Sailor's latest challenge is around-the-world race Annapolitan seeks to lead female crew in one of yachting's toughest events

April 19, 1993|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,Staff Writer

As the steeples and domes of the Annapolis skyline emerged from the dawn mists yesterday, Nance Frank and two of her all-female crew stepped ashore from the new sloop they had just sailed in from Norfolk, Va.

Ms. Frank and her crew of 11 will spend most of the next four months on the sleek, 64-foot racing yacht, testing their endurance and training for the 33,000-mile Whitbread Round the World Race.

It would be the second all-female crew to compete in the race, and the first Americans in the quadrennial event sponsored by a British brewery and recreation company. A crew of British women finished the Whitbread in 1989.

"I'm boat-struck," says Ms. Frank, who has been buoyant ever since she saw the polished blue-and-white sailboat with its towering mast that was designed by Bruce Farr of Annapolis. It was built in New Zealand and shipped last week to Norfolk.

Four years ago, Ms. Frank, 44, founded the U.S. Women's Challenge to become the first American team to compete in the Whitbread, one of the most grueling yacht races in the world.

She and her crew were prepared to navigate a 57-foot sailboat through the relentless Antarctic squalls and the blistering heat of the equator. But they were forced back from the starting line when their biggest corporate sponsor withdrew at the last moment.

It was a bitter blow. "There were big tears," she recalls.

Yet, from Ms. Frank's point of view, it was just another challenge. The 5-foot-2-inch sailor with sturdy legs and sun-bleached hair refuses to let obstacles stop her.

At age 10, while she was growing up on Key West, she fell in love with her first sailboat. When the owners offered to sell it for $50, she walked up and down the beach selling conch shells to raise money.

In high school, she tried out for the girls' football team. She was briefly worried when she saw the teen-ager she was supposed to tackle, who was twice her size. But her opponent "ended up in the hospital."

"That's what America is all about," she says, relaxing for a brief moment between phone calls and faxes at her home in Annapolis. "It's really difficult to get to the moon. Well, great, let's do it."

Her dining room, which also serves as her office, is decorated with photographs of boats and of the Women's Challenge crew in matching red shorts. A handwritten sign is tacked up over the fax machine: "We will have a boat, and We will race the 1993 WRTWR [Whitbread] beginning in September." The word "will" is underlined.

For Ms. Frank, who jokes that she learned to swim before she walked, sailing has always been a mystical experience. "It's the closest you can come to nature," she says.

She has logged more than 100,000 miles of ocean experience and raced all over the world. She learned about the Whitbread from the crew of a racing sloop that arrived in the harbor in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where she lived when she was in her 20s.

And she decided on the spot that this was the challenge she had been waiting for all her life.

Why? "It's living on the edge for nine months," she says. "It's sailing down huge waves and dodging icebergs. It's the heat of the tropics, where you have to wear shoes because the deck burns your feet."

First, Ms. Frank tested her mettle for the race by navigating a 30-foot sailboat around Cape Horn on her 30th birthday. The journey between South America and Antarctica is known as the "Mount Everest of sailing" because of the ferocious winds and waves.

Figuring she had the inner strength to finish the Whitbread, Ms. Frank called the crew she had become friendly with in Rio. But her dream was splashed with cold water. Every man told her that women didn't sail the race.

She says she wasn't angry. Not even disappointed. "When I come up against a wall, I either crawl over it, or dig under it, or break it down," she says.

Barbara Span, who gave up a career as an advertising executive in Pittsburgh to trim sails, says the team can't wait to start practicing on the new, unnamed boat.

"In 1989, when the team didn't make it, that wasn't a failure," she said. "It was a challenge. That was such an inspiration -- when I read about it, I wanted to be there to try again."

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