SOUTHAMPTON, England -- Nance Frank, late of Annapolis, steered her U.S. Women's Challenge yacht across the starting line yesterday into her dream of competing in the Whitbread Round the World Race -- 32,000 miles of demanding, dangerous sailing.
"The toughest leg is over," she said just before pulling away from her berth here. "Now there's just adventure in the wind."
Hers is an all-female 11-member crew, the only women aboard the fourteen yachts that started this sixth Whitbread.
"It's going to be gorgeous," Ms. Frank said as she took the helm and urged her crew aboard. "Come on. We've got a race to win."
With her blue spinnaker set as the Duke of York fired the cannon to start the race at 1:30 p.m., Ms. Frank settled the Challenge into the back of the pack like a long-distance runner gauging the pace.
The sky was mottled gray, the wind 15 knots and the Solent Channel opposite Cowes on the Isle of Wight a choppy froth as 6,000 spectator boats churned in behind the Whitbread fleet.
Washed out at the start in 1989 by a sponsor who pulled out at the last minute, Ms. Frank had struggled since then to get back into the race.
She and her crew started the race enthusiastic but underfinanced. She had pledges for about $1.9 million of the $3.4 million that she thinks is the minimum needed to compete in the six legs of the eight-month race.
Ms. Frank, 44, who lived in Annapolis from 1988 until recently, tried to get money from Maryland, but she had no luck. "They didn't give us any money," she said. "They said it wasn't right for them."
So the Florida Keys and Key West's tourism office have become her home-port sponsor. She's a conch (pronounced "conk") a native of Key West. So now the Key West logo, not Maryland's, is on her boat.
But lots of Marylanders have made donations, Ms. Frank said. About 10,000 people across the country, she said, have contributed to the U.S. Women's Challenge campaign, which is registered as a nonprofit corporation in Maryland.
Ms. Frank is well-known around the Chesapeake Bay. She has raced aboard the Warp Speed and the Ichiban out of Annapolis. And, as she practiced for this race, her sleek red Whitbread 60 became familiar in Maryland waters. She sailed from Annapolis to Key West and back before joining the New York to Southampton Race that qualified the Challenge for the Whitbread.
"We're going to lose a lot of weight going around the world," she said, not quite joking. Her food budget has been $1.25 a person a day.
"It's an endurance race, and women are endurance creatures," she said. These women survive mostly on freeze-dried food at sea during the six legs of the trip.
The Whitbread has captured the public's imagination and become a pinnacle of yacht racing. The race has two classes, one for the 60s like the Challenge, which are all low hull and high sail, the other for the considerably more expensive Maxis, which are the grand prix class.
Ten Whitbread 60s started in this race, four Maxis. The cost of campaigning for the Whitbread in a Maxi approaches $10 million. The 60s, superbly designed boats that cost about a third of the Maxis, seem to be the wave of the future. Bruce Farr, an Australian who maintains an office in Annapolis, designed seven of the 60s in this year's Whitbread, including Ms. Frank's, and two of the Maxis.
Most of the race is run through the inhospitable southern Atlantic and Indian oceans, where the winds are fearsome, fogs thick and the water flecked with ice and icebergs.
Minute details acquire great tactical importance in a race in which the shortest leg is 3,272 miles, the "easy" run between Fremantle, Australia, and Auckland, New Zealand.
The longest leg is the second, 7,500 miles from Punta del Este, Uruguay, to Fremantle -- a 56-day voyage.
In past races, some yachts have even dipped below 60 degrees, which is said to be just about the limits of prudence, if not sanity. One crew member died during the 1989 race, three in the first in 1973.
"It's quite dangerous," Ms. Frank said. "But I've sailed around Cape Horn on a 30-foot boat with no engine. And here I am: no scratches."
Her French watch captain, Michele Paret, sailed the southern Atlantic and Indian oceans on the Maiden, the British yacht that had the first all-woman crew, in the 1989 Whitbread.
"It's the heavy winds and the big waves and the cold," Ms. Paret said. "You are always wet. You go to sleep wet.
"You are always tired. You lose one hour taking your clothes off and putting them back on. So you can only sleep three hours between watches. We feel the danger. We have to keep one hand for us and one hand for the boat. Icebergs are easy. You can see them on radar. The growlers you can't."
A growler is a chunk of ice, mostly under water. It can puncture or badly dent the boat.
"During the night you cannot do anything," Ms. Paret said, "except cross your fingers and hope."
A man's race?
Despite the presence of the Challenge, the Whitbread remains essentially a man's race.
"You can't race on a men's crew," Ms. Paret said. "They don't want you. No chance for a woman, no way. Maybe in 10 years. They only way to do this race is in an all-woman crew."
Many of the Challenge crew members, including Nance Frank, expressed similar feelings and described similar experiences. Ms. Frank wanted to skipper her own yacht so she could get out of the galley.
"Even though I was a reasonable cook, that wasn't my idea of sailing the Whitbread," she said.
Her own cook (and medic), Susan Chiu, a nurse who is the mother of four and, at 48, the oldest crew member, promised to make her food interesting if not exciting.
"We can make Italian, Japanese and Chinese meals," she said. "Not gourmet, but it's good dietetically, and they love it."
Race strategists calculate that crew members need 6,000 calories a day in the southern latitudes.
Hustling for money
Ms. Frank spent her last few weeks -- and hours -- on shore in a really chancy operation: hustling for money and fending off debtors. She's become a media star, granting photo opportunities and posing aboard her yacht like an exceedingly well-covered beauty queen arriving on the QEII. Her biggest scare came from what she called "a disgruntled former boyfriend" and four others who threatened legal action in the week before the start. They say they're owed about $53,000 from Ms. Frank's last try at the Whitbread.
She just said that if they tried to take possession of the Challenger "there would be no hope whatsoever to regain any of the money."
By going forward, she said, she's confident that funds will come and she can repay her debts.
Ms. Frank scoffed at the idea that she's a professional sailor, as are most of the skippers and crew members on the other Whitbread yachts.
"Professional sailors make money," she said. "I don't make any money out of this. I've made a huge investment of time and money. If you're a professional, money changes hands."
"None of these women are being paid," she said. "All of them have invested their time or efforts for months or years. I've been at this six years. All of these women have put their lives on hold."
And they think a big difference between men and women teams is ego, which women are more likely to leave on shore, Ms. Franz said.
Here, one big difference seemed to be that women tend to wear modest white pearl earrings, while men prefer little gold hoops. But the Challenge is not in the race to beat the men.
"All we want is to race round the world," Nance Frank said. "Winning would be the icing on the cake."
The British bookmakers make her a 66-to-1 shot, but they may be male chauvinists.