Sailors with attitude: 'EF' goes extra mile Nobody works harder than race's leader

Whitbread 1997-1998

May 03, 1998|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN STAFF

Mark Christensen is not a gambler, but when he saw the heavy odds the London bookmakers had given EF Language, his team in the Whitbread Round the World Race, he knew he had to do something. So a few days before the start of the competition in England, the sailboat racer took about $240 -- all the money in his pocket -- and put it on EF. To win.

"I don't bet -- I've been to Las Vegas and spent $10 over three days -- but I didn't see this as a gamble," said Christensen, 28. "Everything on this boat just felt really right."

Christensen's instincts have not let him down, and neither has his team. EF Language now sits at the very top of the fleet in the grueling, nine-month race -- a surprise showing for a syndicate that once was given 16-to-1 odds.

Only disaster can keep it from first place now, as the boats head to La Rochelle, France, from Annapolis today -- and finally to the finish in Southampton, England, later this month.

"The most challenging thing in the Whitbread is to figure out what makes a team tick," said watch captain Magnus Olsson, 48, a Swede known for an infectious laugh that persists in blinding storms and freezing winds. Olsson, who is on his fourth Whitbread, but has yet to come in first, said nothing keeps a team together quite like winning.

"Boats that get off to a bad start go down like this," he said, spiraling his finger downward. "It escalates like an avalanche."

But winning has made this team anything but complacent. Even when the crew unwinds -- popping open beers with a winch handle at the end of a workday on shore in Annapolis -- it is hardly relaxed.

Last week, when most Whitbread sailors took in an Orioles game, navigator Mark Rudiger studied charts of the coast of France. While his team went to a prize-giving, Olsson tinkered with repairs on the boat.

The $18 million campaign, sponsored by EF Education, a Swedish global language education company, started with an edge as part of a two-boat campaign. The team trained against EF's sister boat, EF Education, and was able to do extensive sail testing as a result.

EF Education, an all-female syndicate, sits last among the nine boats. At first, EF Language was expected to do the same.

The team was, after all, relatively unknown. At the helm was Paul Cayard, a top America's Cup racer, but a Whitbread newcomer. The crew included six America's Cup racers, but only three Whitbread veterans.

"For my own safety and from a career standpoint, it was a big risk," said Cayard, 38, who is American, like half his team. "But we have this attitude -- we are going to put more effort into this than anybody. It's psychological. We deserve to win. We will win."

As in an America's Cup campaign, EF Language was secretive from the start. The team not only built two boats, it constructed its own boatyard for them in Goteborg, Sweden. The boat was created largely by foreigners on overseas work permits. Several builders posed as tourists to continue the last bit of construction after their papers expired.

The secrecy continues today. When EF Language comes into port, the shore crew does most of its sail repairs and redesigns in a private tent, instead of at the more open commercial sail lofts shared by other teams.

This cloak-and-dagger approach to sail design yielded the Code 0, or "whomper," a revolutionary sail that many believe won EF the first and critical leg of the nine-leg race. Rival boats have copied it, although many still say it is illegal under Whitbread rules.

Some EF sailors believe the fleet has been so distracted by the Code 0, they have yet to notice the other new sail designs used by EF.

"We still have secrets," EF watch captain Kimo Worthington said, referring to a sail that all the boats have, but that EF redesigned. "A lot of the guys still don't know what we've got that's so fast."

EF continued to win even after other teams developed the Code 0 -- although it has done 10 redesigns since the start, while other teams have barely managed a few. Still, the crew said its success is not due to the Code 0 alone. It points to its performance in Leg 5, considered the longest and most dangerous leg in the Southern Ocean.

While other teams wiped out and broke masts, EF Language did not broach once, and glided easily around Cape Horn. "That was the best," said Olsson, who has sailed on Whitbread teams in which crew members got in fistfights. "There was just such a feeling that we were a team."

But the race is not just won at sea. When EF finishes first, its land-based crew -- which includes three Whitbread veterans -- starts major repairs often before the second-place entry reaches shore.

"It's psychological warfare," said Paul Murray, 29, a sailmaker who works as Crowded House and Arlo Guthrie CDs blare in the background. "We decided we'd have a race on shore, as well."

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