Collins reduces role in Whitbread race Limitations: He paid for the boat, but he's older and less experienced than his crew. So George Collins makes an executive decision.

September 18, 1997|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN STAFF

When the starting cannon fires in a round-the-world sailing race Sunday, skipper George Collins will be at the helm -- shouting commands and living a fantasy.

But just as the English shores grow tiny in the distance and the race starts to get real, this Baltimore millionaire will do something odd.

He will jump off the boat.

At that moment, a spectator vessel will pick him up, putting him in the landscape his crew leaves behind.

It is a serious course change for Collins, who paid more than $4 million for his boat and team, only to decide this month that he will diminish his role in the punishing Whitbread contest.

More than a year ago, the 57-year-old corporate executive announced in a news conference that he would leave the top job at Baltimore mutual fund giant T. Rowe Price to create Chessie Racing -- the Chesapeake Bay's first-ever team in the nine-month race.

It was a bold move: An amateur who had not yet crossed an ocean was out to conquer the globe.

But somewhere along the way -- in the frigid waters off the Grand Banks during a practice run across the Atlantic, in the dead-tired early dawn without sleep for three days, in the pub after a preliminary race won largely by the team's marquis players -- reality visited Collins.

It left him with his decision.

While paying the team's bills and overseeing its direction, he would sail only the race's shorter sprints, including a leg from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to Baltimore next April.

He would compete in five of the nine legs but would be absent from the long treks through the harrowing Southern Ocean -- widely seen as the true test in this race.

At the team's compound in England last month, he bluntly told his 12-member crew the facts.

"Chessie Racing is me," he remembers saying. "I'm the reason you're here. It's not an easy thing to kick myself off the boat, but it's the right decision. We're in this thing to win."

Collins' team has hung in there -- one of 10 competitors remaining from an original field of 42.

The boat, built with Collins' money for Baltimore's nonprofit Living Classrooms Foundation, has gotten respect.

Chessie placed a solid fifth in England's Fastnet race last month -- a strong showing in an early match against the other Whitbread contenders.

Collins now is talking more about winning than he is about enduring his own personal test. But if the ultra-competitive Collins is agonizing over his decision to leave behind a quest to round the globe, he is doing so where no one can see.

"At the beginning, I kind of hoped we would be competitive, but I had my doubts," he said last week, gazing at the Chesapeake Bay from his expansive Gibson Island home.

"Everybody was so far ahead of us. But now, it's a different story.

"Of course I'm disappointed, but I don't want to hear that nonsense, 'This was Collins' dream and now he can't do it,' " he added. "You've got to roll with the punches."

The bitter Atlantic

The Atlantic Ocean delivered one of those punches. As the crew brought the boat to England in late July to prepare for the start of the race, Collins experienced his first ocean crossing: 12 days of treacherous seas and inescapable soul-searching.

The ride had been rough. Sailing through the end of a hurricane, Collins got buffeted by 50-knot winds as the boat heeled violently, reaching speeds of 32 knots.

The waves soared to 25 feet. The deck was covered in sleet. Frigid water seeped through his drenched foul weather gear, which he had put on eight times in three days.

Nothing was dry. Everything was cold.

To Collins, the ocean was no longer vast and inanimate, but alive and angry. At 4 a.m. in the Labrador current, about 1,000 miles off Newfoundland, the waves were unrecognizable. They were pounding on his arms and stomach.

"Cut it out," he told Jerry Kirby, the crew member sitting next to him. Only after he got tossed backward did he realize the blows came from the water, not his team-mate.

By the crew's measure, Collins held his own on the trip to England. But he could not help comparing himself with the other men -- most of them in their 30s, sailing since they were toddlers.

It was a stark moment: Thousands of miles from land, realizing just how far out-muscled and out-matched he really was.

While other sailors sometimes neglected their personal EPIRBs -- emergency radios that help locate sailors who fall overboard -- Collins was never without his. He even slept with it, the "on" switch activated.

Meanwhile, his list of aches and pains seemed to grow daily. Bone chips in his left hand began aggravating him in July. His knees locked up in a preliminary sail in April. He tried not to tell people how much it hurt to haul himself above deck.

A head-on car accident near his home in May left him with continual back pain. His left leg hurt from banging into a winch, and he was having trouble finding his balance as the boat bounced through the water.

This was supposed to be a youthful adventure in mid-life. Why, then, did he feel so old?

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