FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Chessie Racing held onto fourth place overall in the Whitbread Round the World Race yesterday, crossing the finish line of Leg 6 with a school of flying fish by its side and rival U.S. team Toshiba in its wake.
After 4,750 miles at sea, the competition for Chessie came down to a match race with Toshiba, a boat run by America's Cup big shot Dennis Conner. Chessie, the first Maryland boat to take part in the 31,600-mile international race, finished only three minutes ahead of its rival in the indigo waters off Florida.
The difference put Chessie in sixth for the leg from Sao Sebastiao, Brazil, securing the team's fourth-place standing overall and giving it a shot at a top-three finish. Had the team been three minutes slower, it would be fifth overall, with diminished hope for a medal when the nine-leg race ends in England in May.
"We're aiming at a podium finish, for sure," said Chessie crew member Jonathan Swain, 31, after stepping off the boat from 16 days at sea and giving his wife a bear hug on the dock. "That race with Toshiba really kept us pumped up -- we were pushing hard in the last 1,500 miles and pacing against them."
The match race between Chessie and Toshiba provided the leg's most dramatic finish so far. The boats had been shadowing each other for days. As each team secured the lead, it sailed defensively, trying to maintain its advantage and block the other from passing.
"Obviously, we're very disgusted," said Toshiba skipper Paul Standbridge. "We enjoyed the match race we had with them, and obviously anyone who comes in second is disgusted."
After the race, when Standbridge thanked Chessie crew members for an exciting time, Chessie bowman Rick Deppe said jokingly, "No, no, thank you."
Chessie won 11 more points on the leg than Toshiba, giving it 454 overall -- compared with leader EF Language's total of 608. Dutch entry BrunelSunergy finished in eighth place, crossing the line last night at 9: 41 p.m., and the all-women's EF Education finished last, at 11: 40 p.m.
So far in this leg, all the boats have finished days ahead of schedule. That was good news for Chessie sailor Mike Toppa, whose wife is expecting to deliver twins in Fort Lauderdale sometime within the next week.
But even with the quick time, this was frustrating work for Chessie. Unpredictable storms and clouds meant the boat went from sailing 33 knots to 15 in seconds. The boat's 12-man crew could not hide its disappointment with its middle-of-the-pack finish, particularly since it started the race in the lead in 35-knot winds.
hTC The boat suffered all manner of niggling problems. For one thing, the radar was on backward, so the team could only scan the waters behind it, not ahead.
Aside from other troubles -- a broken boom vang, five blown-out spinnaker sails and a snagged lobster pot (which dragged from Chessie's keel and propeller shaft) -- the crew also lost the full strength of one of its stars.
Skipper John Kostecki, a San Francisco America's Cup racer, was kept away from the helm for most of the race, as a skin rash on his legs became infected and turned into painful boils.
"It definitely hurt our team," said Kostecki, 33, a Chessie guest helmsman who climbed off the boat with thick white bandages around his calves. "I spent a lot of time below deck, keeping my legs elevated."
Crew members said the boat could have had a top finish had it emerged in a better position from the Doldrums. Asked if he would be celebrating last night, Deppe said, "Commiserating, more likely."
Navigator Juan Vila blamed the sixth-place finish on a black storm cloud near Barbuda, around which they mistakenly took the slower route to the west. "That cost us a lot of time," said Vila, 35. "We just took the wrong turn -- or maybe it was bad luck."
Still, Vila, Deppe and their teammates smiled broadly and threw their arms in the air as they crossed the finish at 8: 39 a.m. Several crew members from Merit Cup, a Monaco team that had finished early yesterday morning, sped out to the finish in a motor boat, yahooing and spraying beer at the Chessie crew.
Adding to the pandemonium was a spray of flying fish. The fish were a presence for most of the leg (Chessie bowman Greg Gendell even got smacked in the head by one). When Chessie crossed the finish line and the cannon fired, dozens of the silvery blue fish jumped in the air.
The trek up the South American coast gave the crew a glimpse of other natural wonders, including a shooting star so bright it lit up a cloud-covered sky with a burst of light. Several crew members also saw the "green flash," a meteorological phenomenon that many believed was a sailor's myth. The flash happens in cloudless skies with flat water -- after the sun sets, a blazing disk of emerald light pops up on the horizon.
"Nobody on the boat had seen it, and we all thought it was bogus, and then there it was -- poof! -- a little bigger than the sun," Gendell said.
The team knows the pressure is on to do well as it heads to Baltimore in the third-to-last leg, which begins April 19. It's relying on local knowledge for an advantage. George Collins, former head of the Baltimore brokerage firm of T. Rowe Price, who created this team, has arranged for crew members to scout the Chesapeake Bay by helicopter, looking for uncharted fish traps.
With only about 20 days of sailing left in this global race, the crew plans to make every minute count.
Although the first-place spot is almost guaranteed to go to the Swedish boat EF Language, Chessie is looking to finish right behind.
"We can go for second," Vila said. "We still have it within our reach."
Pub Date: 3/31/98