Challenging Chessie to step up After poor finishes early, Md. crew responds to Collins, improves its game

The Whitbread Watch

March 19, 1998|By GILBERT A. LEWTHWAITE | GILBERT A. LEWTHWAITE,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SAO SEBASTIAO, Brazil -- Grant "Fuzz" Spanhake, watch captain on Chessie Racing, has a note in his pocket that says: "Always remember safety."

Rick Deppe, bowman on the Maryland entry in the Whitbread Round The World Race, wrote himself a note: "The boat's getting old, must focus on maintenance."

At the end of each leg of the 31,600-mile circumnavigation, the crew members of the 60-foot racer meet on their first day in the new port to discuss what went right and wrong and what they could do better on the next leg.

It is a ritual introduced by George Collins, retired CEO of Baltimore brokerage T. Rowe Price and chief sponsor of Chessie Racing.

"He is doing exactly what he did at T. Rowe Price," said Kathy Alexander, spokeswoman for the Chessie campaign who has worked with Collins for 10 years.

Actually, Collins said, he used it only once at the company and that was about 20 years ago in a vain effort to improve the trading desk.

But after Chessie finished fifth and sixth in the first two legs of this race, he decided it was time for some self-examination by the sailors. The whole campaign, into which he has sunk about $5 million, needed to be re-examined.

"I was unhappy with the performance of the boat on the two legs," he said. "You are in this race to win. You are not in this race to come in sixth place.

"I wanted to know what happened. Was it a strategic question? Was something wrong with the boat? Didn't we know how to sail the boat? I probably had 40 questions."

The day the crew arrived in Fremantle, Australia, in sixth place, he called them together and asked them to critique themselves and to write what they believed they could do better on the next leg.

"I said, 'You are the only one who is going to see it. I want you really to search your souls and come up with answers. I told them to put the notes in their pockets, forget about them for a day, and then read them every day until we started the race, and think on them."

On the next three legs Chessie came in third, putting it fourth overall and in serious contention for a top-three podium place when the race ends in May where it began in September, in Southampton, England.

As well as the private personal notes, the crew listed suggestions for improving the boat's performance, which were collected.

"It's become a ritual," Collins said. "You can point to some ideas people have come up with, and some changes we have made on the boat, whether its watch systems or how we take a sail down."

One gripe from the crew that came through loud and clear was to Collins' rotation of skippers, putting a new captain in charge on almost every leg. "If I had to do it over again, I would not do that [rotate]," Collins said. "I would try to get more continuity."

He appointed America's Cup tactician John Kostecki, who sailed with him on the third and fourth legs, to be skipper on the current leg and the next leg, to Baltimore, and Collins is hoping he will stay on for the final two.

If Collins is not in port when the boat arrives, as was the case here, the note sessions are conducted by Spanhake, who, absent a permanent skipper, holds the title of "man in charge" on Chessie.

Here, they sat under the shade trees on the veranda of the main house in the crew's three-house beach-front compound, scribbling away. "It was a relaxed atmosphere," Spanhake said. "It never turns into a bickering session. We are all pretty tight. The core group can pretty much say what we want without anyone taking offense."

Said Deppe: "It's a way of just getting you in the right frame of mind. George is trying to move the things he has done in the corporate world with some success into a rabble of sailors like tTC us. Once it's written down, it burns a little harder in your mind.

"But there's a lot of in-built motivation, too," said the 33-year-old father of two. "He [Collins] is giving you an opportunity to do what you always wanted to do. The motivation is there. At the end of the day, he pays your wages doesn't he?"

Deppe was prompted to focus on the condition of the boat in his note here after the auxiliary motor broke down in the Southern Ocean, depriving Chessie of its fresh water-making ability and forcing the crew to survive on cookies and chocolate bars because they couldn't use their freeze-dried food.

As the mechanic on board, he stripped the engine down, but could not repair it until they stopped off Argentina for spare parts.

"The boat is getting old," Deppe said. "We need to focus on the boat."

The severe conditions that Chessie has encountered during the race prompted Spanhake to put his focus on safety. He was watch captain on Leg 3 when Deppe tore his calf muscle and cracked two ribs after losing his grip while descending the mast.

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