'Doctor's' prescription: Hold on to hats Wind to kick-start boats as Leg 3 gets under way

December 13, 1997|By Bruce Stannard | Bruce Stannard,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

FREMANTLE, Australia -- When Fremantle sailors speak of "the Doctor," they're talking not about some medico, but the cool, southwesterly sea breeze that blows hard throughout the summer here. The locals reckon you can set your clock by it.

Around noon, when the vast, semi-arid hinterland behind the city heats up, all that rising hot air sucks a cold breeze in from the Indian Ocean, which means that one of the few certainties in the uncertain Whitbread Round the World Race is that when the nine boats bear down on the starting line of Leg 3 at 1:30 p.m. local time today, the Doctor will be "blowing like the clappers," as they say here.

Dr. Roger Badham, known affectionately as "Clouds," is the Aussie meteorological expert with a reputation for being correct -- most of the time. The accuracy of his forecasts have several times made the difference between winning and losing in the America's Cup and other big-boat regattas around the world.

Badham said at the start of today's 2,250-nautical-mile leg to Sydney, Australia, there will be a "real nice sea breeze, south-southwest, 15 to 18 knots building to 20."

Thus, the Whitbread sailors expect a spectacular running start with spinnakers flying and perhaps a beam reach to the Fairway Buoy. There, the boats will bear south for Cape Leeuwin, where they will have to make the first major decision of the leg.

What happens next is anyone's guess. The armchair experts (and they are thick along the docks) have their hunches. They expect the relentless hard-drivers among the top professional skippers, men like Briton Lawrie Smith (on Silk Cut) and American Paul Cayard (on EF Language), will dominate.

The Scandinavians are also expected to be with the leaders. Expert observers are impressed with the Viking cool of Norway's Knut Frostad, the 30-year-old skipper of overall points leader Innovation Kvaerner. If there's anyone likely to take a flier around Cape Leeuwin, it's likely to be Frostad.

Gunnar Krantz, the 42-year-old skipper of Leg 2 winner Swedish Match, is also going to be hard to toss.

Prerace favorite Toshiba has been disappointing so far, and if skipper Paul Stanbridge can't get it together, perhaps syndicate maestro Dennis Conner may be on board for Leg 4's short hop from Sydney to Auckland, New Zealand.

Merit Cup has been another underachiever thus far. Its skipper, New Zealander Grant Dalton, sounded almost wistful as he reflected on the prospects of his boat, which finished second in Leg 1 and seventh in Leg 2.

"I hope it develops better for us than it has so far," he said. "One would have expected to have been able to say where the form is by now, but we're really sort of in a haze."

In public, the sailors say the race is still wide open, that any of the nine boats can win. But privately, they see a different scenario.

LTC Pushing these 64-foot racing machines to their absolute limits and at the same time knowing precisely when to ease up requires a level of seamanship and judgment, a degree of fitness and commitment, that quickly establishes the pecking order.

Silk Cut's skipper is a good example. Smith raced from Cape Town, South Africa, to Fremantle without once dousing his spinnaker. He produced a blistering mono-hull speed record in which his boat logged an astonishing 449.1 nautical miles in a 24-hour run.

There's not a lot of hard-nosed support for the also-rans. At the other end of the fleet, the Dutch boat BrunelSunergy, which finished last in the first two legs, now has only two-thirds of its original crew. Most observers agree with British bookmaker William Hill, who has made the Dutch 500-1 outsiders.

Between the sublime and the ridiculous lies a lot of what's called "potential."

Chessie Racing, the Maryland entry in the Whitbread, has "potential," Conner said. But with Chessie syndicate chief George Collins, tactician John Kostecki and trimmer Mike Toppa on board for the first time, it takes a leap of faith to see the boat swooping across the line in Sydney ahead of the pack.

This is where Collins, the recently retired CEO of T. Rowe Price, can make a genuine contribution. No one seriously suggests that Collins is a world-class sailor, least of all the man himself.

But clearly his enviable record in business indicates that he has considerable motivational skills. They will be needed. Indeed, they have been in evidence in Fremantle during the past few weeks as he worked with the Maryland crew to overhaul its boat and make it ready for this critical Leg 3.

Pub Date: 12/13/97

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