Collins won't sail final leg For good of Chessie, he'll stay ashore

May 21, 1998|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN STAFF

LA ROCHELLE, France -- In George Collins' suitcase, among dress shirts and slacks, are three pairs of long underwear, several water-repellent T-shirts and a pair of sea boots.

Collins planned to wear all of them on the last leg of the Whitbread Round the World Race. But a few nights ago, somewhat regretfully, he decided they would all stay folded, neat and dry, in his hotel room.

The final, glory leg of this nearly 32,000-nautical-mile sailing adventure will happen without Collins. The 57-year-old former CEO of the Baltimore mutual fund company T. Rowe Price this week decided not to join the team he spent $7 million to build for fear he would cost it a critical win.

"As much as I want to do this leg -- and I do want to do this race -- it's much more important that we place," Collins said of the two-day sprint to Southampton, England, that starts tomorrow.

Before the competition began last September, Collins announced he would not sail the longest legs for fear his age would hurt the team. But he always made an exception for the finish. The competitive amateur sailor allowed himself that moment when one last, intoxicating puff of breeze would blow him and his mates over the finish line.

But as much as he dreamed of that moment, Collins also envisioned a top-three podium finish for his team, Chessie Racing -- an achievement most of the sailing world deemed next to impossible at the start of the race.

Now, after a third-place finish last weekend in the race from Annapolis to France, the team is in fourth overall, within sight of the podium. The only thing standing in its way, Collins said, is Collins.

"I want to stack the lineup with the best players we've got," said Collins, who has planned this effort since 1996 and left his job last year to do this race. "We need the youngest and the best with super, rock-star sailing skills on that boat. We need a big, big race."

If Collins climbed aboard, he feared he would only be ballast, dead weight, a mere "rail potato." Although he still bounds through the race village and cracks jokes, some say the decision was tough on him.

"We all make sacrifices, and George made the biggest," said Grant "Fuzz" Spanhake, a Chessie watch captain. "He's doing it for a podium finish, for the crew's sake and for the boat's sake, and it's killing him not to go. But it makes practical sense that he doesn't."

The first-ever Maryland team in this professional race around the globe started out with an amateur image -- and a world of sailors doubting the boat could place higher than sixth. Led by Collins, who had done little ocean racing, Chessie was discounted.

But after a string of crew changes and personality clashes in the early stages of the race, the team discovered a mix of big-name professionals and lesser-known sailors that has a certain chemistry.

Now, all Chessie needs to be third is to finish at the top of the fleet, ahead of Merit Cup of Monaco by one spot. For the second-place trophy, it must finish at the top of the pack and put five competitors between it and Swedish Match, currently No. 2.

Collins' decision not to race sets the tone for the leg, which Chessie sailors say is going to be serious, workmanlike and, as they call it, "full metal jacket" competitive.

"We're going to have more people on deck racing the boat than we usually do, with a lot of crew maneuvers," skipper John Kostecki said. "But we don't want to change the way we do things too much because things were going well on the last leg."

Collins has pulled himself and crew member Paul "Whirley" Van Dyke, a Connecticut sailor who got his nickname for hustling on boats. In their place, Chessie will take on Derek Clark, an America's Cup veteran and sailing strategist from Titchfield, England, who will provide local knowledge of the English Channel and the Solent -- two areas in the last leg that are easily as tricky as the Chesapeake.

The last leg is only 450 nautical miles -- scheduled to finish midday Sunday with only two nights at sea -- but it is hardly a joy ride. Five teams are still in the running for trophies, and no boat is expected to hold back in this tactically complex sprint.

Chessie's strategy sounds like the ocean equivalent of the final ascent in an Everest climb, requiring fierce concentration and an absolute hunger for the end result.

The crew will sleep little, working in eight-hour shifts instead of six and napping only occasionally.

A breakdown could be ruinous: Chessie has stripped many of its spare parts to lighten the boat and increase its speed in this short leg.

Once sailing, each crew member will be responsible only for his area of expertise, instead of sharing the work, as the crew often does on longer legs. That means someone like watch captain Dave Scott will trim the mainsheet, his specialty, for about 46 hours straight.

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