Podium-position finish in doubt for Chessie Racing Sixth or seventh in Leg 6 would hurt yacht's hopes


FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - As the competitors in the Whitbread Round the World Race close in on their first stop in the United States, the contest's only two American teams are dueling for sixth and seventh place, with hopes for a spot on the podium on Leg 6 all but dashed.

After nearly 4,750 miles at sea, the nine contenders in the nine-leg race are expected to finish within 18 hours of each other beginning this morning. At the front of the pack is British entry Silk Cut which spent yesterday trying to shake off Swedish powerhouse EF Language. The boats were within 56 miles of each other most of the day, racing at an average 16 knots past the Bahamas.

Chessie Racing, the Maryland entry in this race headed by former T. Rowe Price CEO George Collins, was stuck in the middle of the pack in seventh place yesterday. For the past few days, Chessie has been trading places with Toshiba, the other U.S. entry headed by America's Cup superstar Dennis Conner.

Chessie crew members are hoping for a top-three finish and a medal when the race ends in May in Southampton, England. As of today's first position report at midnight (GMT), it appeared the best the Maryland boat could finish in this leg is sixth, and that would hurt its chances of a podium position in May. The race comes to Baltimore from Fort Lauderdale around April 22.

The Maryland team is righting for bragging rights with Toshiba to the top U.S. finisher. Theirs is the closest duel in the race. The two boats have been shadowing one another for much of the time. Even when they navigated around opposite sides of a dark storm cloud, they ended up side by side three hours later.

"I do wonder if we are attached to each other by a large piece of elastic," wrote Sean Clarkson, a Toshiba crew member, in an e-mail yesterday. "It is definitely going to be a tough battle between us to clean clothes, big beds, long showers and maybe a cold beer."

Chessie has been struggling for days, since skipper John Kostecki began suffering from boils on his legs and was forced to spend extra hours below deck, said Michael Woods, Whitbread race manager. Crew members on other teams have been sick with infections they may have picked up in Brazil, made worse by the heat.

"If you haven't got your guy at 100 percent, it's obviously going to be a problem," Woods said. "The problem with Chessie is now she's in the position of relying on other people to have bad results, rather than their team just having good results."

The race from Brazil has been moving surprisingly fast, and the boats are expected to arrive here today at least four days ahead of schedule.

Swedish Match appears to have a strong hold on third after putting about 60 miles between it and fourth-place boat Innovation Kvaerner of Norway.

Merit Cup is in fifth, about 50 miles ahead of Toshiba and Chessie. Behind them are the Netherlands' BrunelSunergy, and in last place, Sweden's EF Education.

That boat, an all-women's team, is sitting at the back of the pack once again, after a troubled trek on Leg 5 to Brazil in which it was dismasted in the Southern Ocean and finished last.

"This is extremely strenuous sailing," Woods said. "Also, they never got to put on weight and get their strength back after Brazil. "

Pub Date: 3/29/98

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