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Skipper of top `cat' sets sail in Little America's Cup defense bid

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Duncan MacLane has a split nautical personality, equal parts tortoise and hare. He designs plodding tugboats and barges for a living, but gets his thrills sailing catamarans, the odd-looking, twin-hulled craft that zip across the water. Catamarans, the fastest racing boats under sail, are MacLane's passion, and have been since, as a teen-ager, he saw two streaking off the Connecticut shore. ``They were just the most awesome sight I had ever seen,'' he recalls.

Besides racing ``cats,'' he designs them too. ``From a construction standpoint, it's rather ironic,'' says the self-employed naval businessman. ``In working on a tugboat I'm doing calculations to throw around inch-thick steel plates. In working on a new catamaran hull, though, the core material is only a quarter-inch thick and the carbon layers on the outside just eight- or nine-thousandths of an inch. It's definitely two ends of the spectrum, but it's enjoyable.''

This week, and probably for the next few, he is pursuing his hobby to the max, racing for the honor of his country and Connecticut's Roton Point Sailing Association in the Little America's Cup. The event, begun in 1961, is catamaran sailing's version of what the big boys do in the America's Cup, the sporadically held battle of the world's best 12-meter boats.

By now, even the man on the street has caught wind of what occurred in Newport, R. I., two years ago, when the United States had its 132-year America's Cup reign snapped by Australia.

Hardly anyone knows about the Little cup, though, and most people undoubtedly would be surprised to learn that the smaller boats actually go quite a bit faster. A catamaran reaches speeds of about 20 mph under racing conditions, with an average speed of 15 mph being normal. By comparison, a 12-meter boat is really flying when it reaches 11 to 12 mph, MacLane claims. The ``cats'' are also incredibly efficient, often going moving faster than the wind.

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