Yachtswoman embarks on ``adventure in the wind''

September 26, 1993|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Staff Writer

SOUTHAMPTON, England -- Nance Frank, late of Annapolis, steered her U.S. Women's Challenge yacht across the starting line yesterday into her dream of competing in the Whitbread Round the World Race -- 32,000 miles of demanding, dangerous sailing.

"The toughest leg is over," she said just before pulling away from her berth here. "Now there's just adventure in the wind."

Hers is an all-female 11-member crew, the only women aboard the fourteen yachts that started this sixth Whitbread.

"It's going to be gorgeous," Ms. Frank said as she took the helm and urged her crew aboard. "Come on. We've got a race to win."

With her blue spinnaker set as the Duke of York fired the cannon to start the race at 1:30 p.m., Ms. Frank settled the Challenge into the back of the pack like a long-distance runner gauging the pace.

The sky was mottled gray, the wind 15 knots and the Solent Channel opposite Cowes on the Isle of Wight a choppy froth as 6,000 spectator boats churned in behind the Whitbread fleet.

Washed out at the start in 1989 by a sponsor who pulled out at the last minute, Ms. Frank had struggled since then to get back into the race.

She and her crew started the race enthusiastic but underfinanced. She had pledges for about $1.9 million of the $3.4 million that she thinks is the minimum needed to compete in the six legs of the eight-month race.

Ms. Frank, 44, who lived in Annapolis from 1988 until recently, tried to get money from Maryland, but she had no luck. "They didn't give us any money," she said. "They said it wasn't right for them."

So the Florida Keys and Key West's tourism office have become her home-port sponsor. She's a conch (pronounced "conk") a native of Key West. So now the Key West logo, not Maryland's, is on her boat.

But lots of Marylanders have made donations, Ms. Frank said. About 10,000 people across the country, she said, have contributed to the U.S. Women's Challenge campaign, which is registered as a nonprofit corporation in Maryland.

Ms. Frank is well-known around the Chesapeake Bay. She has raced aboard the Warp Speed and the Ichiban out of Annapolis. And, as she practiced for this race, her sleek red Whitbread 60 became familiar in Maryland waters. She sailed from Annapolis to Key West and back before joining the New York to Southampton Race that qualified the Challenge for the Whitbread.

"We're going to lose a lot of weight going around the world," she said, not quite joking. Her food budget has been $1.25 a person a day.

"It's an endurance race, and women are endurance creatures," she said. These women survive mostly on freeze-dried food at sea during the six legs of the trip.

The Whitbread has captured the public's imagination and become a pinnacle of yacht racing. The race has two classes, one for the 60s like the Challenge, which are all low hull and high sail, the other for the considerably more expensive Maxis, which are the grand prix class.

Ten Whitbread 60s started in this race, four Maxis. The cost of campaigning for the Whitbread in a Maxi approaches $10 million. The 60s, superbly designed boats that cost about a third of the Maxis, seem to be the wave of the future. Bruce Farr, an Australian who maintains an office in Annapolis, designed seven of the 60s in this year's Whitbread, including Ms. Frank's, and two of the Maxis.

Most of the race is run through the inhospitable southern Atlantic and Indian oceans, where the winds are fearsome, fogs thick and the water flecked with ice and icebergs.

Minute details acquire great tactical importance in a race in which the shortest leg is 3,272 miles, the "easy" run between Fremantle, Australia, and Auckland, New Zealand.

The longest leg is the second, 7,500 miles from Punta del Este, Uruguay, to Fremantle -- a 56-day voyage.

In past races, some yachts have even dipped below 60 degrees, which is said to be just about the limits of prudence, if not sanity. One crew member died during the 1989 race, three in the first in 1973.

"It's quite dangerous," Ms. Frank said. "But I've sailed around Cape Horn on a 30-foot boat with no engine. And here I am: no scratches."

Her French watch captain, Michele Paret, sailed the southern Atlantic and Indian oceans on the Maiden, the British yacht that had the first all-woman crew, in the 1989 Whitbread.

"It's the heavy winds and the big waves and the cold," Ms. Paret said. "You are always wet. You go to sleep wet.

"You are always tired. You lose one hour taking your clothes off and putting them back on. So you can only sleep three hours between watches. We feel the danger. We have to keep one hand for us and one hand for the boat. Icebergs are easy. You can see them on radar. The growlers you can't."

A growler is a chunk of ice, mostly under water. It can puncture or badly dent the boat.

"During the night you cannot do anything," Ms. Paret said, "except cross your fingers and hope."

A man's race?

Despite the presence of the Challenge, the Whitbread remains essentially a man's race.

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