Where every ounce counts Whitbread: Saving weight is so important in designing a boat for the round-the-world yacht race that taking extra salt could mean defeat.

March 24, 1997|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN STAFF

One of Baltimore's richest men will sail around the world in a living space the size of a large doghouse. He will not have a shower. He will not have a bathroom door. He will sleep on a 2-foot-wide plank. There will be no blankets, no bedtime reading, no pillows.

The man is George Collins, head of Baltimore mutual fund company T. Rowe Price, and the instrument of his discomfort is the boat he will race around the world in the 1997-1998 Whitbread challenge. In a 31,600-mile race that can be won or lost in a second, no element is more carefully analyzed for speed than the boat itself.

It takes a lot of money to build something this unpleasant. In commissioning the nation's top designer and boatbuilder -- experts who had created winning vessels in the Whitbread and America's Cup -- Collins spent $2.5 million from his own pocket.

"Make me a fast boat," Collins, 56, remembers telling his design team. "That's all I ask."

The result is a vessel that can sail at 35 knots -- as fast on wind alone as some speedboats. The 65-footer operates on the simple concept that anything luxurious isn't light, and anything heavy isn't fast. With this constant calculating over weight, it's no wonder a Collins teammate thinks too much salt and pepper could cause the boat to fall behind.

The vessel, dubbed Chessie, will be completed next month, just as Collins quits his job as chief executive officer. The nine-month race, which includes about 125 days at sea, begins in September in England and has stops in Baltimore and Annapolis in April 1998.

Collins, an amateur who has never sailed across an ocean before, understands that there is only so much a state-of-the-art boat can do for any team. "Just because you spend a lot of money doesn't mean you'll win," he says. "No boat can win a race for you."

True. But a boat can lose a race for even the best sailors.

Boatbuilding is a kind of anorexic art, where experts squeeze micro-pounds from a vessel to keep its weight low. A boat that weighs just 1 percent less than a competitor can finish 1.2 days earlier, long before the other boats limp into port.

At the moment, the Chessie vessel looks like anything but a speed monster. Instead, it is beached like a whale in the oversized shed at Eric Goetz Custom Sailboats in Bristol, R.I.

The work over the past five months has been painstaking. A single bulkhead, a supporting wall below deck, took a month to craft. The angles along the structure demanded laser beam measurements for precision. The deck's details were redesigned time and again. When completed, the boat will have taken more than 20,000 man-hours to build -- the product of 15 workers at Goetz.

Day after day, builders toil over Chessie's frame -- creating the deck and hull in two pieces to save time. A smell of resin wafts through the hull's bare insides, and a smooth layer of gray primer paint covers its flanks. Every now and then, when it is moved, the structure lets out a low groan as it twists against the heavy canvas straps that hold it steady.

In the Yankee accent that characterizes this New England boatyard, builders describe Chessie as a product of old traditions and new sciences. In this boat, they have combined ideas dating to the wooden ships of Melville with technologies used on the space shuttle.

"It's so high-tech, but you build it all yourself," said builder Neal Toulan as he examined the sophisticated steps that took him 10 days to create. "You've done all of it by hand."

Last week, the hull and deck were attached like puzzle pieces. In the next few weeks, the boat will be trucked to the waterfront for fitting of its keel and rudder. The mast will be stepped in April. The boat will be christened May 2 in Baltimore.

When the Whitbread is over, Collins will donate the vessel to the Living Classrooms Foundation, a Baltimore nonprofit group that is using the boat and the race to teach city children about geography, science and engineering.

The boat consists of 1,100 square feet of light, buoyant foam -- enough of it to run the length of an 18-wheeler. The foam is covered with 20 to 30 layers of Kevlar -- the super-strong material used in bulletproof vests. The mast consists of a ton of aluminum -- enough to build a compact car.

Chessie is the only boat created from start to finish by this country's best-known designer and builder. Collins was one of the first to commission Bruce Farr, an Annapolis naval architect who has created designs for America's Cup challengers and Whitbread winners.

The boat, like every other in the race, is a Whitbread 60. Farr is considered a pioneer in this design and will complete nine of the 12 to 16 boats expected to compete in the race.

To construct Chessie, Collins turned to Eric Goetz, the boatbuilding phenom who built the America's Cup victor America and is known for being maniacal about boat weight.

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