FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Heading to its home port at last, Maryland-based Chessie Racing hovered near the top of the fleet yesterday as the Whitbread Round the World Race began its sprint to Baltimore.
All nine competitors were within mere boat lengths of each other yesterday afternoon, with Chessie in second in this 870-nautical-mile leg to the Chesapeake. Under powder blue skies, scores of spectator boats watched and attempted to keep up with the sleek racers as they began one of their last races in this marathon trek.
The boats are expected to reach Baltimore as early as Wednesday. The competitors will then make a parade of sail to Annapolis in time for a May 3 start en route to France. The 31,600-nautical-mile race ends next month where it began last September -- in Southampton, England.
Yesterday's was the kind of start the crew on the Whitbread's first-ever Maryland boat has dreamed about for more than a year. Racing in 15- to 20-knot winds from the southeast, the boat with the lime green Chesapeake Bay sea monster painted on its hull pulled past three competitors after the starting gun and moved swiftly to first.
"We're going to Baltimore!" a laughing Collins said shortly before leaving the dock. "It's so strange -- for so long you kind of think, 'It's never going to happen, it's never going to happen,' and now it's finally here."
Collins, 57, an amateur sailor from Gibson Island, left his job as CEO of Baltimore mutual fund firm T. Rowe Price last year to enter this race. Although he decided not to sail the toughest parts of this nine-leg adventure, he climbed aboard for the trip home.
Later yesterday afternoon, Chessie had dropped behind the Swedish boat, Swedish Match, although by only one-tenth of a mile. Chessie was still in second place in today's first position report at midnight (GMT), 1.4 nautical miles behind Silk Cut of Britain. Swedish Match had fallen to last, 3.3 nautical miles behind.
At least for a few seconds, the start looked like it might belong to Dennis Conner, the four-time America's Cup winner and skipper on U.S. boat Toshiba. Conner was almost on top of the line when the gun fired. He crossed over first. After making a mistake in his last Whitbread start, the celebrity skipper noted his perfect move with a giddy grin.
But Conner's boat, along with first-place Swedish boat EF Language and Norwegian entry Innovation Kvaerner, were forced to jibe to stay in the narrow race course. That cleared the way for Chessie, which breezed into first and stayed there for more than an hour.
Chessie is treating this trek up the Eastern Seaboard like a day race, with short-course powerhouse Gavin Brady at the helm and America's Cup sailor John Kostecki on tactics. Collins kept time before the start and was hiking over the side as the boat headed off-shore.
Most of the fleet was quick to head east toward the Gulf Stream -- the warm current that serves as a sort of conveyor belt in the Atlantic, moving boats up the coast more than three knots faster than in the open ocean. But Chessie did not give up the strong sea breeze it caught near land, and stuck close to South Florida's condo-studded shoreline.
The crews left the docks yesterday carrying good luck charms and obeying quirky race-day habits. Gunnar Krantz, the skipper on Swedish Match, kept his daughter's toy cat, Kiss Kiss, in his pocket. Greg Gendell, the bowman on Chessie Racing, drank a chocolate milkshake, as always. The women on the all-female EF Education, a Swedish entry, stowed candy treats in surprise hiding spots on their boat.
Chessie's send-off had its emotional moments. Collins hugged his wife, Maureen, whose voice trembled slightly as she told him, "Good luck. I hope it all works well for you."
Mike Toppa, whose wife delivered twin baby girls during the stopover here, kissed his children on the forehead before climbing aboard and waving from the deck.
Collins started this race eager for a podium finish. But short of that, he wants to beat Conner, 56. Conner, like Collins, is sailing only part of the race and is grayer than most of its young hotshots.
Just before Chessie left the dock, Collins heard that Conner had allegedly called his team "snails." He told his crew, hoping to rile them up, and considered delivering a plate of escargot to Conner at the finish.
As the boats continue up the Gulf Stream, they were expected to hit scattered showers and squalls last night and today, with some gusty winds. The front will move through the area during the morning, and then the south-southwesterly winds will shift to the north-northeast.
Because this is the shortest leg of the race so far, the teams are keeping their boats light and fast. Chessie sailors did not bring any changes of clothes, except for long-johns and foul weather gear. Collins left his wallet on land; others abandoned their shoes for sea boots.