Chessie laments what could have been Fifth in Whitbread, crew recounts 1st leg

October 25, 1997|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- A major mistake, a brilliant move and then an unlucky break combined to put Chessie Racing in fifth place at the end of the first leg of the Whitbread Round the World Race.

"There are some things we could have done better, clearly," said George Collins, former head of Baltimore mutual fund company T. Rowe Price and the major sponsor of the Maryland entry in the race.

The mistake came early in the 7,350-mile run from Southampton, England, as Chessie lay in fourth place, a mile behind the eventual leg winner, EF Language of Sweden, and next to the second-place finisher, Merit Cup of Monaco.

"We still didn't know how to sail the boat as well as they did," said Mark Fischer, Chessie's co-skipper.

As the lead boats sailed downwind on the shortest course, Chessie held close to the wind, trying to gain more speed

while also having to cover more distance. "They got away from us," Fischer said. James Allsopp, of North Sails, Annapolis, the boat's other co-skipper, took the decision with navigator Juan Vila.

"We were doing very well. We jibed about half an hour earlier than Merit, thinking the wind was going to shift back, and it didn't. She jibed half an hour later. After that we were never able to get the same wind she had to sail the same course."

Observed Fischer philosophically: "Sometimes you guess right. Sometimes you guess wrong."

Said Collins, standing by Chessie in Cape Town harbor where it is being stripped, cleaned and refurbished for the second leg of the race in two weeks: "We went the wrong way. It was a small decision that was later stretched to a monster decision. All of a sudden, instead of being first, second or third, we were fifth or sixth."

After the Bay of Biscay, the boats headed for Cape Verde, off the coast of Africa. Here the normal course is to the west of the islands, where the winds are fresher and the angle of entry into the dreaded Doldrums is better. Now Chessie was lying just behind Silk Cut of Britain. For 1 1/2 days, the boats sailed within sight of each other.

Navigator Villa, on his third Whitbread run, decided to take a risk and go north of the islands. Said Allsopp: "It was a little scary because on our route [guide], it said don't go to the north of the island because you can get stuck. It was a little bit of a risk, but it worked."

It put them ahead of Silk Cut, and they kept that margin until the Equator.

"It was a brilliant maneuver," Collins said. "He made the right decision. It helped get us back into the race."

"We got a break there," Fischer said. "Juan did a good job to get us through there."

But having gone north they now had to head south to get back on track. This involved a 30-mile detour, which ate up all the advantage they had again over Silk Cut, which again took the lead at the Equator and eventually arrived in Cape Town almost 16 hours earlier than Chessie.

Once in the Doldrums, the Chessie crew ran into difficulties coping with the constant jibing to find the slightest breeze. This involved moving gear from one side of the boat to the other and repeated sail changes. The more practiced crews on the other boats did a better job.

"We had a little difficulty changing gears in the Doldrums," Allsopp said. "One minute you are in zero winds, the next you are in 20 knots of wind from a cloud. We didn't figure out what to do that well."

In three days, Merit Cup extended its lead to 20 miles. That lead was enough to allow Merit to escape the light winds of the high pressure zone that stopped Chessie in its tracks for two days at the island of Trindade.

"We were in touch with [Merit]," Fischer said. "All of a sudden he was 100 miles ahead, and there was nothing we could do about it."

The Chessie crew went swimming and cleaned the bottom of the boat.

The leading boats "just moved out," Allsopp said. Every six hours Chessie received a position report from race headquarters. It showed the gap widening between it and the leaders.

"We got trapped by a high-pressure system," Allsopp said. "There was no way we could get out of it."

But had they not taken the wrong tack in the Bay of Biscay they would have probably passed Trindade before the high-pressure zone settled in, keeping them up with the leaders.

Instead, they finished fifth, still in the running but facing a daunting challenge to overtake some of the best-sailed boats in the world.

"It's going to be very, very tough," Collins said. "I want to be in the top three boats. We have proved right now that we are in the middle of the pack. We have to do better than that. I don't want to go 'round the world in the middle of the pack. I want to be a little better."

Pub Date: 10/25/97

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