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Many Americans this month have been viewing, for the first time, the cream of the sport that consumes most of the world -- soccer. Now it appears that sailors in the northeast will get a close look at its sailing equivalent in 1998. No, the America's Cup is not coming here. It's the Whitbread Round the World Race, which makes the America's Cup look like the oceanic carnival it really is.

U.S. entries are rare in the Whitbread, which speeds 32,000 miles in six legs. The racers stopped in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., this year, the first time it touched the U.S. in 21 years. It's not a popular contest in this country, so major corporations are reluctant to finance entries. But it is a far more challenging test of sailing skills -- and the ability to design boats that can withstand the rigors of the southern latitudes.

The director of the Whitbread race wants to bring this prestigious event to the nation's prime sailing ground, the Chesapeake Bay, in 1998. That could stir interest in the cream of sail racing and, we hope, lure more sponsors and U.S. entrants.

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