Chilling ride, warm reception Chessie wives, girlfriends relieved as difficult Leg 5 in Southern Ocean ends

March 04, 1998|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SAO SEBASTIAO, Brazil - With Chessie Racing now safely in port, the wives and girlfriends of the 12-man crew are breathing a big, collective sigh of relief that the raging Southern Ocean is history for this Whitbread Round the World race.

"A major sigh of relief," said Jocelyn Thompson, wife of Dee Smith, Chessie's skipper on Leg 5, which started with a light breeze in Auckland, New Zealand, progressed through crashing seas and howling winds, and ended in breathless, sauna-like conditions in the Tropics here.

"They have been through a little bit of everything, a little bit too much of everything," said Thompson, after welcoming her weather-worn husband ashore.

What worried her and other women ashore was the Southern Ocean had already claimed four lives in earlier Whitbreads. Though the nine boats in the current race were built for safety, they were also built for speed. And though no lives have been lost in the past two Whitbreads, the danger is ever-present as the crews push their boats to the extremes of performance.

In Leg 5, in which Chessie finished third, two boats - Britain's Silk Cut and Sweden's EF Education, with its all-female crew - were dismasted. Grant Dalton, skipper of fifth-finishing Merit Cup, fractured his collarbone after falling down the hatch in heavy weather on Feb. 23, five days before he crossed the finish line.

On Chessie, crew member Greg Gendell suffered a gash in his leg to the bone as he was washed from the bow to the mast by a wave. The wound was sealed with 10 staples. There were numerous cuts, bruises and strains on the other boats.

Gunnar Krantz, skipper of fourth-finishing Swedish Match, described Southern Ocean sailing this way: "We drove the boat in a way I don't think anyone can describe. No limits, no margins, very, very scary.

"The boat is rushing around like a mad ox in a paddock. It is on the borderline of irresponsibility, very cold, very wet and very far from anywhere."

The waiting women were aware of what their husbands and boyfriends were going through. Daily they received e-mail messages from the boat. Sometimes there were satellite phone calls.

"It was a love-hate relationship with my computer as I logged on every day," Thompson said. "I was very concerned. My whole heart went with him."

Laura Spanhake, wife of Chessie watch captain Grant "Fuzz" Spanhake, sailing his third Whitbread, said: "What really made me nervous was an e-mail I got from my husband saying it was the worst he had ever seen the Southern Ocean.

"When I was hearing stories of how those waves were crashing over the boat and throwing the guys half ` way down the deck, I was just really glad they were really strapped in the way they were supposed to be.

"Now the Southern Ocean is over, the rest of it, from what the guys all say, is going to be pretty easy. The worst of the race is over. I'm very glad about that."

For the sailors, though, the excitement of the Southern Ocean was preferable to the long, tedious slog into head winds along the Latin American coast to this colorful, small Brazilian port, outside of which Chessie was all but becalmed.

"Still the wind gods are not going to make it easy on us," said "Fuzz" Spanhake in his final, frustrated e-mail from the boat. "The GPS satellite tracking system always seems to say 2 days to go until the finish."

On shore, the women, too, were frustrated. Said Sharon Benton, girlfriend of Chessie crew member Stuart Wilson, a first-time Whitbread racer: "The last 200 miles were more painful than the previous 2,000."

For Cary Swain, whose husband, Jonathan, has a tendency to suffer above-average weight loss on long races, the worst time was when Chessie's auxiliary motor broke down, crippling the desalination system, which converts sea water into fresh water. For nearly six days, the crew had to survive on short water rations and cookies.

"I'm just glad I put extra chocolate on the boat," said Cary Swain, who helped load the supplies on Chessie in Auckland.

During the water crisis, she sent an e-mail to the boat, saying: "We don't care how you do in this leg, we just want you back safely."

Now that her husband is ashore, she said, she worries about his determined efforts to gain weight before he sails again. Here he will try to put on up to 15 pounds before the race restarts March 14 for Leg 6, the 4,750 nautical miles to Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

"I sometimes wonder whether that is healthy for him, but I know he needs it, and he ends up losing it," she said. "I also worry about him getting enough sleep. I sound like a mom."

For Sally Scott, wife of Chessie watch captain David Scott, ignorance was bliss. After Leg 5 started in Auckland, she toured New Zealand and Fiji with their son Harry, 6. She was out of touch when Chessie's desalination system broke down.

"I couldn't get online and didn't know what was happening," she said. "But if I start worrying, my 6-year-old gets very worried. It's almost better if I know less.

"Dave is not a worrier. If there is a problem and he needs to get through a situation, he is not a worrier. I have kind of taken that attitude.

"It was always Leg 5 that seemed to be a big hurdle. But I have not stayed up late at night worrying. This is what all those guys have worked year-round for for years and years and years. They knew a good deal about what they were getting into."

Race update

The Whitbread Watch is a weekly log of the Round the World Race. Look for it every Wednesday in The Sun.

Pub Date: 3/04/98

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