LA ROCHELLE, France -- When crews in the Whitbread race finally cross the English Channel and lay eyes on the shores of Britain -- a sight they haven't witnessed since starting the around-the-world race nine months ago -- an odd thing could happen.
They may all turn around.
Only 450 miles are left in this punishing endurance contest, whose last leg begins today off La Rochelle and is set to finish tomorrow afternoon in Southampton, England. But after nearly 31,600 miles of dead-serious sailing, the last miles could prove downright kooky.
Whitbread officials may order the fleet to sail extra miles to
accommodate a live television finish. They could be sent clear back to Cherbourg, France, all to circle a buoy. The time-wasting exercise will be used only if the finish is ahead of the TV schedule, and the nine boats will not learn the course changes until mid-race.
The race begins with a shot fired from a ship called La Belle Poule (the pretty hen). It sounds far too quaint for this bloodletting.
Sailors are bracing themselves for all kinds of fight-to-the-death tactical moves, not to mention extra-dirty play on the ocean. Maryland's Chessie Racing, now in fourth place, is one of five boats in contention for second or third and plans to hold nothing back.
"It's going to be," says Silk Cut navigator Vincent Geake, "a very close race -- not to mention quite a good show."
To that end, the Whitbread hopes to turn the finish into something akin to a Super Bowl for English television. The idea makes many sailors nervous: A boat could lead at the finish, but then lose time during the buoy chasing and suddenly get bumped to last.
Not to mention that for some sailors, the idea of turning around and going backward after months of plowing forward is excruciating.
"For me, living in England, it's particularly disappointing to finish the Whitbread and see the Needles and then turn around and go back to France," said Paul Standbridge, the British skipper on Toshiba. "But I still think it will be fair, because everyone will get the same information about the course changes at the same time."
To tinker with the arrival time a bit more, race officials will tell skippers whether they are to sail a long or a short route across the English Channel only 10 minutes before the starting cannon fires. With so many possible courses to follow, some navigators will bring more charts on this the shortest leg of the race than they did on the first and longest leg from England to South Africa.
The winner in part will be decided by the boat that masters the English Channel. If the short course is used, the boats must decide whether to sail across with heavier wind but greater distance (to the west) or the opposite scenario (to the east).
After clearing the Channel, the fleet must navigate the Solent, a shallow channel with up to 5-knot current that can force boats to run aground and even push them backward. Boats may be forced to anchor mere miles from the finish if the current pushes them the wrong way.
Although first place is decided -- EF Language already won enough points -- a vicious fight for second and third still looms.
"A boat that finds good air at night may just 'accidentally' find that their navigational lights fail for a half hour while the rest of the fleet is looking for them," said Silk Cut's Geake. "It's quite possible the competition could do something like that."
Five boats are in contention for the remaining two podium spots. Each is relying on a stellar race -- combined with poor performances by higher-placed boats -- to win. Swedish Match is in second, followed by Monaco's Merit Cup, Chessie Racing, Silk Cut and Norway's Innovation Kvaerner. In the past three legs, Silk Cut, a British team that will be sailing in English waters, has collected more points than any other boat.
But this race will favor light-air boats, and Silk Cut is not one. Chessie Racing is one of the boats designed to go faster in the anticipated conditions of roughly 15-knot northeasterly winds.
Chessie must beat Merit Cup by one spot and finish in the top three to place third, and must beat Swedish Match by five boats and place in the top three ahead of Merit Cup to finish second.
Chessie skipper John Kostecki sees his task as simple.
"Basically," he said, "we have to sail our best race."
Pub Date: 5/22/98