'Chessie Racing' -- the Whitbread ocean saga

April 29, 2001|By Gilbert Lewthwaite | By Gilbert Lewthwaite,Special to the Sun

"Chessie Racing: The Story of Maryland's Entry in the 1997-98 Whitbread Round the World Race," by George J. Collins and Kathy Alexander. Johns Hopkins University Press. 240 pages. $34.95.

This is a book for several audiences -- the serious sailor, the vicarious adventurer, and the proud Maryland landlubber.

Chessie Racing's entry into the 1997-98 Whitbread Round the World Race engaged an interest far beyond the normal appeal of ocean racing, even in a water-bred community like ours.

This was achieved, in major part, through the first partnership between an ocean racing syndicate and a nonprofit organization, the Living Classrooms Foundation. The foundation used Chessie's participation in the 31,600-mile, nine-month circumnavigation as a tool for teaching science, math, geography, history and a slew of other subjects to thousands of students who suddenly found themselves captivated by such an innovative, liberating and exciting educational approach.

The children's enthusiasm was contagious to their parents, and the popular appetite for information about the race grew on what it was fed by the media, and, most of all, the regular e-mails and videos from the boat.

By the time Chessie, her white hull emblazoned with the eponymous fire-breathing sea monster, arrived in Baltimore at the end of the seventh of the race's nine legs, thousands were at harborside to welcome her, no matter that she was seventh across the line.

But if teaming up with the foundation was a strength, it also involved a weakness. Without a major corporate sponsor, Chessie was funded by George Collins, retired CEO of Baltimore-based mutual fund company T. Rowe Price, an avid sailor and a director of the Living Classrooms Foundation.

Although the estimated $7 million he spent is a lot of money by most counts, in the wider fleet of ocean racing it was a strikingly modest campaign budget, enough to fund only a single-boat program whereas the most successful syndicates in the Whitbread used two boats to gear up for the race.

Looking back on the experience at the end of the book, Collins offers his advice to future syndicates. His first admonition: "Get a corporate sponsor -- you can't win without one."

With co-author Kathy Alexander, who was press officer with the Chessie syndicate, Collins traces the campaign to the 1995 effort to persuade the Whitbread race committee that the Baltimore business community would support a local stopover in the race.

Collins realized a Chesapeake boat would clinch the deal. And so the Chessie syndicate was born.

The story of how it was all put together and executed is an easy read, made more enjoyable by a gallery of high-seas color photos. The joys and dangers of sailing through some of the wildest, most terrifying waters on earth will keep readers turning the pages.

The efforts and decisions that brought Chessie four podium finishes in the nine legs are recounted alongside the failures and mistakes, particularly on the last leg, that consigned her to a disappointing overall sixth place.

The pity is that there will be no sequel: Collins was willing to help fund, but not pick up the whole tab for, a local entry in the 2001-02 race, to be sponsored by Volvo in place of Whitbread. No corporations were ready to step forward to take up the slack. The only consolation: the 1998 Baltimore-Annapolis stopover was such a success that the ocean racers will be back here again next year.

Gilbert Lewthwaite, a retired foreign correspondent and boating columnist for The Sun, covered the 1997-98 Whitbread Round the World Race from Cape Town, South Africa, and Sao Sebastiao, Brazil. A keen sailor, he now cruises the Chesapeake Bay aboard his 31-foot Westerly sloop.

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