Whitbread's a test like no other


Perhaps you have read or heard that the Whitbread Round the World Race will sail into Baltimore and Annapolis in the spring of 1998. And perhaps it has come to your attention that this international competition is to sailing what the Super Bowl is to football and the World Cup is to soccer.

But those comparisons are inadequate because no other competition involves crossing the vast oceans of the world, a playing field that can confound the best skippers and crews in the world.

In the first Whitbread race, in 1972, only 14 of 17 boats finished, with Sayula 11, a Mexican entry with an international crew, winning on handicap.

The fastest boat in that first race was Great Britain 11, which completed the course in 144 sailing days.

Since the early years, the Whitbread has grown in popularity, and the boats have evolved into incredible racing machines capable of speeds to 30 knots and, their crews and skippers say, at times absolute witches to sail.

The boats in the most recent Whitbread, which was completed early this summer, sailed a course longer than the original in almost 24 fewer days.

The Whitbread has become a sprint from start to finish on every leg, and the boats take an immense physical beating while the crews try to stay focused on speed and course selection throughout weeks at sea.

Dawn Riley of Detroit, who skippered the Heineken with an all-female crew in the 1993-94 Whitbread, said at the completion of the leg from Punta del Este, Uruguay, to Fort Lauderdale, Fla.: "The leg was harder than the brochure said. The first week was very tough, slamming into seas, but we made it through that and we are happy with the leg."

Happy to have finished what many felt would be the easiest leg of the race with half a rudder left and six days behind the leaders.

On that "easy" leg, Chris Dickson and the crew of Tokio lost their mast on April 6 a 14-hour lead in the Whitbread 60 class and any chance of winning the Heineken Trophy that goes to the overall winner of the race.

That easy leg. in fact, inflicted the most damage on the Whitbread 60 and maxiboat racing fleets.

In thc maxiboat class, New Zealand Endeavor and LaPoste, a French entry, both had the fiberglass in their bows delaminate from the constant pounding of heavy seas. The crew of Endeavor spent 12 hours reinforcing its bow with floorboards and bunks normally occupied by the cook and navigator.

Dolphin and Youth, a British Whitbread 60 had its hull cracked and had to withdraw to Brazil for repairs.

"It is a devastating occurrence in any race," Dickson said after Tokio was dismasted, "but to have it happen in the Whitbread after coming so far has been extra disappointing."

Disappointment and triumph are integral parts of the Whitbread, which runs from England south into the Atlantic, eastward around the Cape of Good Hope at the tip of Africa, east to Australia and New Zealand and then on to Cape Horn at the tip of South America before turning north through the Atlantic again.

If the leg from Punta del Este to Fort Lauderdale was to be the easy leg of the last race, then the Southern Ocean legs from the Cape ot Good Hope to Cape Horn, throuh the Roaring 40s and 50s, could have been expected to be the worst.

On Dec. 3, 1993, the rudder shaft broke and put a hole in the hull of Brooksfield, an Italian Whitbread 60, and the crew sent out a mayday. Two other racing boats in the area -- Winston, a U.S. entry, and LaPoste -- turned south into the worst storm of the race to lend assistant to the Italian boat.

"The roughest weather I've ever seen and the worst night of my life," Winston skipper Brad Butterworth told the editors of "Reaching Beyond," a book that chronicles the race.

LaPoste skipper Daniel Malle recalled the night and said, "Even a maxi can seem small when the wind is gusting 70 knots for six hours."

The crew of Brooksfield had made repairs and pumped the boat out by the time help was at hand.

Dolphin and Youth, meanwhile, had pulled into the Kerguelen Islands to make repairs on its rudder, which had been shattered by ice and seas.

Also on that leg, Ken Hara, a bowman aboard Tokio, was swept overboard, though he was quickly hauled back in.

"The Southern Ocean, unless you have been there, is difficult to describe," Riley said in an interview last spring. "The days can be gray and very wet, the temperatures very cold. There is ice in the sea, the winds can be 50 or 60 mph, the seas very high.

"And you take your turn at the wheel and hang on as the boat crashes on toward Australia still more than 1,000 miles away."

And the finish in Southampton is still half a world away.

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