The challenge facing Chessie is to turn a crew into a team Local entry begins Whitbread in September


On Friday evening, at the christening of Chessie, the Baltimore-Annapolis entry in the Whitbread Round the World Race, George Collins was explaining to the assemblage why, at 57, he will chance sailing at breakneck speed across the world's most daunting oceans.

"This brings visions of Vasco Da Gama of a great adventure," said Collins, who recently retired as CEO of T. Rowe Price Associates Inc., and for many years has successfully raced a string of boats named Moxie. "How many chances do you get to do something like this? This is one of the greatest challenges in team sports."

The team, said Collins, is what will get the 64-foot white sloop with a green Chesapeake Bay sea monster painted on its hull around the world.

"You do it if you have a great crew," said Collins, "and we have put together a great crew for this race."

Now, however, several crew members said Friday, they face the business of becoming a team that can handle sail changes in the cold, tumultuous seas of the Indian Ocean or the tedium of maximizing a drifter in the sweaty expanse of the Doldrums near the Equator.

"This is an endurance race, and you have to adjust to long stretches offshore," said Grant Spanhake of Annapolis, a veteran of two Whitbreads. "But it also requires several periods of intensity every day."

The crew will sail in four-hour shifts around the clock, four hours on, four hours on standby and four hours off unless there is an emergency aboard.

"So, in effect, you are sailing three to four yacht races every day," said Spanhake, who is one of four Whitbread veterans on the crew. "And in every case, you want to keep your top possible speed, so the sailing is incredibly intense."

Jerry Kirby of Newport, R.I., is a bowman with extensive experience in offshore races for big boats, including two America's Cups and a Maxiboat world championship. But this will be his first Whitbread.

"In the 1970s and 1980s," said Kirby, 41, "all of us in ocean racing were sailing shorter courses, America's Cups, 700- or 800-milers or trans-Atlantics and so on. But now people are gravitating toward the Whitbread, which is getting the best talent, because everyone wants to check it off their list of accomplishments."

Christian Scherrer of Switzerland was a watch captain on Merit Cup in the 1993-1994 Whitbread, and last time around, his team was together for three years before the race was sailed.

The Chessie Racing crew, which was announced Friday at the christening, has less than five months in which to train together before the race starts in England on Sept. 21.

"But that is not a problem, really," said Scherrer, 27. "Some part of getting the team together can be done before the start. But the real melding will only happen during the race."

Rick Deppe of Annapolis raced aboard Fortuna in the last Whitbread and found that after 20 years of top-flight round-the-buoy racing, the long ocean legs of this race require an attitude adjustment.

"We were trying to do sail changes and tacks and things as fast as possible, just like in racing around the buoys," said Deppe, 32. "In the Whitbread, that just won't do. After all, in this race, the buoys are islands and continents, and if you blow out a sail a third of the way into a leg, you have to continue on without it."

What will mark a good crew, Deppe said, is its ability to work together in all situations with an economy of movement and personnel and with a "good combination of safety and seamanship."

"You have to learn to sail the boat with six guys at the most, and these are a lot of boat to be sailed by those few," said Deppe. "But you don't want to get an off-watch on deck unless you have to -- they have done their share and have earned their rest."

Virtually all the crew on Chessie have run sailing campaigns from dinghies to ocean racers and are "intelligent and organized," Deppe said. "When you are a crew, you work out the smart way to do things together."

Greg Gendell, a sailmaker who grew up on the Magothy River between Baltimore and Annapolis, is said to be a rising star among bowmen, who work the exposed front of the boat during sail changes and rise through the rigging when repairs must be made aloft.

While Gendell, 27, has raced extensively in the United States and Europe and faced situations where the weather has blown up for 24 or 36 hours, he said this will be his first extended race offshore.

"As a professional sailor and a sailmaker, this a professional and personal challenge for me," he said. "If you do a Whitbread and take it into an America's Cup Syndicate, they will notice."

The prospect of being at sea, with perhaps a dozen crew sharing the Spartan confines of a 64-foot sled pounding through heavy seas at 15 or more knots, daunts none of the crew.

"You get used to it," said Spanhake, a Whitbread veteran. "The first week out can be long, the middle weeks go fast and the last week seems long again. Sometimes you are packed up and ready to go ashore 300 miles from the finish line."

Four hours on, four hours on standby, four hours off, around the clock for days on end through 31,600 miles -- come maddening calm or horrendous storm.

"You know you are going to be scared to death part of the time," said Kirby. "But that is why you go."

Pub Date: 5/04/97

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