Finances sink Women's Challenge


November 02, 1993|By PETER BAKER

Over the weekend, word came out of Punta del Este, Uruguay, that the U.S. Women's Challenge had dropped out of the Whitbread Round the World Race because it had failed to attract a sponsor willing to patch the holes in a sailing venture that has been sinking slowly for years.

The U.S. Women's Challenge started as an aggregation of American women led by Nance Frank, a professional skipper who made her home port wherever there seemed to be the most financial backing for her dream of racing around the world.

For several years Maryland showed promise, and Frank took a small house near the Naval Academy, lobbied the state for funds and called press conferences in an effort to keep her group in the news.

During one session, held in the living room of that small house, Frank explained to a pair of reporters that, no, there was no major sponsor yet, but certainly there was one waiting right around the corner.

Since before the last Whitbread Race, in 1989, Frank has been trying to find exactly which corner that was.

In the 1989 race, Frank and company crossed the starting line in England and then had to head back to the docks and return their chartered boat to a European owner unwilling to send it around the world without financial guarantees.

For this race, after much talk of having a new boat built and tailored specially for the sizes and shapes of an all-woman crew, the U.S. Women's Challenge got hold of a $1 million Whitbread 60 owned by a New Zealand group and the first of its kind ever built.

With a boat in hand and $1.8 million in pledges and in-kind contributions, Frank then found a new port of call, Key West and the Florida Keys, which came across with $25,000 and a plan to contribute a total of $200,000 through the course of the six-leg race as each leg was completed.

Although still operating on a shoestring, Frank began to ballyhoo her success. The real beginning of the dream was at hand -- no matter that her crew was now an international cast rather than an American entry. But, then, what's in a name? Any dollar raised was just as sweet.

But as Frank began to speak loudly of the group's financial security, a group of American creditors still owed more than $50,000 from the abortive 1989 campaign moved to have her boat seized. Since Frank's group did not own the Bruce Farr-designed Whitbread 60, however, the women's challenge sailed off on the first leg of the race.

En route to Punta del Este, sails blew out, the mast was badly damaged, electrical gear and navigation instruments failed -- and the shoestring budget snapped.

Once in Uruguay, watch leader Mikaela von Koskull of Finland and navigator Adrienne Cahalan of Australia left the crew.

Perhaps it was simply the prospect of the rigorous second leg of the race across the riotous southern oceans of the world to Fremantle, Australia, that put them off.

More likely it was the prospect of making that sprint through 50-foot waves and 70-knot winds without the proper systems and equipment that sent them packing, as anyone should do under similar circumstances.

During the recent Columbus Cup regatta here and in Annapolis there was much talk of the Whitbread -- of Dennis Conner and his Winston, Chris Dickson and Yamaha, of Lawrie Smith in Fortuna, Grant Dalton in New Zealand Endeavor, and other maxiboats and Whitbread 60s, each carrying the name of a major sponsor and operating on a multi-million dollar budget.

Frank, meanwhile, did not get the same respect, often drawing quiet laughter or polite criticism. Few thought her up to the challenge of going around the world.

Using perseverance and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of mirrors, Frank managed to get her boat to the starting line and she and her crew managed to get to Punta del Este a few days behind the leaders.

And given the right equipment there is no doubt that the women's challenge would have made it 'round to Southampton in England again.

The question never was whether women could do it. The question always was whether anyone was willing to foot the bill.

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