Chessie back in it after poor Leg 2 start In ninth as gun sounds, Md. boat recovers to 4th

November 09, 1997|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ABOARD CHESSIE -- With just two seconds to go to the gun for the start of the race off Cape Town, South Africa, Dee Smith is shouting desperately: "Am I overlapping? Am I overlapping?"

The co-skipper is at the wheel of Chessie Racing, the Maryland boat in the Whitbread Round the World Race, and he wants to turn across the starting line immediately after the gun goes off.

For 10 minutes, he has maneuvered to get the boat sailing parallel to the line, poised for a split-second start that will put him at the head of the fleet of nine boats.

But now, at the worst time, Chessie's bow is closing on the stern of the Norwegian boat Innovation Kvaerner. Jerry Kirby, the Chessie bowman, signals from the front that the boats are overlapping.

Chessie is boxed in. It cannot cross the line until Kvaerner has done so. It's a terrible start to the second leg of the 31,600-mile circumnavigation. Chessie crosses the line last of the nine boats.

The atmosphere on board the 60-foot racer is glum. With 4,600 miles of rough sailing to Fremantle, Australia, ahead of Chessie's crew, being a few seconds late over the line is hardly decisive. But you can sense no one is pleased.

Having finished Leg 1 from Southampton, England, to Cape Town, in fifth position, the crew views Leg 2 as its chance to move into the top three. But when the boat does finally cross the line here, the crew worsens its position by being slow in flying the spinnaker.

"We're kind of in a pocket here," Smith grumbles. "We'll just have to get out of it later."

Chessie follows the eight other boats around the first marker, and then suddenly Smith is shouting again: "Get somebody up [the mast] for the top batten." The backstay has caught on the batten, which stiffens the sail.

Within seconds, Kirby, one of the boat's two bowmen, who take care of problems aloft, has clipped his harness onto a halyard and is almost sprinting up the mast to free the snared rope 100 feet above the sea. Things are not looking good.

Chessie trails the other boats, with Britain's Silk Cut setting the pace, back across Table Bay, and then things suddenly start to go right. The boats engage in a series of tacks close to the shore, where there is more wind coming off Lion's Head.

Chessie starts sailing alarmingly close to the rocky shore in trying to squeeze an extra puff or two of the light wind. With the surf breaking over rocks ahead, George Collins, who has invested an estimated $5 million in the Chessie campaign, mutters: "Let's get the hell out of here."

But Chessie sails on toward the white surf for a few more seconds before Smith orders a tack. Again and again, he sails close to shore, and slowly he starts to catch up. First, he passes the Swedish boat EF Education with its all-female crew that finished Leg 1 in ninth position. Next, he passes Merit Cup, from Monaco, second in Leg 1.

Swedish Match, eighth in Leg 1, has taken a gamble, heading out to sea, hoping to find wind, but already has fallen way behind the fleet. The gamble later would pay off when it would take the lead.

From ninth at the start, within an hour Chessie has clawed its way back to sixth, and is sailing in the wake of Leg 1-winner EF Language, sister yacht of the women's boat.

"We're still learning how to sail the boat," Collins says. "Here we are. We've sailed the boat 15,000 miles and we're still learning to sail it. These boats are very user-unfriendly. They're high-tech boats."

As the wind drops, Collins, who is leaving the longest and toughest legs of the race to younger sailors, decides it is time for him to lighten the boat by disembarking. Each boat is allowed three guests for the start of each leg.

"We're not helping anymore," he says.

Getting off a sailboat under way can be a little tricky. There are basically two ways: Jump into the water and be picked up by an escorting inflatable, not an attractive option when sailing in the melted icebergs that lap this coast, but sometimes necessary in rough conditions; or clamber over the lifelines and jump onto the escort boat as it keeps pace with the yacht.

Fortunately, the sea swells are rolling in slowly, and Collins transfers with little difficulty. Reasonably satisfied, he watches Chessie sail off southward, well in contention. Within another hour, Chessie would move into fourth position. (Approximately 13 hours later, the boat would still be in fourth.)

"They're back in touch. They're in the middle of the pack," Collins says. "Anything can happen now."

Earlier, before Chessie leaves for the high seas, the dockside is crowded with wives and children. Co-skipper Mark Fischer gives his two daughters a final hug and kisses his wife, Stephanie, goodbye and then heads Chessie out of the harbor under motor to the sounds of Sheryl Crow singing "A Change Will Do You Good."

Quickly, Fischer, Smith and Chessie's Spanish navigator, Juan Vila, huddle around the wheel discussing start tactics. Still under motor power, the crew is called together for a pre-race briefing.

Vila predicts light sailing until they get south of Cape Point. Then the winds will start to pick up as they encounter the westerlies that give the Roaring Forties their notoriety. These sailors can't wait.

"I can't think of a better leg to go sailing," Smith says. "Big wind, big waves and they're all behind you. Who cares if it's cold?"

The crew members crowd together for a fists-in ritual and then get to work. Within seconds, the mainsail is up and fills with 13 knots of wind. The sails look as though they have been ironed on, and the boat's rail dips toward the water.

The official countdown begins. Over the radio from the official start boat comes the "10, 9, 8, 7, 6 " Smith works craftily to position the boat. And then Innovation Kvaerner gets in the way.

The boats are expected to take 17 days, sailing through some of the worst weather nature can produce, to reach Fremantle.

Pub Date: 11/09/97

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