Racing the wind around the world Sailing: A Maryland team, led by the head of T. Rowe Price, trains for the grueling Whitbread Round-the-World sailboat race.; The CEO and the Sea.


At some point over the next year, George Collins is likely to do the following:

Sail like a maniac, exercise with a fury, measure his body fat, exhaust his crew, gossip about his competition, study racing routes, try not to drown, eat energy food, scream commands, pop aspirin, sleep a little and otherwise end life as he knows it.

In short, he will prepare for the Whitbread Round-the-World Race, one of history's most punishing sailing contests.

The transoceanic competition, equal parts endurance test and status symbol, is the latest prize on which this Baltimore businessman has set his sights.

Collins and his prospective crew on the Chesapeake Bay's first-ever Whitbread entry are in training for the race -- even though the competition does not begin until Sept. 21.

Around the globe, more than 200 competitors are preparing their bodies, boats and minds for that day and the nine months of racing that will follow.

The Whitbread, like much else in the sport of sailing, has become a high-stakes business dominated by professionals who want to push the speeds, performances, profits and profile of the pastime to new levels.

To accomplish this, the racing syndicates have turned the event from a 31,600-mile cruising adventure into a breathless sprint around the world.

It is grueling.

Sailors lose an average 5 to 7 pounds per week. They get roughly four hours of sleep a night. They suffer sunstroke at the equator and frostbite around Antarctica. Their injuries -- broken bones, gaping gashes and worse -- are tended to aboard with simple medical kits. Most anyone who can stitch a sail, they say, can sew up a crew member.

"It's about stamina, long-term endurance and basic survival," said Collins, who is chief executive officer of Baltimore mutual fund company T. Rowe Price. "It reveals the builders, the detractors, the gripers, the whiners and the winners."

Building muscle

Training? Whitbread sailors used to do that in bars.

"It used to be the biggest thing you had to worry about was running out of beer or discovering that the world was flat," said Brian Hancock, who completed two Whitbreads in the 1980s and wants to do another. "That's just how it was."

Not anymore. The race, where boats once sailed with ice chests, chefs' ovens and female cooks, has been changing steadily over the past decade. Now, the sailors train as though they were getting ready to compete in nine back-to-back triathlons, one for each leg of the race -- including a run from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to Baltimore in April 1998.

Who knows whether slightly bigger muscles can make a difference in a race where brains, nature and technology may be more important than brute strength? But it could mean that the boat won't fall behind by moving only a fraction of a knot slower for a day -- or the crew won't succumb to every injury by allowing fatigue to set in.

Strength and stamina determine who is picked for crew and who is ditched. Collins is testing the potential members of his team -- dubbed Chessie Racing -- with five fitness tests created by strength coach Rob Slade.

The goal: to get the competitors as close as possible to an Olympic-strength "super-elite" level, where they bench press more than three times their body weight, do 80 push-ups in 90 seconds and row nearly six miles in 30 minutes.

Life and death and victory

The training program uses plyometrics: short explosive bursts of exercise that mimic the quick energy and targeted strength needed for deck work. The training will pay off if the crew members' arms are so strong they can hoist a 120-pound sail in 10 seconds instead of 15, if their backs are so powerful they can haul frozen lines with two people instead of four, or if their legs are so solid they won't stumble into the storm-tossed Southern Ocean.

The drilling isn't just to win. The race has claimed five lives in its six runnings. The longest legs leave teams alone on the sea for up to 45 days. Competitors battle the threat of storms, the chill from ferocious gales and towering waves, the hazards posed by whales and icebergs and, most of all, the sheer exhaustion.

"If they fall overboard, these guys need to be able to pull themselves back on the boat," said Slade. "If you can't do any pull-ups, you become a liability out there. It could cost you your life. Besides, you want to win the race."

Readying for war

Slade talks a lot about "guys" because Chessie Racing's crew will be all-male. Team organizers say the living conditions are too cramped to be coed, and they won't accept the women who are among the 50 to apply to the crew.

If American women hope to sail in the Whitbread, they will have to leave this country to do it. Three all-female teams are in the works worldwide (one from Australia is led by supermodel Elle Macpherson, who has lent her name and money to the race and may sail some of it).

Gender may pose limits on this crew, but age won't: Collins, 56, will be one of the oldest skippers. Six feet tall, muscular and lean, he spends roughly an hour a day lifting weights, running, biking or swimming. He must pass the same fitness tests as the young adrenalin junkies who will form his crew.

"I'd have no problem putting Collins on the boat right now," said Slade, who buffs bodies for Ego Fitness Consultants in Baltimore. "This is a motivated, pumped-up guy."

Of course, not all sailors are in fabulous form. For years, competitors have snickered about the most winning of all American yachtsmen, Dennis Conner, who sailed two legs in the last Whitbread and is heading a California-based syndicate in this race called Team Dennis Conner. Portly and fleshy-faced, Conner stands apart from his wiry crew.

"Just because he has a, um, probably a little more, um, higher weight than most of the skippers out there or sailors out there, he's actually in better shape than most people think," said Bill Trenkle, the team's operations manager.

Conner could not be reached for comment, but several people, including his sailing rivals, argued that his role as brains of the boat made him a more formidable opponent.

Even for the most physically fit, this race demands more than gym workouts with dumbbells, treadmills and the occasional fruit shake. Sometimes, it is more like readying for war.

Question of teamwork

Chessie Racing is studying teamwork methods similar to the program used by the Red Arrows -- the British equivalent of the U.S. Navy flying exhibition team, the Blue Angels.

A California team, America's Challenge, is getting coached on crisis management by a psychologist with NASA, who specializes in dealing with stress in space.

A Swedish entry in the last Whitbread, Intrum Justitia, hired Marines for lessons on battle strategy, survival skills -- and why leaders get shot by their own troops.

The idea of survival-of-the-fittest training was tested early. Nearly two decades ago, a New Zealand team went on a mountain-climbing mission to determine who was the strongest. The skipper who led it, Peter Blake, went on to compete in five Whitbreads, won the 1990 race and now is known formally as "Sir Peter."

Training the mind

To win the Whitbread, there is perhaps no better training than sailing. If it were possible to sail every day leading up to the race, most skippers would.

But Collins, still a full-time businessman, went sailing only once this summer. He has never skippered a superfast Whitbread boat or completed a trans-Atlantic crossing, and his first offshore sailing race was in 1990. Collins is banking on nearly a decade of offshore sailing experience, combined with a lifetime of day sailing, to compensate.

For the next two months, he will race Moxie, a Mumm 30, nearly every weekend off Annapolis. And this winter, he and his prospective crew will train in the Caribbean on a Corel 45, a larger, faster boat. In April, Collins will quit his job and sail the most powerful boat of all -- a Whitbread 60 created by Annapolis boat designer Bruce Farr.

But no matter how strong the boat or how tough the body, there is one element many sailors believe also must be trained: the mind.

"If you have any kind of mental weakness anywhere, the Whitbread is bound to find it," said Hancock, 38, who completed two Whitbreads as watch captain.

Hancock believes sailors need to spend more time learning to cope with the psychological strains that arise before and during this event. He wants to bring meditation tapes to help him relax when he is off watch. And he may give up coffee -- the drink of choice at sea -- because it creates an artificial high.

Vitamins and seminars

Other sailors are testing holistic remedies and vitamin potions to keep them strong. More are taking interpersonal skill seminars and talking to therapists about better handling pressure. A few are studying the effects of nervousness with heart monitor tests.

Already, a couple of competitors are thinking of hiring Anthony Robbins, the self-helper who has coached individuals from Princess Diana to Andre Agassi and was a "peak performance consultant" to Bill Koch in his successful 1992 America's Cup bid.

Robbins' lessons are evident at his San Diego office, where people answer the telephone, "It's a great day," instead of "Hello."

But these mental training techniques seem like pure psycho-babble to other competitors -- not surprising in a sport that relies at least as much on machismo as it does on wind.

"You think we're all fruitcakes," scoffed Rick Deppe, 32, a Chessie Racing crew member, when asked about the mental paces that sailors might put themselves through before the race.

Deppe, who will climb the boat's 90-foot masts in fierce arctic gales, is trained to have no fear. He has no time for long and weepy sessions with a therapist to get in touch with his inner sailor.

Even though they may disagree with the remedies, all sailors agree that the mental strain is real. Indeed, sailors have snapped during this race.

In 1981, Hancock watched a fellow crew member become delusional halfway around the world, ranting about politics on the deck of the boat off New Zealand until he had to be removed in port and placed in a sanitarium. Six weeks later, the sailor woke from his daze and wandered to the docks, wondering where the boat had gone.

Nine years after that, Hancock was again in the Whitbread, this time on a Russian boat whose inexperienced skipper couldn't handle the pressure to win. After only a month, he walked off the boat in Uruguay and hanged himself in remote woods near Punta del Este.

No ordinary undertaking

Other round-the-world races have similar stories. In the last British Global Challenge, a sailor jumped off the boat and swam away, waving goodbye to the crew as he slipped under the waves.

"Everybody that does a Whitbread -- it's not an ordinary undertaking," said Hancock. "It's a dangerous undertaking and you better get your house in order and, if you're a religious sort, make peace with your God, because you are embarking on something you may not come back from.

"Your boat could sink to the bottom of the ocean."

But when they're racing, none of these sailors can think in such fatalistic -- or fearful -- terms. Instead they have to feel ready for anything, and ready to win.

Recently, Collins said that because he was a lifeguard in his youth, he could save his crew if the boat went down. But, of course, he has no intention of letting that happen.

"That," he said, "was just a joke."

Pub Date: 10/10/96

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