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Refitting of equipment and crew mean smoother sailing for Women's Challenge


Last November, the fleets in the Whitbread Round the World Race left Uruguay for the leg to Fremantle, Australia. Among the boats that started from Punta del Este was the Women's Challenge, which had raced the first leg from England to Uruguay as the U.S. Women's Challenge.

You may recall that Nance Frank of Key West, Fla., had started the race as the skipper of the all-female entry and had announced her withdrawal from the race because the group was short of funds, equipment and crew.

You may recall also that while in Uruguay the builders of the boat managed to recruit Dawn Riley of Detroit as skipper, fill out the crew and send the Women's Challenge on its way after some equipment repairs and with some updated equipment.

Left in the wake of the Whitbread 60 was a series of charges and counter charges over ownership, entry fees, personality conflicts and assorted other who-struck-Jane complaints.

What has come out of the two legs since -- Uruguay to Australia and Fremantle to Auckland, New Zealand -- is a boat re-named Heineken and refitted at the end of Leg 2, and which has been up and running well for almost 11,000 miles through what sailors call the Southern Ocean.

"All that stuff that went on before [the start of Leg 2], I don't want to get into it," Riley said Friday in Annapolis, where she and Heineken representatives had scheduled one of several stops on a promotional tour. "Everything I know about it is hearsay."

What Riley does know about is the performance of her boat and crew in the Southern Ocean, that riotous expanse of bluewater and occasional icebergs below about 40 degrees south latitude.

What started from Southampton, England, in September as a shoestring attempt just to get around the world a leg at a time, has become a legitimate effort.

The most important change was Heineken's decision to come aboard as a major sponsor in Fremantle and to provide a new suit of sails and take care of equipment repairs "just like that," Riley said, and snapped her fingers.

"It is no longer dangerous to sail that boat," Riley said, " . . . and I am not saying it was on Leg 2, but it was not a lot of fun because when things break it is a pain in the butt.

"And besides the fact that you are going slow, then crew morale starts going down because you are 200 miles behind, 400 miles behind, a thousand miles behind. . . . But with sponsorship, this is a positive thing now.

"This last leg, Leg 3, was fun. People were laughing and shouting and the off watch was having to go up on deck and say, 'Can you stop laughing? We are trying to sleep' -- and things like that."

One has to imagine, of course, what there would be to laugh about when the wind is 40 knots or more, water temperature is hovering in the upper 30s and your boat is prone to drive through waves rather than slide up and over them.

And certainly on the grueling, 7,600-mile leg to Fremantle, Riley said, there were times when everyone aboard wanted to be elsewhere.

"You talk about I want a Jacuzzi now, I want a steak now, I want a Caesar salad and a glass of white wine now," said Riley, who was a watch leader on Maiden, which in 1989-90 became the first all-woman boat to complete the Whitbread. "We were cold and wet and eating freeze-dried food, which all is treated with some chemical that makes it all taste the same."

But there are other days when the hard edges of a four-hours-on, four-hours-off watch schedule are worn away by the grit of fine excitement.

Riley recalled such a time off Tasmania on Leg 3, after the water had warmed, the crew had really begun to come together and a squall with winds to 58 knots blew through.

"We had had squalls coming through all day," Riley said, "and they were getting up to 35 or 40 knots. We had a No. 3 [jib] poled out with one reef in the main, which was a fair amount of sail in those conditions -- and this squall came over, and it just hit.

"If you try to take the sails down [in those conditions], they will rip apart. . . . So you just hang on and go. The seas flattened out and the boat speed picked up to 25 knots. That was just exhilarating."

Riley said there is a learning curve in such a race for crew and skipper, in which a basis of mutual understanding must be reached.

"When you are the crew or the watch leader or whatever and not [the skipper], it is so easy to criticize and figure how something could be better -- hindsight, and you have that luxury the whole time," said Riley, 29, who has worked the pit aboard America3's yachts in America's Cup trials and sails on the international match racing circuit.

"In the beginning [of Leg 2 from Punta del Este], I was going around asking every individual person what they thought I should be doing, and all you are doing there is asking for criticism, the negative," Riley said. "Instead, you have to put your opinion across, and if there is a problem, guarantee that [watch leaders or crew] will come to you. Don't solicit the negative. Try to keep it as positive as you can. . . .

"When you are happy and pushing for it -- and it takes a lot inside the person to sit there for four hours in the cold and trim a spinnaker -- you have to have a good solid base."

Heineken sailed to an eighth-place finish among 10 boats in the Whitbread 60 class on the third leg and stands seventh overall as the boats are prepared for Leg 4, which starts Feb. 20 from Auckland around Cape Horn to Punta del Este.

The first time she passed Cape Horn was in Maiden, with 20 knots of wind dead downwind and sunshine, Riley said. "But a couple of days before and couple of days after, we got the stuffing kicked out of us."

This time, Riley and Heineken's crew probably can expect more of the same. But that will be just one more play in the Whitbread game.

"Why do we go sail among the icebergs and be cold, wet and miserable?" Riley said. "So we can sail in the most extreme, exhilarating conditions.

"There has to be a payoff, and you can't just say that it is because we want to sail around the world."

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