Since 1st Whitbread, race takes new tack Computers, sponsors, TV alter nature of event

September 21, 1997|By Peter Baker | Peter Baker,SUN STAFF

At its beginning in 1973, the Whitbread Round the World Race was sailed by 17 teams of sportsmen, professional yacht racers, soldiers and sailors in yachts as large as 80 feet and as small as 32.

Compared to transoceanic racing today, it was a simple affair. Piloting was by dead reckoning or celestial navigation. Weather forecasts were made by what the eye could see, the nose could smell and the body could feel in the changing surface of the ocean - supplemented, of course, by whatever information might be gleaned from the radios aboard.

But then, in 1973, when the first Whitbread started from Portsmouth, England, few knew much about how to race breakneck around the world in wind-driven vessels.

The heyday of the clipper ship trade was a century and more past, and gone with it were the storied iron men and their tall, square-rigged wooden ships.

Three decades ago, Sir Francis Chichester, an English yachtsman, set out to test the record passages of the previous century by sailing in 1966 from England to Australia.

Colonel Bill Whitbread of the British brewing family and Admiral Otto Steiner of the Royal Naval Sailing Association took it from there. According to lore, they conceived the idea for the race over a pint of beer 25 years ago.

Whitbread has remained the primary sponsor, although this year Volvo paid a reported $8 million to buy into the sponsorship, and the race name was amended to The Whitbread Round the World Race for the Volvo Trophy. Volvo will become the lead sponsor on June 1, 1998.

When the race began in 1973, it cost about $500,000 to field a boat and crew. Now sponsors spend between $6 million and $10 million per boat. Salaries for crew members start at $20,000 and range to $200,000, with some skippers earning much more. "It comes out to about $3 an hour," said Kimo Worthington, a crew member aboard EF Language.

The prize, however, has remained the same through the years: The winning crew still receives a handshake and a trophy, nothing more.

In 1973, racers' communications often did not exceed a 50-mile radio range. Today, the boats are fitted with computerized satellite communications, including television uplinks that will transmit live video feeds from boats as they are racing.

Television coverage will be more extensive than ever - ESPN and ESPN2 have scheduled 28 hours for the U.S. audience - and instant updates of the boats' progress will be available on the Internet. As contact with the racers has improved, so has corporate interest in sponsoring boats.

European brewers, tailors and tobacco companies had been the mainstay sponsors. For this race, however, there is new blood - computer companies, energy development corporations and even Swedish Match, the world's largest maker of matches. All are eager to have their corporate logos flying on the face of a spinnaker when the boats come into ports around the world.

The ports, too, expect to benefit. In Auckland, New Zealand, in the last Whitbread, for example, more than 815,000 people passed through the Whitbread Village.

The fleet is expected to arrive in Baltimore on April 22, and the Whitbread Village set up along the Inner Harbor will open that day. Events are scheduled in Baltimore through April 30, when the fleet leaves for Annapolis. After three days of festivities in Annapolis, the last leg of the race will begin at the Bay Bridge on May 3.

Pub Date: 9/21/97

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