When the starting cannon fires in a round-the-world sailing race Sunday, skipper George Collins will be at the helm -- shouting commands and living a fantasy.
But just as the English shores grow tiny in the distance and the race starts to get real, this Baltimore millionaire will do something odd.
He will jump off the boat.
At that moment, a spectator vessel will pick him up, putting him in the landscape his crew leaves behind.
It is a serious course change for Collins, who paid more than $4 million for his boat and team, only to decide this month that he will diminish his role in the punishing Whitbread contest.
More than a year ago, the 57-year-old corporate executive announced in a news conference that he would leave the top job at Baltimore mutual fund giant T. Rowe Price to create Chessie Racing -- the Chesapeake Bay's first-ever team in the nine-month race.
It was a bold move: An amateur who had not yet crossed an ocean was out to conquer the globe.
But somewhere along the way -- in the frigid waters off the Grand Banks during a practice run across the Atlantic, in the dead-tired early dawn without sleep for three days, in the pub after a preliminary race won largely by the team's marquis players -- reality visited Collins.
It left him with his decision.
While paying the team's bills and overseeing its direction, he would sail only the race's shorter sprints, including a leg from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to Baltimore next April.
He would compete in five of the nine legs but would be absent from the long treks through the harrowing Southern Ocean -- widely seen as the true test in this race.
At the team's compound in England last month, he bluntly told his 12-member crew the facts.
"Chessie Racing is me," he remembers saying. "I'm the reason you're here. It's not an easy thing to kick myself off the boat, but it's the right decision. We're in this thing to win."
Collins' team has hung in there -- one of 10 competitors remaining from an original field of 42.
The boat, built with Collins' money for Baltimore's nonprofit Living Classrooms Foundation, has gotten respect.
Chessie placed a solid fifth in England's Fastnet race last month -- a strong showing in an early match against the other Whitbread contenders.
Collins now is talking more about winning than he is about enduring his own personal test. But if the ultra-competitive Collins is agonizing over his decision to leave behind a quest to round the globe, he is doing so where no one can see.
"At the beginning, I kind of hoped we would be competitive, but I had my doubts," he said last week, gazing at the Chesapeake Bay from his expansive Gibson Island home.
"Everybody was so far ahead of us. But now, it's a different story.
"Of course I'm disappointed, but I don't want to hear that nonsense, 'This was Collins' dream and now he can't do it,' " he added. "You've got to roll with the punches."
The bitter Atlantic
The Atlantic Ocean delivered one of those punches. As the crew brought the boat to England in late July to prepare for the start of the race, Collins experienced his first ocean crossing: 12 days of treacherous seas and inescapable soul-searching.
The ride had been rough. Sailing through the end of a hurricane, Collins got buffeted by 50-knot winds as the boat heeled violently, reaching speeds of 32 knots.
The waves soared to 25 feet. The deck was covered in sleet. Frigid water seeped through his drenched foul weather gear, which he had put on eight times in three days.
Nothing was dry. Everything was cold.
To Collins, the ocean was no longer vast and inanimate, but alive and angry. At 4 a.m. in the Labrador current, about 1,000 miles off Newfoundland, the waves were unrecognizable. They were pounding on his arms and stomach.
"Cut it out," he told Jerry Kirby, the crew member sitting next to him. Only after he got tossed backward did he realize the blows came from the water, not his team-mate.
By the crew's measure, Collins held his own on the trip to England. But he could not help comparing himself with the other men -- most of them in their 30s, sailing since they were toddlers.
It was a stark moment: Thousands of miles from land, realizing just how far out-muscled and out-matched he really was.
While other sailors sometimes neglected their personal EPIRBs -- emergency radios that help locate sailors who fall overboard -- Collins was never without his. He even slept with it, the "on" switch activated.
Meanwhile, his list of aches and pains seemed to grow daily. Bone chips in his left hand began aggravating him in July. His knees locked up in a preliminary sail in April. He tried not to tell people how much it hurt to haul himself above deck.
A head-on car accident near his home in May left him with continual back pain. His left leg hurt from banging into a winch, and he was having trouble finding his balance as the boat bounced through the water.
This was supposed to be a youthful adventure in mid-life. Why, then, did he feel so old?
When he ran below deck to haul a 120-pound sail, he couldn't do it alone and had to grab the light end when help came. He tried to grind the center winch, but he could last only 90 minutes, where his team-mates could go for four hours.
He tried to solve a problem on deck, but by the time he had thought it through, the team had already fixed it and moved on.
"It's frustrating," he said. "I'm not as fast as I used to be."
Sometimes, he just felt that he wasn't in the game. It drove him crazy to hike over the side or pack sails into sail bags while the rest of the crew was doing the important stuff.
"Quite frankly, I like to run my own boat, and when you've got these rock stars with superior knowledge and skills, you can't really do that," he said.
"I like to be in charge, and I'll admit that it gets to me. In heavy air conditions, what can I do? I can sit on the rail, yeah, sure. But any jerk can sit on the rail."
Instead of bitterness, though, his voice was edged with respect. "It surprised me," he said. "I am in good shape for a 57-year-old, but what these kids have is amazing."
For months, the competition had been placing bets over whether Collins would actually go through with the race. But his crew-mates described him as a man with admirable grit.
"The guy is hard as steel," said Kirby, 41. "We were sort of surprised at his stamina and his mental toughness. He grunts it up with the best of them."
Collins looks like the gentleman sailor that he is, with a face that seems ripped from an Old Spice ad -- weather-beaten but dignified, artfully worn from decades of squinting into the sun.
Even in his adventures, his world has been a largely comfortable one.
But with business and personal commitments lingering, that life was sometimes hard to leave behind.
During the trans-Atlantic, Collins missed his wife, Maureen, from whom he had rarely been apart during their 34-year marriage. He fretted about his father and mother-in-law, who had both been ill. A father of three and grandfather of five, he felt the tug of home.
What's more, after a 29-year career in investing, Collins found himself obsessing about the stock market between sea turtle sightings. His wife e-mailed him about a deal she agreed to with his money managers. In a panic, he sprinted to the boat's computer and fired off a response: DO NOT DO THAT!
When the wind disappeared and the seas went dead, he became even more itchy. He started daydreaming about hitting golf balls or skiing in Colorado.
"I wanted to put on a wet suit and swim with the whales," he said. Anything to get moving. "I can't sit still."
With roughly $110 million in T. Rowe Price stock alone, Collins has gotten used to playing how he pleases, when he pleases. The first leg of the race -- a 7,350-mile haul through frigid seas -- is not the kind of entertainment he usually seeks out.
"Sailing when it's cold is only fun when you go to the yacht club for lunch," said Russ Potee, Collins' longtime friend and weekend sailing buddy.
"In his mind, he's not going to do it [the first leg] because it isn't going to be fun."
As for his wife, she always had reservations about the voyage. But she didn't give them too much voice, instead supporting her husband as he trained at a practice camp in Bristol, R.I.
She even lived in the spartan student housing with him, where their worldly luxuries consisted of three cans of Rolling Rock in the refrigerator -- a far cry from their regular life, where they own three waterfront homes and are neighbors with celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey and Boris Becker.
In the dorm room one day in May, Maureen Collins tried gently to remind her husband that if he wanted to bow out, he always could.
"I hope he won't feel as though he absolutely has to do every leg," she told a visitor, "that for whatever reason, if for example the Southern Ocean is too strenuous or too dangerous. ... "
But Collins was paying little attention.
Instead, he was changing out of his sailing gear, discarding his socks and describing the feeling of racing 17 knots in a 30-knot wind.
"It's like going 100 miles per hour in a car," he said. His wife blanched.
Collins caught the look. "What's the matter?" he asked.
She answered with a very long silence.
According to Collins, when he finally pulled his wife aside after the trans-Atlantic and told her he would not compete in the whole race, she said but one word: "Good."
"I'm very happy about it," she says now, adding that she was particularly worried about Collins rounding Cape Horn, at the tip of South America, and the Cape of Good Hope at the bottom of Africa. "That's where you really have to be agile the way a 20-year-old is."
Last week, while the rest of the crew was training and gorging on high-calorie meals to get ready for the start, Collins was at home, contemplating a bike ride. Maureen Collins saw this -- her husband on the sidelines -- and knew how it must make him feel.
"Deep down, he really would have liked to have done it," she said. "It was hard for him to come to grips with how maybe he wasn't quite as quick on his feet as he would like to be."
Just do it
Since he was a kid, Collins was expected to be a fighter, a winner. When he was 6, his father dressed him in a miniature military uniform and paraded him in front of his World War II Army buddies -- a little soldier and his first-born son.
"I'd joke with George's brother, 'Go on and cry to your mother, this one's the mother's boy,' " said George Collins, the sailor's 76-year-old father. "But not George. George was a father's boy."
Collins and his father chronicle much of the younger George's history in terms of action. Not surprising, says his younger brother, Robert, 53, who summarizes the family philosophy this way:
"Everybody is always on the go. Keep going. Just fill your life with everything you possibly can. Work out. Play hard. Keep in shape. And do the best you can."
Collins grew up a mischievous kid, the ringleader of all his neighbors on Sumack Street in West Haven, Conn. He was forever organizing games of what he calls "blue-collar sports" -- baseball, football, basketball.
Before George could walk, his father was throwing balled-up pieces of paper at him.
"I'd always wanted him to be a big-league ballplayer from the day he was born," said the elder Collins. "I gave him a bat and a ball. Nineteen windows I had to repair."
By the time he hit Virginia Military Institute, Collins was a top jock with the world in his pocket. He was dating Maureen, a blond, blue-eyed beauty queen touring the country as 1960's America's Junior Miss. He had the air of someone who won at everything he tried.
That's when his luck turned. During a college physical, the doctor heard a strange hissing noise with his stethoscope and found Collins' heart was pumping blood into his lungs, a defect since birth that had gone undetected.
Seven months after surgery, Collins had become the school's top swimming champion, regaining his strength by doing laps with his clothes and boots on.
But while the competition could ignore the 26-inch purple scar searing across his skin, military doctors could not. When Collins tried to fulfill his lifelong dream of becoming an Air Force fighter pilot, the physicians stood in his way.
For new direction, he looked to his father, a Yale man who planned educational programs for the U.S. State Department. He tried to measure up.
"My father is a genius," Collins said. "When your Dad's a genius, you've got to figure out a new way to succeed."
Putting aside a brief attempt at minor-league baseball, Collins chose the corporate world. He enrolled at American University's business school. After assorted investment jobs, he landed at T. Rowe Price in 1971 as the head of the firm's newly created fixed-income division.
During his tenure at the firm, Collins developed a reputation for finding the best people, staying out of their way and always backing a winner in top management disputes.
By 1984, he was chief executive officer. On his watch, the company's profits rose from $7 million to more than $98 million.
Collins stepped down as CEO in April and became a member of T. Rowe Price's board of directors. As he announced his retirement to his top staff, he unveiled plan B: The Whitbread.
Although he had started sailing at 18, Collins did not compete in his first offshore race until 1990. Five years later, the Whitbread committee's members came to scout out Baltimore and Annapolis as a possible stopover point for the 1997-1998 race.
Collins gave the tour. He had toyed with the idea of the round-the-world for several months, but when he heard that his entry could bring the race to the bay, he told them Chessie was on its way.
Of course, he understood intellectually that this would mean months of sheer physical discomfort while the boat was at sea. But like a blooming love affair, the romance of the Whitbread at times overpowered his reason.
At first, he liked the notion that speed racers barred all creature comforts from the boat -- including an extra pair of socks -- to keep the vessel light and fast. But after the trans-Atlantic, he was less enthralled by that idea and vowed to take his ski jacket.
"You want to sit out there and freeze your butt off or put another half-a-pound on the boat?" he asked. "Guess which one I choose?"
No sailor can really prepare for the harshness of a Whitbread. The boat is freezing and loud -- no heat, no insulation, no shower, no square inch that is dry. Occasionally after practice, Collins would say jokingly, "Christ, let me off that damn boat."
Last month, when Collins set out for the Fastnet race, he saw a friend loading up a cruising vessel with "what must have been 5,000 pounds of food and a chef." Collins was eating high-protein freeze-dried Thai chicken. He was palpably envious.
In that race, the crew did not sleep for the four days it took to complete the 605-mile course. Bone-tired but eager to remain in race position with the crew, Collins hiked over the side and cat-napped as his body dangled above the icy English waters.
Of course, passing up some of the most horrific Whitbread stints will have its benefits. With a more open schedule, he can continue business and charity work.
Meanwhile, he can romp around the world, skippering every race start while jumping off the boat for the legs he won't finish. Along the way, he hopes to meet up with friends from Baltimore.
One pal, A. B. "Buzzy" Krongard, vice chairman of Bankers Trust New York Corp., the parent of BT Alex. Brown., wants to meet Collins for shark diving off the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.
The two would climb into a cage and lower themselves into shark territory, all while waving large slabs of dead fish to entice a great white to attack the metal bars.
As for now, Collins is not dwelling on that moment he will leap from the boat and watch Chessie disappear. Instead, he thinks about his shot in the big leagues, however brief.
A few weeks ago, he bounded into the Pier View, a waterfront pub in Plymouth, England, after surprising the world's Whitbread veterans with his team's strong finish in the Fastnet.
All around him, sailing legends were drinking stout and eating hamburgers double-fisted. As Collins walked through the room, they nodded to him, a few even slapping him on the back.
To Collins, the victory was already his.
"All these doubters said, 'You can't have a competitive boat,' " said Collins.
"Well, guess what? We do. We have a mission. And that mission is to win this race."
Whitebread on TV
The Whitebread race, which begins Sunday in Southampton, England, will be broadcast live from 8:30 a.m. to 10 a.m. via satellite on the IMAX screen at the Maryland Science Center. Tickets for the Baltimore event, which begins with breakfast at 7 a.m., are $75 per person. Information: 410-545-2980.
In Annapolis, the Whitbread will be boradcast on several screens under a tent at City Dock. The event, including brunch, costs TTC $100 per person and runs rom 8 a.m. to noon. Information: 410-263-7940.
Pub Date: 9/18/97