Whitbread: form is flotsam Toshiba 1st to France

Chessie finishes third

May 17, 1998|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN STAFF

LA ROCHELLE, France -- The boats in the Whitbread Round the World Race have watched most of the globe pass under their hulls, but the final hours into this ancient port were among the most significant.

As the nine boats completed their trek from Annapolis to La Rochelle, they did so by marking several milestones. The finish offered a first-ever top trophy for hard-luck team Toshiba, a surprise third for Chessie Racing, a best-ever fourth by the all-women's boat, EF Education, and what was expected to be a big enough boost to EF Language to seal its overall victory in the nine-leg Whitbread.

First across the line was U.S. entry Toshiba, created by sailing veteran Dennis Conner. The team overcame back-of-the-pack finishes and penalties to win its first race in this nine-month marathon.

"It's about time!" gushed exuberant Toshiba crew member Nick Moloney. "Here we are in first. I can't believe it."

The boat narrowly beat out Silk Cut, a British entry that finished only 1 1/2 miles behind Toshiba after a 3,390-nautical-mile journey.

Meanwhile, Maryland's Chessie Racing also grabbed the spotlight, pulling from a 203.8-nautical-mile deficit into a third-place finish. After making its worst finish into Baltimore from Fort Lauderdale, Fla, the crew sailed with nothing to lose -- a fearless attitude that paid off.

"We were very conservative last time," skipper John Kostecki said. "I learned from that, and I made sure we tried to sail our own race this time. We did what we thought was best and ignored the fleet."

As Chessie arrived, a bright-orange flare shot, up signaling the boat's finish, and wives and children of crew members scampered aboard. Chessie creator George Collins followed, giving navigator Juan Vila and Kostecki congratulatory kisses each on both cheeks -- as the French do.

Nearby, on a spectator boat, the Spanish father of navigator Juan Vila yodeled loudly with glee, celebrating his son's homecoming.

Around 3 a.m. French time, after Chessie's 10: 12 p.m. finish, the all-women's boat from Sweden came to shore, not last or second-to-last -- its finishes in previous legs -- but a victorious fourth.

Scores of French piled onto a shale outcropping to watch the boat arrive. It finished narrowly ahead of fifth-place Merit Cup of Monaco, which came within a mile just before the finish as EF Education sat in a wind hole.

When EF Education pulled in, the loudest cheers came for two La Rochelle women: skipper Christine Guillou and guest crew member Isabelle Autissier, an ocean-racing celebrity here.

But perhaps the biggest story was scheduled here for about 5 a.m., when Sweden's EF Language was expected to cross the line and finally slide into an unassailable first place overall. Swedish Match is in second overall, and Merit Cup in third.

The boat was expected to finish sixth, ahead of Swedish Match, giving it enough points to become the conclusive victor in the 31,600-mile race.

EF Language could even lose the last leg of this race, which ends next Sunday in Southampton, England, and still walk away with first place.

The race to France illustrated just how evenly matched this fleet is. Instead of being dominated by one boat, every team in the race with the exception of the women has had a podium finish.

Chessie, the boat funded by Collins, the former T. Rowe Price CEO, has finished third three times before, its highest positions.

Even with only one leg left, most every team is still angling for an overall, top-three podium finish. That includes Chessie, which sits fourth overall, 10 points behind third-place Merit Cup. Also within striking distance is one-time favorite Silk Cut -- 33 points out of third.

Last night, few could begrudge the victory to Toshiba. Grant Dalton, the skipper on Merit Cup who is on his fifth Whitbread, sent the boat an e-mail while the teams were at sea, telling the crew: "You deserve it."

For several days, Toshiba raced closely for first with Merit, until Merit miscalculated a weather front and fell behind.

Toshiba skipper Paul Standbridge, also on his fifth Whitbread, said this was the calmest transatlantic passage he has made -- and he has made about 10. The ocean at times seemed like a lake, racers said, adding that there was little drama on this route, the same the Titanic took.

"Tactically, this race was conservative," Standbridge said. "We were in the middle of the course all the time. There's always a temptation to chase the boats on those good sides, but we remained disciplined and did what [navigator] Murray Ross told us to do."

As for Chessie, Collins reveled in the comeback. "[Sailing a more northerly route] was a radical move," Collins said. "We thought, 'How can it hurt us?' And in the end, it worked. It worked out great."

Pub Date: 5/17/98

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