'Challenge' is out of Whitbread Financial problems cited for withdrawal

October 30, 1997|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- America's Challenge withdrew suddenly from the Whitbread Round the World Race yesterday, citing financial problems involving "a third party" in Mexico.

The syndicate used an agent in Mexico to handle the multimillion-dollar funding for the campaign from the boat's four Mexican sponsors.

Neil Barth, chairman of the America's Challenge syndicate, said the "reluctant" withdrawal was because of "unforeseen circumstances involving a third party in Mexico, which have in the past month undermined the ongoing financial viability of the campaign as it was structured."

America's Challenge officials here declined to give further details because of the possibility of legal action.

The withdrawal came 24 hours after an earlier race shock -- the resignation of skipper Chris Dickson from pre-race favorite Toshiba, which finished Leg 1, 7,350 nautical miles from Southampton, England, in sixth place.

America's Challenge finished the leg seventh in the 10-boat race, a reasonable placing for a campaign that had experienced enough uncertainties from the beginning to cause the boat to arrive late in England for preparations for the Sept. 21 start.

"It has been stop-start, and it has not been an ideal set of circumstances," said America's Challenge skipper Ross Field, 48, a veteran ocean racer from New Zealand sailing his fourth Whitbread. Field was the winning skipper in the W60 class on Yamaha in the last Whitbread, in 1993-94.

He said he was given an indication of possible financial problems 10 days out of Cape Town, but on arrival "everything appeared to me to be 100 percent."

Barth called him yesterday after speaking to the sponsors and told him America's Challenge was out of the race.

Barth's statement said the withdrawal was not a reflection on "the integrity" of the four Mexican sponsors -- Cuervo, Corona, Herdez and Jugos de Valle.

"They have delivered as required," Barth said. "But we have jointly been the victims of unfortunate circumstance and have decided to terminate our relationships, and as a consequence America's Challenge is being honorably withdrawn from the Whitbread Race."

Race officials said sponsors usually pay for the boat and its sails -- about $3.5 million -- and advance a $500,000 entry fee. The owners of each boat are required to give assurance to race organizers that their participation in the race -- a 31,600-mile circumnavigation expected to last nine months -- is fully funded.

Once the race starts, the main outlays are in crew salaries, and running and repair costs. These can be funded in advance or on a leg-by-leg basis.

It is not known how America's Challenge was being funded. It had ordered a new set of heavy weather sails for Leg 2, 4,600 miles through the Southern Ocean to Fremantle, Australia.

"Neil Barth was very confident [of the funding]," said Ian Bailey-Willmot, the Whitbread race director. "He paid me a great chunk of money to participate in the race. I don't think he would have done that if he did not think he would be there."

One clue to trouble surrounding America's Challenge was that, unlike other yachts arriving here, the boat had not been hauled or had its mast stepped for inspection. Nor was a cradle available to hold it. It was hoping to use one of the other team's cradles.

"We were looking forward to developing and further optimizing the yacht," Barth said. "I really did expect America's Challenge to be very competitive from Cape Town onwards."

Skipper Field said: "When I heard the news, I was surprised, disappointed and angry."

He said he had not been involved in the sponsorship of the campaign, but he had worked on the design and building of the boat. America's Challenge is one of only two boats in the race not designed by Bruce Farr and Associates of Annapolis.

"To be honest, we don't have a budget now to compete in the Whitbread," Field said.

Some members of his crew, he said, already had been approached by other skippers looking for job during the next leg.

Pub Date: 10/30/97

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