The Whitbread Round the World Race will be sailed in a class of 10 60-footers designed and developed specifically for the rigors of the competition, and race watchers are expecting tight racing throughout the 31,600-nautical-mile race.
Silk Cut, Merit Cup and Toshiba appear to be the boats to beat, said Gary Jobson, the ESPN sailing commentator from Annapolis, who helped get Chessie Racing started and into the Whitbread.
"I would think it is those three at the top, with Swedish Match and Chessie next," said Jobson, who will not sail any legs aboard the Baltimore-Annappolis racer. "This is a race where experience is very important, and the top three all have it - and it showed in the Fastnet."
The recent Fastnet Race was the first head-to-head competition for nine of the Whitbread 60s, and the 600-mile ocean race from England to Ireland and back was very close among the top five.
Merit Cup (Monaco) beat Toshiba (United States) by two minutes, and Chessie Racing, the fifth boat in, finished some 14 minutes later. The third and fourth boats were Swedish Match (Sweden) and Silk Cut (England).
The bottom portion of the fleet was EF Language (Sweden), Innovation Kvaerner (Norway), BrunelSunergy (Netherlands) and EF Education (Sweden). America's Challenge did not compete.
Once the race leaves Southampton, the key likely will be Whitbread experience - and Toshiba, Merit Cup and Silk Cut seem to have the edge there, hands down. Here's how three local experts see it:
Bruce Farr, an Annapolis naval architect whose Farr and Associates firm has designed eight of the W60s in this race:
"There are standouts at this stage, and the quality and experience of the crew is very high on all of the boats," Farr said. "So virtually any boat in the fleet has the potential to win."
Some of the teams entered, however, have trained with more than one boat or have bigger budgets, Farr said, "and therefore might be expected to have a slightly better chance than others."
Team EF, for example, has two boats entered and trained with four. Merit Cup built two new boats but will compete with one, and Innovation Kvaerner used an older W60 as a trial horse against its newer design.
But the teams with the most experience, Farr said, clearly have an advantage, especially on the first two legs.
"Some boats have sailed together already on long races and may have a better chance on the first leg, which is a long leg," said Farr. "The second leg is one of the toughest legs because it goes into the Southern Ocean, so the more experienced teams may have an advantage here as well."
Gary Jobson, ESPN sailing commentator from Annapolis:
After ranking Silk Cut, Merit Cup and Toshiba as the top contenders, Jobson said that Chessie "has shown that it has great light air speed."
"But the bigger question mark to me is EF Language," Jobson said. "There's a team with a good program, but with troubles, too."
Nick White, navigator/meteorologist aboard class winner Yamaha in the last Whitbread, recently quit, reportedly after refusing to take the blame for the team's poor Fastnet performance.
Tad Hutchins, director of franchise operations for Quantum Sails in Annapolis:
Sails are the engines of Whitbread racers, and Hutchins said the well-funded syndicates certainly will have an edge in sail technology through the race, with some teams changing complete sets of sails for each leg.
The Quantum sail loft in Annapolis has built sails for four racers in the current race, all the sails aboard the W60 Yamaha, which won its class in the last Whitbread, and the downwind sails for New Zealand Endeavour last time around.
"There probably are three or four co-favorites," said Hutchins, whose firm has built more than half the sails for Swedish Match. "Toshiba, certainly, with [Dennis] Conner and [Chris] Dickson, will go out and hit it hard. And you have to remember Dickson probably would have won it last time if Tokio hadn't been dismasted [on the penultimate leg]."
Silk Cut has to figure in the top boats, too, Hutchins said. Silk Cut skipper Lawrie Smith will be sailing his fourth Whitbread.
Merit Cup and Swedish Match also rate high in Hutchins' estimation. He likes Merit Cup because of skipper Grant Dalton - he won the last Whitbread in the Maxiboat class on New Zealand Endeavour, and this will be his fifth Whitbread - and his experienced crew. Swedish Match, Hutchins said, is perhaps the best-funded team.
Per Andersson, a Whitbread specialist with Quantum, left Annapolis for England last week with some 20 bags of sails for the Swedish Match entry and probably will sail one or more legs .
"Chessie? You'd have to consider Chessie as a dark horse at this point, if only because of the experience factor," Hutchins said. Chessie has a handful of Whitbread veterans in the crew, including navigator Juan Vila.
William Hill Bookmakers, England
Toshiba (U.S.).. .. .. .. .. .. ..5-2
Merit Cup (Monaco).. .. .. .. .. .5-2
Silk Cut (England).. .. .. ... ...3-1
Swedish Match (Sweden).. ... .. ..8-1
America's Challenge (U.S.).. .. ..8-1
Chessie Racing (U.S.).. ... .. ..10-1
EF Language (Sweden).. .. .. .. .12-1
Innovation Kvaerner (Norway).. ..16-1
BrunelSunergy (Netherlands).. ...20-1
5) EF Education (Sweden).. .. .. ...33-1
Tradewinds Yacht Club, San Jose, Costa Rica
Silk Cut.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..2-1
Toshiba.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ...3-1
Merit Cup.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .3-1
Swedish Match.. .. .. .. .. .. ...4-1
EF Language.. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..5-1
Chessie Racing.. .. .. .. .. .. ..5-1
Innovation Kvaerner.. .. .. .. ...6-1
BrunelSunergy.. .. .. .. .. .. ..10-1
America's Challenge.. .. .. .. ..30-1
EF Education.. .. .. .. .. .. ...32-1
Pub Date: 9/21/97