Chessie ends Leg 1 32 days wiser Md. crew finishes 5th, ahead of 2 U.S. boats

October 24, 1997|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- Chessie Racing, Maryland's entry in the Whitbread Round the World Race, finished fifth in the first leg last night with a southeasterly breeze filling her sails and her toe rail dipping into the water.

But for an hour before she picked up the final breeze to carry her home in the dark of a starlit African night, she sat becalmed in a sloppy sea, her sails flapping, her crew frustrated, a mile or so short of the finish line.

"It was probably the worst tension we had on the boat," said David Scott, one of the watch captains. "We could smell the land, see the land, hear the land, but we couldn't get to it yet. We were trying to get here as quickly as we could."

Her slack jib replaced by a light windseeker foresail -- normally used in the Doldrums -- Chessie found just enough movement to carry her into the offshore breeze that pushed her smartly into harbor here.

Her fifth position -- in the middle of the 10-boat fleet -- came at the end of the 32 days, 6 hours and 12 minutes it took her to sail the 7,350 nautical miles from Southampton, where the race started Sept. 21.

On hand to greet the bearded, sun-tanned crew were wives and children, and the man who made it possible, George Collins, former head of Baltimore mutual fund company T. Rowe Price and chief sponsor of the Chessie program.

Almost as soon as Chessie crossed the line, Collins jumped from a small inflatable dinghy onto the racer to congratulate the crew on its surprisingly strong performance. But first he deposited a -- box of soda, beer, potato chips and candies on the deck for the 12 men who had eaten nothing but freeze-dried food for more than four weeks.

Several wives and children were also in the dinghy. Cary Swain, in bright yellow weather gear, was waving a sign for her South African husband saying, "Welcome Home, Jonathan." Jonathan Swain, a sail trimmer and helmsman, is a native of Durban, and his parents also were dockside to welcome him.

Sally Scott, sitting in the stern of the dinghy, managed to stretch up and kiss her husband, David, even as Chessie sailed slowly on. In turn, David Scott reached down and patted the head of their excited 6-year-old son, Harry.

There was a special gift for English crew member Rick Deppe -- photographs of the daughter born while he was at sea. He immediately went below deck to see them under the boat's electric light. He still will not see Isabel, born Sept. 25, four days after the race began, until the boat's next stop in Fremantle, Australia, in about five weeks.

With the photographs tucked safely in the trousers of his weather gear, the proud father said: "I am sure there are a million more of them. Unfortunately, I'm not going to be able to go home this stopover because there is too much work to do on the boat."

Collins, who has put an estimated $5 million into the venture, said: "They seem to have had a very good time. They seem to have enjoyed themselves. They were riding 30-foot waves at one point. That's a hell of a ride."

Collins initially planned to co-skipper the boat the 32,000 miles around the world, but at the last minute decided to leave the long first and tough second legs to two more experienced or younger captains, James Allsopp, 53, and Mark Fischer, 39, both Americans. He will sail most of the later legs.

"At times I wanted to be out there," he said. "But I will not second-guess them at all. They are going to make better decisions than I am going to make.

"We can say we certainly had a good race. I don't think anyone picked us as high as fifth. I hope we have learned some things, and I hope this gives us the opportunity to climb up the fleet. We don't want to sit in fifth place."

Noting that Chessie finished ahead of the other U.S. entrants, Toshiba and America's Challenge, both with more experienced crews, Collins said: "You are looking at a 10 percent possibility of us beating those other two boats. No one would have given us a chance.

"In this kind of fleet, with the kind of skippers and navigators you have, it is no disgrace to come in 10th, ninth or eighth."

Once the dart-shaped yacht, its fire-breathing Chessie monster mascot decorating its hull, was moored in its berth at the foot of Table Mountain, families scrambled aboard to hug and kiss the men they had not seen for more than a month.

As Fischer held his two daughters, one in each arm, they became fascinated with his short, blond beard. "I shaved twice," told them. "That's why my beard is not really long."

With his daughters hanging on his every word, he said: "We went really fast sometimes. We went really slow sometimes. Sometimes we didn't go anywhere at all."

Eventually his wife, Stephanie, told the girls: "You have to leave Daddy now, because I want to give him a hug." Then they were in each other's arms.

"The thing you miss the most is the family. There is no question about it," Fischer said. "Second, I can't wait to sleep in a bed that doesn't move and has dry sheets on it and have a shower."

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