Chessies's hopes rose with wind, then died at the crack of a mast

Collins on race fate: `It was gone in a flash'

Sailing

April 27, 2000|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN STAFF

George Collins was standing at the stern of Chessie Racing, looking up at the 105-foot mast of his turbo-sled, which had just put 417 miles under its keel in 24 hours of high-powered sailing in the 1,000-mile Key West-to-Baltimore ocean race.

The mainsail was pushed so far forward by the following wind that it was chafing against one of the spreaders, which give the mast its lateral support. The Baltimore millionaire and sailing fanatic was thinking he should winch it in slightly to lessen the wear.

On the foredeck, Rick Deppe and Tom Weaver, feeling the boat was overpowered as it sped toward Cape Hatteras, had just dropped the small, fractional spinnaker.

They were planning to replace it with the even smaller blaster jib. They were also wondering how to reef a mainsail filled taut by the increasingly powerful southwesterly.

"We were in a sort of squall with very rapidly building numbers," said Deppe.

"We were pushing the boat, sailing pretty hard with a full main," said Weaver.

Mike Toper, the watch captain, was at the wheel, steering the boat at speeds up to 26.1 knots. Chessie, designed primarily as a downwind boat, was doing what she does best -- running fast.

"We were going good," said Collins. "Everything was working fine. If we weren't actually in the lead, we were right where we wanted to be."

The race favorite, Zephyrus, a new 73-foot turbo-sled , was two miles to leeward. After more than half the race, Chessie, built in 1990 and well-raced since, was still very much in the running and heading for its home waters in the Chesapeake Bay.

Collins was hoping to confound the race handicappers and take line honors in Baltimore's Inner Harbor against a newer, bigger boat, co-skippered by Annapolis sail-race professional John Bertrand.

Collins glanced at Chessie's wind indicator. It was shooting up from the mid-20-knot range into the 30s. He watched as the black, digital figures changed swiftly -- 33, 34, 35, 36. He looked up again at the mainsail.

"I heard a snap," said Collins, acting as a "floater" -- odd-job man --in the five-strong watch that had taken control of the boat half an hour earlier.

Before his eyes, the boat's super-strong carbon-fiber mast broke at the boom -- the horizontal support for the mainsail's lower portion about four feet above the deck. The mast toppled into the sea in a tangle of stainless steel rods and wires, taking with it several stanchions from the starboard side of the boat.

"It was gone in a flash," said Collins yesterday.

"It was quite a loud bang, but not deafening," said Deppe . "It's just like a tree falling, hearing the bark and the wood splintering. Instead, you hear carbon-fiber splintering.

"Then it hits the water. Everything slows down, and all you are left with is the rod rigging, halyards and wires rubbing along the boat."

Toper shouted: "All hands on deck."

The off-watch professional sailors resting below deck came dashing up. Seven of Chessie's 12-man crew sailed for Collins in the Whitbread-round-the-world race two years ago, and two others are Whitbread veterans from other boats.

"Everyone is very experienced, although not so much in dropping the rig," said Deppe.

The first task was to check for casualties. There were none. Next, they had to clear the mast and rigging before it damaged the hull. There was no time to think of salvaging anything. Anyway, the sea was too rough, with the rigging being smashed against the boat.

"The big problem is the broken rig punching a hole in the side of the boat," said Weaver. "It was like spears and javelins. We had to cut it away. We were rolling about in very big seas."

Chessie carries special wire cutters, grinders and pliers for just such an accident -- Collins was previously dismasted 22 minutes after starting the Baltimore-Bermuda race in his 52-foot Baltic six years ago.

Deppe dashed for the tools. Collins checked that nothing was wrapped round the rudder or the propeller, which could impede starting the boat's motor once the debris was cleared.

Half an hour later, the engine was switched on, and Chessie was motoring to Morehead City, North Carolina, an uncomfortable 14-hour journey in what Weaver described as "a washing machine."

What the crew of Chessie didn't know was minutes after their mast came down around 1 p.m. Tuesday, Zephyrus had suffered the same fate following a knockdown when the boat was thrown onto its side. Each stricken yacht tried to communicate with the other, but both failed.

The California boat's mast broke off at the deck, and the damage was more substantial than that suffered by Chessie.

"We were lucky to lose the rig when we did," said Weaver, noting that the wind had shifted after the dismasting from the south to the north, creating headwinds and even rougher seas for the five boats still racing toward Baltimore. "It's going to be just brutal out there now," said Weaver.

In the lead at noon yesterday was Blue Yankee, beating into a northeasterly with about 250 miles to go. She could cross the finishing line off the Rusty Scupper restaurant today or tomorrow. Behind her were Javelin, Volador, Mensae and Ariel, a 47-foot Swan out of Oxford, Md., and the smallest boat in the fleet.

Collins said wryly of the sudden end to his 1,000-mile race: "'It was a short trip."

Chessie, his stricken Santa Cruz 70, will be motored back to Baltimore for repairs once the weather at Cape Hatteras settles.

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