Outsiders set Whitbread pace Sailing: Maryland's Chessie Racing is a surprise medal contender after finishing third in the last three legs.

March 08, 1998|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SAO SEBASTIAO, Brazil -- Two-thirds of the way around the world, with masts broken, sails blown out, one crewman overboard and many injured, the battered Whitbread fleet of nine racing yachts is readying for its next test -- the 4,750 miles from this tropical port to the United States.

With favorites lagging, and outsiders -- including Maryland's Chessie Racing -- now setting the pace, the nine-month, nine-leg, 31,600-mile circumnavigation is producing as many seafaring surprises as shipboard dramas.

In this, the seventh, Whitbread Round the World Race, the boats have sailed through waves strong enough to bend stainless steel bow pulpits and winds high enough to rip through Kevlar sails. They have been hit by whales and threatened by icebergs.

When Chessie's mainsail was torn in the last leg, the crew had to sail with it reefed for a week because the winds were too strong to take it down for repair.

"There was more wind than I have ever seen in my life," said Knut Frostad, 30, skipper of Norway's Innovation Kvaerner and a competitive sailor since 13.

The crews have been cut, bruised and suffered broken bones. One crewman from Innovation Kvaerner was washed overboard but recovered. Skipper Grant Dalton, sailing his fifth Whitbread, broke his collarbone when he was thrown down the hatch of Merit Cup on the way here.

On Chessie, bowman Richard Deppe tore calf muscles and cracked ribs when he lost his grip while atop the mast and was thrown into the rigging like a rag doll during violent conditions on the leg from Fremantle, Australia, to Sydney. On the last leg, Greg Gendell of Annapolis sustained a gash in his leg to the bone when the bow dipped under a giant wave and he was washed back to the mast.

The worst of the weather -- the raging Southern Ocean in the icy, extreme southern latitudes of the Indian and Pacific oceans -- is behind them. But the pressure to land a top-three podium position when the race ends in May -- in Southampton, England, where it began in September -- is intensifying as Whitbread novices try to leave the veterans in their wakes.

Trials, tribulations

One boat, America's Challenge, was forced out of the race at the end of the first leg when its Mexican agent ran off with its money. Another, Toshiba, a prerace favorite, lost its stellar New Zealand skipper, Chris Dickson, when he had a falling out with the American syndicate's head, Dennis Conner, and is now tarrying in sixth place overall. The boat had been in fifth, but it was disqualified on Friday from the last leg for starting its engine and was dropped a place in the standings.

Two boats -- Britain's Silk Cut and Sweden's EF Education with its all-female crew -- lost their masts on their way here on the fifth leg round feared Cape Horn from Auckland, New Zealand.

Silk Cut, with skipper Lawrie Smith sailing his fourth Whitbread, was a sorry sight with its mast severed halfway up when it motored across the finish line here Monday, automatically finishing last in the leg. But the crew enjoyed a carnival-style samba reception.

EF Education stopped at Ushuaia, Argentina, for a new mast and is still at sea. With its arrival here in time for next Sunday's restart in doubt, it, too, retired from the leg on Friday and is motoring here. Its position as last overall in the race is virtually assured.

The boat to beat

One boat has stayed clear of major trouble and ahead of the pack: Sweden's EF Language with American Paul Cayard, a world champion yachtsman but a Whitbread novice, as skipper. With three first-place finishes in five legs, it has a commanding points lead and, short of a disaster, is the odds-on favorite to be overall winner.

"This is Cayard's race to lose," said Toshiba skipper Paul Standbridge. "He is in a very enviable, comfortable position."

EF Language has gained 507 points under a scoring system geared to the length and difficulty of each leg and the finishing position of each boat; the higher the finish, the more the points. Monaco's Merit Cup is second with 411 points. Fewer than 40 points separate the next three contenders, Swedish Match (404) in third, Chessie Racing (399) in fourth and Innovation Kvaerner (372) in fifth, ensuring a blue-water scramble for silver and bronze.

Chessie confounds skeptics

The Maryland entry is a surprise contender for a podium place after finishing third in the past three legs and confounding skeptics who initially predicted it might not even beat the all-women team on EF Education, currently ninth with 126 points.

"Maybe people will start taking us seriously," said Chessie co-skipper Dee Smith on his arrival, having failed to snatch a second-place finish on the fifth leg from the Dutch boat Brunel-Sunergy.

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