Out there” is offshore in the Atlantic Ocean, where the Icarus and six other Class 40 boats will spend much of the next two weeks during the third annual Atlantic Cup.
The Atlantic Cup, which begins at 2 p.m. today in Charleston Harbor, will take the Icarus and the rest of the fleet from Charleston to New York and then to Newport, R.I., where the winner will be determined on May 26.
Billed as “America’s Sailing Race,” the Atlantic Cup features a $15,000 purse and draws top double-handed crews from around the world.
In the world of elite sailing, the team of Fetsch, a Charleston resident, and sailing partner Ben Poucher, fills the role of scrappy underdog.
“We try to make up for what we don’t have in experience and money with sheer enthusiasm,” joked Fetsch, 30 and a College of Charleston graduate.
The Icarus is owned by the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy Sailing Foundation, which chose the team of Fetsch and Poucher to campaign it around the world.
The pair has put extensive work into the boat, outfitting it with electronics, a new race bottom and new sails. All of that costs money, of course, and they also put a lot of time into lining up sponsorships.
“It’s not a successful business model — yet,” Fetsch said. “The Atlantic Cup is sort of at the beginning of that, trying to get corporations to see the potential that is there. We’re sort of the young team that’s trying to get people interested.”
Class 40 boats have to fit into strict parameters, so there is not much inherent advantage from one boat to the next. That puts more emphasis on effort and sailing tactics.
“Last year, we all arrived in New York within 10 or 12 hours of each other,” said Poucher, 30. “And that was after four days out in the middle of the ocean. So the racing is really close and you are always trying to go faster, to be just a little bit better than everyone else.”
With only two on board, everything from sleeping to eating must be planned out.
“It’s like being on your own 40-foot island,” Poucher said. “But you are in control.”
Control is a relative term, of course, in big-boat racing. That was proven this week in San Francisco, as an Olympic gold medal winner from Britain died when an America’s Cup boat capsized during practice.
“We have adventure stories,” Poucher said the day before that accident. “But our families get nervous when they are published.”
After today’s Atlantic Cup start, the fleet will take about four days to sail 648 nautical miles, around Cape Hatteras and into New York harbor. After a brief stopover, the coastal leg of the race takes the fleet 231 miles south to a mark off the New Jersey coast, and then to Newport.
In Newport, competitors will sail a two-day, inshore series with a crew of six. The combined winner of the two stages is the Atlantic Cup champion.
Icarus finished ninth out of 14 boats last year and fourth in 2011. Bodacious Dream, with Americans Dave Rearick and Matt Scharl on board, is the top returning boat, having finished third last year.
• Spirit Cruise Lines will take a boat out today to follow the start of the Atlantic Cup. The boat leaves from Aquarium Wharf at 12:30 p.m., and tickets are $24 each. The boat will follow the fleet after the 2 p.m. start, just off the Maritime Center, out to Fort Sumter with expert sailors providing commentary.
• The fleet: 40 Degrees (No. 90), Great Britain; Bodacious Dream (118), USA; Dragon (54), USA; Gryphon Solo II (106), USA; Icarus (116), USA; Lecoq Cuisine (121), USA; Pleiad Racing (39), USA.
• The progress of the boats can be tracked at www.atlanticcup.org.