Women tackle toughest challenge Despite disadvantages, EF Education crew eager for Southern Ocean test

The Whitbread Watch

November 12, 1997|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- The hard sailing in the Southern Ocean will test all the sailors in the Whitbread Round the World Race, but none more so than the all-woman crew aboard the Swedish boat EF Education.

With less upper-body strength than the men, they will have to cope with the same sort of heavy-weight sail changes in gale force winds and mountainous seas. They will have to wake up extra hands more often to help get the sails up and down. They will have to anticipate turns earlier than the male crews to keep control of a 64-foot boat built for sheer speed.

"In strong conditions we cannot push the boat in the same way [as the men] because in the long term it is so hard," French skipper Christine Guillou said. "That is the difference between boys and girls."

Guillou, a veteran of sailing in the North Atlantic and the storm-tossed Bay of Biscay, said, "I am used to sailing in extreme conditions. But I think the Southern Ocean is difficult because it's different weather, different waves, and maybe a different sensation."

Lisa Charles, the American bowman, anticipating the conditions during the stopover at the end of Leg 1 here, said, "We know it will be a challenge, personally and as a crew. But you have to adjust to your capacity. I think we are strong enough and experienced enough that when we are in rough conditions we try to get more sleep, maintain our strength, change gear within ourselves. I don't think it hurts us that much. I think we can do pretty well," Charles said.

EF Education is the third all-woman crew during the past decade to enter a Whitbread, one of the toughest endurance tests in sport.

It finished ninth in the 7,350-mile Leg 1 from Southampton, England, to Cape Town, ahead only of the Dutch boat BrunelSunergy, which broke its rudder. In 34 days, 1 hours at sea, the women lost an average 8 pounds in body weight, not through lack of food, but expended energy. "For the first leg it was more weather than a strength problem," said Guillou, a sailor since childhood in the French port of Cherbourg.

Early in the Leg 1, EF Education lost contact with the fleet leaders in the Bay of Biscay and fell victim to one unhelpful weather pattern after another, the worst being high pressure that stopped them at the island of Trindade.

"One of the main problems is to lose contact with the fleet where you have the same weather conditions," Guillou said. "On this leg when we were behind it got worse and worse and worse."

Asked about being competitive with the men, Guillou said, "It is difficult to judge because the weather conditions were different. . . . We are confident we can finish among the top five boats."

The women do complain of a lack of opportunity to get the same racing experience as men.

"Our learning curve is probably a lot higher than other crews," Charles said. "We have the best group of girls possible, the best boat, but we don't all have 15 years of experience. It's just another level of experience [with the men]."

Pub Date: 11/12/97

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