Chessie's comeback kids win gamble: Stuck at back of pack, Maryland boat heads north to collect big payoff THE WHITBREAD WATCH

May 20, 1998|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN STAFF

LA ROCHELLE, France -- Chessie Racing was in an abyss, hundreds of miles behind the rest of the fleet off the Grand Banks in the Atlantic, when bowman Rick Deppe decided to call home.

"It's OK. We're all rested up now," the British sailor told Anastasia, his wife, who was at home in Annapolis with their two children. "We've got a plan."

That was earlier this month, as nine sailboats battled from Annapolis to La Rochelle in the 31,600-nautical-mile sprint around the globe known as the Whitbread. Maryland's Chessie Racing was nearly 204 miles behind the leader, and Deppe's optimism seemed destined for ruin.

Yet by last week, the boat had taken a radical turn far to the north, catching a swift weather front that blew it ahead of most of the fleet and put it in third. The plan Deppe talked about had worked.

"At first I was like, 'We're behind by 200 miles, I'm going to kill myself,' " Deppe said as he bit into an entire filet mignon dangling off a fork shortly after arriving here Saturday night. "All of a sudden it's like, 'I have a plan,' and then it starts. We lost 20 [miles], then we lost 15, we lost 10. All of a sudden we're even. Then we gained a mile, gained six. And then they're all parked up, and we're blasting along. Then everyone's trimming like madmen and we're back in again."

From the start, the leg was difficult. Several team members had the flu, and some felt tired from all the celebrating of the stopover in their home port. Deppe said it took him five days to get back in the rhythm of the leg. Usually it takes him just two.

"After we left we talked about how great it was to be home, how hard it was to leave," added bowman Greg Gendell of Annapolis. "We were racing, but we kind of had a hard time getting back into it."

The 3,390-nautical-mile leg began with a bang. The boat started first over the line in the Chesapeake Bay and was first to exit the bay en route to the swift-moving Gulf Stream. The eighth-place finish into Baltimore made them all the hungrier for a comeback.

But the crew's plans went awry in the Gulf Stream. Navigator Juan Vila believes the boat simply did not leave the Stream early enough and then got too close to a high pressure system, which slowed it down while the rest of the fleet zoomed through the Labrador Current.

The crew had to decide: Would they take a gamble sailing north or south of the high pressure? Vila, a weather-reading phenomenom known for his powers of logic (his father swears when Vila was 9 he solved a Rubik's Cube in 15 minutes on the first try), took a chance on north.

The soft-spoken Spaniard said the choice was not the stuff of genius. But his jubilant crew saw it differently and hoisted him over their shoulders at the finish, dousing him with champagne.

"We didn't have much to lose," Vila said yesterday, weather maps filling his arms. "We just took that option, and it finally worked."

This crew is used to slipping - and coming back - with quite a bit of drama. In Leg 5, Chessie struggled with a broken freshwater maker - subsisting mostly on chocolate and hand-pumped converted sea water until a new part was delivered a mile offshore by Tierra del Fuego. As a result, the boat ended up more than 340 miles behind the leader. But by then the fleet stopped in a wind hole and Chessie dodged around its competitors by zipping East.

The boat finished third in what is considered the race's hardest Southern Ocean leg. Now Chessie is fourth overall. While first has already gone to Paul Cayard's EF Language, Chessie still has a shot at second and third in the race when it ends in England Sunday.

So the team members - including former T. Rowe Price CEO George Collins, who spent more than $7 million to build the campaign - see themselves as comeback kids. In the darkest days of the last leg, Collins kept e-mailing his crew with mottoes about never giving up.

"I talked so much about the fat lady, I started to believe it," he said. Still eyeing a spot on the podium, Collins added, "It's the bottom of the ninth, and we've still got a chance."

Pub Date: 5/20/98

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