Test of Champions

October 09, 1994

The Chesapeake Bay has more than its share of world-class racing sailors, and a few world-class races. But with the coming of the next Whitbread Round the World Race in 1998, Maryland will welcome the World Cup of ocean racing.

Nothing, with the possible exception of single-handed globe-circling races, can compare with the Whitbread as a test of sailing skills. Not even the much ballyhooed America's Cup. The America's Cup is often won on the drawing board and test tanks. The Whitbread is a test of endurance and skill on the oceans. Said Dennis Connor, who reveled in his three victories of the America's Cup and headed a U.S. entry in the 1993-94 Whitbread, in an uncharacteristic understatement: "It's not fun. This is a serious ocean race for serious racers."

The seventh Whitbread -- one about every four years -- will touch at Baltimore and Annapolis in the last stages of a contest that will cover 31,000 miles in eight months. It starts in England, races to the southern tip of Africa, through the ugliest waters in the world to Australia and New Zealand, around Cape Horn to South America, the Atlantic Ocean to Florida and the Chesapeake. The last legs are across the Atlantic to a French port, then a short -- back to Southampton.

Between each of the nine legs the racers stop for a week or more, depending on how long they had sailed. That's when envious local sailors get a look at the boats and the chance to mix with their crews. It's when the world's sailing press descends on the stopover port. That's the payoff for Baltimore and Annapolis: showing off the bay's virtues as one of the world's best pleasure sailing grounds. With an international television audience well in the millions following the race, the event should pay off in more sailing visitors from abroad.

The attraction of the Chesapeake stopover should also attract more U.S. corporate support for the race. Despite this country's great sailing traditions, it has shamefully neglected the Whitbread. Not until the race just completed was there a successful U.S. entry. And it took the luster of Mr. Connor to accomplish that. Corporate sponsors look for a payback in publicity -- European sponsors vie with each other for maximum exposure -- and the Chesapeake layover should give some U.S. companies the dividends they seek.

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