After dream sets sail, Collins bids farewell Chessie Racing chief leaves 90 minutes after Whitbread start

September 22, 1997|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SOUTHAMPTON, England -- It was only a boat. And only a dream.

But for years, George Collins worked for this one moment, spending millions of dollars and untold hours so that he could command a gleaming yacht as it left a harbor and streaked into a great race -- and adventure.

Yesterday, Collins brought the Maryland-based Chessie Racing to the start line of the seventh Whitbread Round the World Race.

He stayed on board for the first 90 minutes of the race, as the boat zigzagged through an obstacle course loaded with 4,000 pleasure craft, a gigantic car ferry and a guy on a jet ski.

And then, Collins, the guiding force for this against-all-odds Maryland boat, bid farewell to his yacht and crew.

He jumped onto a chase boat to let younger, more experienced competitors race for themselves in a nine-month journey that combines grace with guts.

So, was it worth it?

"A premature question," said Collins, the retired chief executive officer of the Baltimore mutual fund company T. Rowe Price. "Ask me when the race is over. They had to drag me off today."

The Whitbread is a nine-leg race over 31,600 nautical miles. And yesterday's start was simply the beginning of a monthlong, 7,350-mile leg through the Atlantic Ocean to Cape Town, South Africa.

The fleet is due to hit Baltimore on April 22 and finish back in Southampton on May 24.

Even though this is a marathon, the racers made sure the start was spectacular, as 10 multimillion-dollar yachts -- Whitbread 60s -- lined up in a strand of water known as the Solent, extending between the English mainland and the Isle of Wight.

Overhead, there were eight helicopters, a blimp and the streaking jets of the Red Arrows display team.

Britain's Prince Andrew pushed a button to fire the start cannon at precisely 2 p.m.

And then, the cavalry charge began, as the crews pulled up their spinnakers to catch a breeze of nearly 20 knots.

"It was chaotic," Collins said. "And it was wild."

Paul Cayard, skipper of the Swedish yacht EF Language, was first off the line, as his crew deftly unleashed an enormous spinnaker.

And where Cayard led, thousands followed, as the fleet of spectator boats roared with the racers. Meanwhile, on shore, thousands of spectators watched the start.

Five minutes into the race, the U.S. yacht Toshiba had a close encounter with a press boat, smashing into the side of the 30-foot wooden craft named Triton. Toshiba's boom then swung wildly and snapped the aerials that clung to the press boat's wheelhouse.

Ten minutes later, the Norwegian yacht Kvaerner Innovation blew out an asymmetrical spinnaker after making an abrupt turn to avoid a passing spectator boat.

The start was so tense that Lawrie Smith, the British-born skipper of Silk Cut, was chain-smoking cigarettes as he barked orders to his crew. Earlier, he had told a television interviewer: "We're just trying to get out of here in good shape. Nice and clean."

Silk Cut's watch leader, Gordon Maguire, had predicted that the start would be "quite a scary time. We don't want to take any risks."

Finally, about 90 minutes into the race, the fleet veered past The Needles, a distinctive row of rocks at the edge of the Isle of Wight.

And then, they headed for the English Channel and the open seas beyond.

The tightly packed bunch was expected to spread out during the journey.

British bookmakers installed Toshiba as the 11-4 betting favorite, and the boat performed smoothly, taking the lead three hours into the race, as skipper Chris Dickson deftly maneuvered his crew and sails.

EF Language, Merit Cup, Silk Cut and Chessie Racing followed the leader.

"My instructions to the crew were to stay in the game -- and go fast," Collins said. "I told them not to let these other boats get away from them."

Collins plans to join the Chessie Racing yacht on five more legs. Initially, he planned to make the round-the-world voyage through often-perilous seas, but decided at the last moment to bring in guest skippers.

It was a tough call for a hard-charging corporate boss, but in the end, it was the right one.

"The boats are too high-tech," Collins said. "I call them user-unfriendly. You have to stay on them all the time. They're fast and powerful."

Still, for Collins and his crew, the day was a thrill.

Early yesterday, there were tearful scenes at the dock, as friends and families gathered around the racers before they headed to the start.

James Allsopp, a co-skipper aboard Chessie Racing, kept hugging his sons, James, 9, and Cole, 8, as his wife, Holley, stood nearby.

"My dad told us, 'Good luck. Bye and I love you,' " Cole said.

"He told us he'd miss us," James said. "And he asked if we would miss him. We will."

Holley Allsopp called the mood at the dock "phenomenal."

"The whole spirit was with the crews," she said. "There are few things in the world that are this exciting, peaceful, nonpolitical and just downright daredevilish. It takes a lot of guts to untie the boat and go sail around the world.

"They'll be OK once they pull that umbilical cord and get out to sea," she added. "They'll be one terrific sailing machine."

Pub Date: 9/22/97

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