Women of Whitbread unbroken in spirit Sailing: The female crew of EF Education gets a winner's welcome in Brazil and refuses to gripe about troubles.

March 12, 1998|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SAO SEBASTIAO, Brazil -- After 39 trying days at sea -- and what surely seemed an eternity to the only female crew in the Whitbread Round the World Race -- the women aboard EF Education arrived in this tropical port to a welcome fit more for a winner than for a last-place finisher.

A native celebration, with blue-sequined dancers gyrating to the rhythm of the drums and with local school children screaming in excitement, erupted as the blue and orange 60-foot racing sailboat came into view. On board was the crew arriving here at the end of Leg 5's 6,670-nautical-mile voyage from Auckland, New Zealand, through the furious Southern Ocean and round Cape Horn, during which their boat's rigging failed, their mast broke and their mainsail split.

Once berthed, the women, in their orange shorts and blue tops, were given a basket of fresh fruit and wine, meat and cheese kebabs, and a cooler filled with drinks. Local women leaned over the boat's lifelines to hand them baskets of flowers, and well-wishers applauded them as they took their first steps on land.

"To arrive to this welcome is very nice," said the French skipper, Christine Guillou.

Her crew of 12 now has just two days to prepare their weather-battered boat for the Saturday restart, Leg 6 to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., 4,750 nautical miles away.

"It will be tough," said Joan Lee Touchette, who was born in Columbia. "We are all a bit tired, a bit worn down. But it will be nice to get back racing."

Even as they motored up the Sao Sebastiao Channel, the crew was stripping EF Education's ripped mainsail, while on shore the men of their sister yacht, EF Language, waited to take the boat immediately out again to test a new main. The EF shore team will work round the clock to get the boat race-ready by Saturday.

While most of the crews in the nine-boat fleet have been in port for two weeks or more, giving them ample time to prepare their boats for the restart, the women had languished, as problem after problem beset them.

"The worst moment was when the rigging came down," Guillou said. "We were so very far from Cape Horn. It was the worst place to lose a mast."

Keryn McMaster, a New Zea-lander who was on deck when the mast broke at the first spreader, one of four horizontal bars that support the rig, said: "I heard a bang, looked up, and it was coming down. I thought, 'Here we go.' "

It took two hours to wrestle the mast back aboard, another two hours to clear it of rigging and secure it to the deck. They sailed on with a jury, or emergency, rig, using the stump of the mast to fly small sails. Their speed dropped from 17 knots to 4 knots.

"There were never any tears," said Leah Newbold, another New Zealander. "We're too tough for that. You take all the hard work you have done over the last 14 months [preparing the boat for the race], and all of a sudden it just crashes down around your ears. You just think, 'Why?'

"We had prepared the boat as hard as any other team. Suddenly, you are out of the leg, and the disappointment is huge."

"It was very boring," Touchette said. "There was nothing you could do to make the boat go faster. Every time you came outside you were reminded that you weren't going to get there quickly."

Lynnath Beckley, the South African navigator, said jokingly, "The manuals in the navigation station don't make the Ten Best non-fiction list."

Last week, on Friday, after hitting light winds on their way here from Ushuaia, Argentina, where they had a new mast fitted, the women resigned from the leg, enabling them to start their engine to be sure of arriving here in time for Saturday's restart.

As they motored up the channel between the Brazilian mainland and the offshore island of Ilhabela yesterday, the male crews on four other Whitbread racers on the water took a break from sail testing to welcome them with waves and whistles.

The women will have today off, but will be back at work preparing the boat for Saturday's restart.

"You can't go to sea without being 110 percent sure of your area," said a third New Zealander, Bridget Suckling. "Even if you want a few days off, you don't want to go to sea and let your mates down with an area you have not covered."

EF Education is last overall in the nine-month race, which will end in May where it started in September, in Southampton, England. After reaching Fort Lauderdale, the boats will race to Baltimore, where they are expected around April 22.

Pub Date: 3/12/98

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