Women's new tack making waves Allegations, intrigue surround group's Whitbread effort SAILING

November 11, 1993|By Peter Baker | Peter Baker,Staff Writer

The intrigue that surrounds the Whitbread Round the World NTC Race normally is limited to which crews are best able to repair or refine hardware and electronics and use sailing skills to get a jump on the fleet.

In the current Whitbread, which starts its second leg from Punta del Este, Uruguay, to Fremantle, Australia, on Saturday, the intrigue is deeper.

Though mostly one side is being heard from, there are claims of piracy, racism, unbridled power struggles, hostile takeovers and a love affair that might be the cause of it all.

Three sailing groups are the focal points: the U.S. Women's Challenge, The Women's Challenge and Ocean Ventures Management Ltd.

Yesterday, Ocean Ventures, a New Zealand firm that built the Whitbread 60s raced by the Yamaha syndicate and the U.S. Women's Challenge on the first leg from Southampton, England, to Punta del Este, named Dawn Riley as the new skipper of the women's boat and renamed the entry The Women's Challenge.

The U.S. Women's Challenge, headed by former Annapolis resident Nance Frank of Key West, Fla., and Susan Chiu of Thousand Oaks, Calif., says that Ocean Ventures has stolen its boat -- including sailing gear donated to or purchased by the American group.

Frank, 52, said yesterday from Key West that she has spent more than a decade organizing a Whitbread syndicate and now Ocean Ventures is trying to rip 10 years out of her life.

"We have a contract to purchase this boat, and we are current on our payments until Jan. 7," Frank said. "I can't imagine how anybody could think they could take the boat and all the things that are on it."

Aside from the boat itself, Frank said, the sails, electronics, provisions and other gear are owned by the U.S. Women's Challenge.

"Like the spinnaker that Key West gave us, or the spinnaker that these two little girls and their parents gave to us," Frank said.

According to Frank and Chiu, the major financial backer of the U.S. Women's Challenge, more than 10,000 Americans have donated money or goods to the campaign.

After arriving in Punta del Este last month, Frank's group issued a statement that said it would be unable to continue because it lacked a major financial sponsor. But Frank says that her purchase agreement is not contingent on racing in or completing the Whitbread.

David Glenn of Ocean Ventures and who heads Yamaha, a joint New Zealand-Japan syndicate, and who now presides over The Women's Challenge, said yesterday from Punta del Este that his group is acting properly under New Zealand laws.

"The situation is that, unfortunately, Nance didn't have the finances to continue and issued a public statement [to that effect]," Glenn said, "and as owners of the boat, we have seen fit to act in our best interests of mitigating losses that we stood to incur."

Glenn said The Women's Challenge is looking for a major sponsor and hopes to have one by the time the fleet reaches Fremantle early in January.

"This is a form of international piracy, really, commandeering a boat. . . ." Chiu said. "We are legally entitled to that boat whether we race or not. It is not for them to decide."

Chiu said she and Frank had been recruiting crew members and trying to get them to Uruguay in time for the start.

Frank said attorneys for the U.S. Women's Challenge have sent a letter to Whitbread race chairman Ian Wilmont Bailey saying the takeover was illegal, but on Tuesday race officials gave their blessing to Riley and The Women's Challenge.

Frank said she still has hopes of keeping The Women's Challenge from the starting line.

Power struggles

The 10 years Frank put into getting a Whitbread racer out of the English Channel and then southwest on the Atlantic Ocean toward Uruguay seemed well worth it to her and Chiu on Sept. 25, the day the race started in Southampton.

"When we left for the boat the morning of the race, everybody was in high spirits," said Chiu, a registered nurse who went aboard as cook and medic. "The girls were very enthusiastic."

But by the end of Day 2, the women had fallen into last place after the mainsail ripped and repairs continued for a couple of days.

What had been a bright beginning, Chiu said, became a time of testing, and the crew included several strong personalities, foremost of which may have been watch leader Mikaela von Koskull of Finland and navigator Adrienne Cahalan of Australia.

"Right from the start, Mikaela was systematically belittling the whole project, and how we had organized it -- and Nance especially," said Chiu, a longtime friend of Frank's. "I heard anti-Semitic type comments made from her, things about Jews."

As a watch leader, von Koskull had charge of the boat's racing performance and maintenance as well as crew morale on certain shifts.

"She [van Koskull] had a power hostility, no question, a rivalry with Nance and was freely ventilating her hostility to these younger girls in the crew. . . . It was done behind her back, while Nance was sleeping."

Von Koskull could not be reached for comment.

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