So the Whitbread Round the World Race is stopping here. So what?
So plenty, even if you are not a sailor or racing fan. The World Cup matches in Washington several years ago drew thousands who had never attended a soccer match because it was a chance to see superb players in an international championship. So it is with the Whitbread. The boats and their crews are the best in the sailing world.
A lot of racing sailors around the Chesapeake Bay will differ. To them, the America's Cup matches are the summit of sailboat racing. But maneuvering around a few buoys for a couple of hours several miles offshore in relatively tranquil weather doesn't compare with surfing through the turbulent seas of the Southern Ocean or around Cape Horn at what amounts to breakneck speeds for sailboats. It's like comparing a putting contest to 18 holes of real golf.
If you head for Baltimore's Inner Harbor or City Dock in Annapolis later this week and next, you'll see, for the first time in this part of the United States, the best of a sport that demands skill, stamina, bravery and determination.
No one has been killed or seriously injured in the first 27,000 miles of this Whitbread, but there have been casualties in the past seven races, held at four-year intervals. Two boats have been dismasted this time and one dropped from the race entirely. Crews in the stripped-down racing machines have endured privations that would be unconstitutional cruelty in a penitentiary. Not an unessential ounce is permitted aboard. Sails and rigging are essential. Creature comforts like bedding, baths, real food or a change of clothing are not.
To the untutored eye, the 60-foot Whitbread boats are alike. And in truth, differences are limited mostly to the widths of the hulls. All but one of the nine boats that will dock here were designed by Bruce Farr of Annapolis.
The only real technology innovation may not be visible to visitors at all. It's a radical new foresail designed for EF Language, the Swedish entry that appears to have an insurmountable lead in the overall contest. It has since been copied by the other boats, but not as well and not in time.
That's another difference between the Whitbread and the America's Cup. Stealthy technological innovations, financed by sponsors with great wealth and massive egos, often make the difference in the daily match races. The Whitbread vessels conform to strict design standards that leave the margin of victory to the skippers and crews.
And that's the main reason for heading to the Inner Harbor or City Dock: the people associated with the race. The lore of the sea is as much about the people who sailed it as about their vessels, whether it was Joshua Slocum, Francis Chichester, Francis Drake or Thor Heyerdahl. The Whitbread sailors are the best in their sport, and it is one of the most demanding. Several legs of the race were won because their skippers or navigators read the weather patterns more skillfully than their competitors. Some boats garnered points because of their crews' endurance in manhandling heavy sails through constant wind changes. The all-woman crew of EF Education trails in the standings but not in the esteem of those who have followed the race closely. Battered and dismasted in the South Pacific, they brought their boat to port with an improvised mast. They haven't quit, though they have no chance to win.
Finally, there's Chessie Racing. At the start, the Maryland entry was an also-ran to the handicappers, a millionaire's plaything. But it left Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Saturday in fourth place among nine boats. The boat has a real chance of finishing third overall when the race concludes in Southampton, England, at the end of May.
Again, there's a people story. George Collins, then the chief executive officer of T. Rowe Price, financed the entry himself, retired and planned to skipper. But he realized that inspired amateur blue-water sailors like himself are no match for the professionals at the helms of other boats. He wanted to win, not indulge a personal passion, and gave way to the pros except for the shorter legs around Australia and New Zealand.
He's aboard again on the comparatively straightforward leg from Florida to the Chesapeake, where he will have the advantage of familiarity with the bay's tricky waters. It will all be worthwhile if Chessie Racing passes Fort McHenry first. For all of us.
James S. Keat, a retired Sun editor, is a bush-league sailor who sailed the Whitbread in spirit.
Pub Date: 4/21/98