Time for fun, reflection en route to Annapolis Merit Cup's Dalton watches his flank as he muses on sailing career

Whitbread 1997-1998

May 01, 1998|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

It became clear that the Baltimore-to-Annapolis leg of the Whitbread Round the World Race was the least serious portion of this grueling competition when Silk Cut pulled up to Merit Cup yesterday to perform an act of piracy.

On a starboard tack not far from the rusty smokestacks of Sparrows Point, the ominous purple shark's head on the hull of the British boat sliced within 20 feet of its rival.

A crewman on Silk Cut hurled what appeared to be grenade into the cockpit of Merit Cup, sending the sailors scrambling. It turned out to be an apple. But the skipper of Merit Cup returned fire with a broadside of abuse.

"You throw like a girl from a bloody girls cricket team, you girl!" bellowed Grant Dalton, the 40-year-old Auckland native who won the last Whitbread race in 1993-94. Turning to a fellow crewman, he quipped: "Hey, it's a job."

Yesterday's parade of the nine Whitbread boats into Annapolis Harbor was spectacle rather than sport. Crowds blew horns from shore, helicopters thumped overhead, a fireboat spraying arcs of water and a swarm of recreational boaters followed along.

When the event started at 10: 30 a.m. in Baltimore's Inner Harbor, the sky was leaden, the wind was dead and the number of boaters following the fleet numbered only in the dozens.

But by the time the golden-sailed yachts had passed under the Bay Bridge, the sun had broken through, the breeze had picked up and the flotilla had grown into an armada.

Annapolis police on jet skis zipped through the chaotic tangle of perhaps 300 recreational boaters. A three-masted sailing ship lumbered past a motorboat with a sea monster's head mounted at its bow.

There was America's Cup champion Dennis Conner, standing proudly on the deck of his yacht Toshiba.

And then there was the family puttering around with a collie in its inflatable raft.

When the crewmen from all over the world climbed ashore at the Annapolis City Dock, they were greeted by a chorus of cheers, a carnival of tents and bagpipes playing "Amazing Grace."

The nine boats will resume their 31,600-mile race on Sunday, setting out from Annapolis for La Rochelle, France. The fleet's final leg, from La Rochelle to Southampton, England, is expected to finish May 24.

As he tacked through the choppy waters of the Chesapeake, the winner of the last Whitbread spun colorful tales about this year's race and previous adventures.

A veteran of five races around the world, Dalton has a broad and deeply-creased face and flecks of gray at his temples. With a cigarette in hand and cell phone at his belt, he speaks with a gravelly Kiwi accent.

He brushed off as "not a big deal" the incident off South America this year in which he tumbled headfirst down the hatch and broke his collarbone. The bone is still broken, but he's still at the helm.

He recalled as "fun" playing tag with a pair of whales in the Southern Ocean not far from Antarctica.

As the wind picked up and the boat picked up speed, Dalton recalled the time during the 1981-82 race when the skipper of his boat, Cornelis van Rietschoten, had a heart attack on the way to Auckland. The skipper tumbled from the wheel to the deck. A doctor in the crew pounded on van Rietschoten's chest until his heart started again, Dalton said.

"He went into his bunk for a few days," Dalton said. "But he came back and kept sailing. He was a tough bastard. I like the guy."

After playfully cutting within just a few feet of another Whitbread yacht, Dalton laughed and recalled another incident during the 1981-82 race. The crew was in Argentina. The Falklands war was about to erupt. And some of the sailors in this Britain-based race thought it would be funny to sneak aboard an Argentine submarine and disassemble a machine gun.

"Those trigger-happy Argentine soldiers!" Dalton said as the shores of Fort Smallwood Park slipped past. "They kept shooting into the water, thinking spies were sneaking onto their subs."

He grew more pensive, however, when he thought about the possibility of being captured in that war. "That would be a hard one to explain to the wife back home. 'Honey, I'm going to be late. I'm a prisoner of war.' "

This year, Dalton's crew is in third place, with hopes of climbing into second during the 3,390-mile dash across the North Atlantic.

His is an international crew. It is financed by Merit Cup, an Italian sportswear company owned by the American tobacco giant Phillip Morris.

It is flying under the red and white flag of Monaco, but 10 of its 12 crewmen are New Zealanders.

Ian Stewart, a 33-year-old New Zealander, commented on the general character of many Whitbread sailors as the yacht headed toward the thick of the traffic jam in Annapolis harbor.

"You've got to be a little bit touched in the head to do this race," Stewart said. "But it's really quite incredible to be a part of it."

Pub Date: 5/01/98

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