Chessie crew rides out near collision at start Md. boat 7th out of harbor, closes to 2nd on Leg 6

March 15, 1998|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ABOARD CHESSIE RACING, SAO SEBASTIAO CHANNEL, Brazil -- In near chaotic conditions, Chessie Racing made a bad start here on this crucial leg of the Whitbread Round the World Race, but as darkness fell and the wind increased, the Maryland entry had clawed its way back into second place among the leading boats, headed for Florida.

In a dangerous game of chicken, the steely-nerved helmsmen pushed and edged their multimillion-dollar machines within inches of each other and through a churning fleet of uncontrolled pleasure boats to be first cross the starting line.

"It was a mess," said George Collins, retired CEO of the Baltimore brokerage firm T. Rowe Price and chief sponsor of Chessie, who watched from an escort vessel as his boat and 12-man crew crossed the Leg 6 start line seventh. "I can't believe no one was injured. I don't know how or why. There was zero control."

Only Britain's Silk Cut and Sweden's EF Education, overall last in the fleet with its all-female crew, trailed in Chessie's wake, and even they went briefly ahead after Chessie took emergency action to avoid a collision.

Collins said later, "Our start was not a good start."

With 4,750 miles to go to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., being a second or two ahead at this stage would seem irrelevant. But for the skippers, the start is as much about out-psyching as out-sailing each other.

On board Chessie, skipper John Kostecki was trying to gauge the fluky wind, which was switching from 4 to 10 knots. He saw the other boats hoisting their furled Whompers, the newly developed upwind spinnaker.

"Get the Whomper up," he shouted to the foredeck crew. The mighty sail went up and down like a yo-yo as the wind shifted, died and picked up, and the sails were changed to suit it.

First a jib, then the Whomper, then a spinnaker, back to the

Whomper, before the jib once more. Soon bowmen Jerry Kirby and Rick Deppe were lathered in sweat. The light air was making heavy work for them.

Suddenly, the wind piped up to 16 knots, and Chessie was in a tacking duel with Silk Cut and Monaco's Merit Cup. Norway's Innovation Kvaerner and the Netherlands' BrunelSunergy, with overall leader EF Language of Sweden threatening them, were leading the early running, but as they left the channel and headed for open sea, most of the nine boats had bunched up. Still trailing was EF Education, which had just two days here to prepare for the restart after 39 days at sea after losing its mast in the Southern Ocean.

Chessie is in fourth place overall in the 31,600-mile circumnavigation, and Collins is looking for a win on this leg to Fort Lauderdale, which should take Chessie through the sort of light to moderate weather in which it is credited with being fast.

For days, the navigators on the nine boats have pored over their charts, trying to divine just where the wind will be when they need it.

Juan Vila, Spanish navigator aboard Chessie, told the crew as they sweltered in the channel: "Be ready for some heavy air, just be ready tonight." He predicted the stifling conditions would change to winds of up to 30 knots as a front moved through.

On board Chessie, watch captain Grant "Fuzz" Spanhake was (( reading the water surface, looking for darker, flurried patches, tell-tale signs of a gust approaching.

"More pressure on the bow in 10 seconds," he shouted. The power of the wind fulfilled his prediction. "It's the look of the water and the feel," he said as he sat on the windward toe rail. Suddenly, he shouted: "Maximum pressure now."

A look up the 85-foot mast, and an acre of cream Kevlar, the mainsail, tightened as the breeze filled it. The jib seemed to be ironed on. Chessie heeled, and its white hull ripped through the water. This was sailing with a capital S, a marriage of ancient skills and modern technology designed to get 12 crew members on a 60-foot yacht around the world as fast as possible.

To be on a Whitbread 60 is to be on the edge of sailing experience. There is little, if any, margin for error with these boats. They are highly strung, unforgiving boats, the Formula One racers of the high seas. Two already have been dismasted. All have ripped sails and damaged gear.

The wind and sea today were nothing compared with the gales and breakers that split the welds in Chessie's mast, bent its bow pulpit backward and buckled one of its driving wheels, but still one gets the sense of sheer energy as the boat responded to every nuance of nature.

Chessie, which has rotated skippers regularly, has a core group of crew members, who have been on the boat since the start of the race last September. Each new skipper must deal with the group.

Even before the sails were hoisted, Kostecki told the core crew: "We all understand you guys have done a lot of miles, and we respect that. But we are also pretty fired up to do pretty well on this leg, so we are going to be pushing real hard. So don't take that the wrong way."

Within minutes, he was shouting to Kirby and Deppe, two of the original crew, not to double-man the bow, increasing the boat's wind resistance.

"We don't need two of you up there," he bawled into the wind and cacophony of horns and whistles surrounding Chessie, which had picked up its own fleet of escort boats.

At today's first position report (midnight GMT), six hours after the start, the fleet was spread out over 10 nautical miles. Merit Cup had a 2.8-mile lead over second-place Chessie, which led third-place Swedish Match by 1.2 miles. The rest of the fleet was Silk Cut, fourth; Innovation Kvaerner, fifth; BrunelSunergy, sixth; the United States' Toshiba, seventh; EF Education, eighth; and EF Language, last.

Pub Date: 3/15/98

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