"Deep down, he really would have liked to have done it," she said. "It was hard for him to come to grips with how maybe he wasn't quite as quick on his feet as he would like to be."
Just do it
Since he was a kid, Collins was expected to be a fighter, a winner. When he was 6, his father dressed him in a miniature military uniform and paraded him in front of his World War II Army buddies -- a little soldier and his first-born son.
"I'd joke with George's brother, 'Go on and cry to your mother, this one's the mother's boy,' " said George Collins, the sailor's 76-year-old father. "But not George. George was a father's boy."
Collins and his father chronicle much of the younger George's history in terms of action. Not surprising, says his younger brother, Robert, 53, who summarizes the family philosophy this way:
"Everybody is always on the go. Keep going. Just fill your life with everything you possibly can. Work out. Play hard. Keep in shape. And do the best you can."
Collins grew up a mischievous kid, the ringleader of all his neighbors on Sumack Street in West Haven, Conn. He was forever organizing games of what he calls "blue-collar sports" -- baseball, football, basketball.
Before George could walk, his father was throwing balled-up pieces of paper at him.
"I'd always wanted him to be a big-league ballplayer from the day he was born," said the elder Collins. "I gave him a bat and a ball. Nineteen windows I had to repair."
By the time he hit Virginia Military Institute, Collins was a top jock with the world in his pocket. He was dating Maureen, a blond, blue-eyed beauty queen touring the country as 1960's America's Junior Miss. He had the air of someone who won at everything he tried.
That's when his luck turned. During a college physical, the doctor heard a strange hissing noise with his stethoscope and found Collins' heart was pumping blood into his lungs, a defect since birth that had gone undetected.
Seven months after surgery, Collins had become the school's top swimming champion, regaining his strength by doing laps with his clothes and boots on.
But while the competition could ignore the 26-inch purple scar searing across his skin, military doctors could not. When Collins tried to fulfill his lifelong dream of becoming an Air Force fighter pilot, the physicians stood in his way.
For new direction, he looked to his father, a Yale man who planned educational programs for the U.S. State Department. He tried to measure up.
"My father is a genius," Collins said. "When your Dad's a genius, you've got to figure out a new way to succeed."
Putting aside a brief attempt at minor-league baseball, Collins chose the corporate world. He enrolled at American University's business school. After assorted investment jobs, he landed at T. Rowe Price in 1971 as the head of the firm's newly created fixed-income division.
During his tenure at the firm, Collins developed a reputation for finding the best people, staying out of their way and always backing a winner in top management disputes.
By 1984, he was chief executive officer. On his watch, the company's profits rose from $7 million to more than $98 million.
Collins stepped down as CEO in April and became a member of T. Rowe Price's board of directors. As he announced his retirement to his top staff, he unveiled plan B: The Whitbread.
Although he had started sailing at 18, Collins did not compete in his first offshore race until 1990. Five years later, the Whitbread committee's members came to scout out Baltimore and Annapolis as a possible stopover point for the 1997-1998 race.
Collins gave the tour. He had toyed with the idea of the round-the-world for several months, but when he heard that his entry could bring the race to the bay, he told them Chessie was on its way.
Of course, he understood intellectually that this would mean months of sheer physical discomfort while the boat was at sea. But like a blooming love affair, the romance of the Whitbread at times overpowered his reason.
At first, he liked the notion that speed racers barred all creature comforts from the boat -- including an extra pair of socks -- to keep the vessel light and fast. But after the trans-Atlantic, he was less enthralled by that idea and vowed to take his ski jacket.
"You want to sit out there and freeze your butt off or put another half-a-pound on the boat?" he asked. "Guess which one I choose?"
No sailor can really prepare for the harshness of a Whitbread. The boat is freezing and loud -- no heat, no insulation, no shower, no square inch that is dry. Occasionally after practice, Collins would say jokingly, "Christ, let me off that damn boat."
Last month, when Collins set out for the Fastnet race, he saw a friend loading up a cruising vessel with "what must have been 5,000 pounds of food and a chef." Collins was eating high-protein freeze-dried Thai chicken. He was palpably envious.