Crunch time arrives in dash to France Trophies, pride on line in next-to-last Leg 8; WHITBREAD/1997-1998


After eight months of sailing, their fates now rest in the Atlantic.

The sailors in the Whitbread Round the World have spent more than 100 days at sea to date, but it is the next two weeks that will largely determine who will win and who will lose this grueling global race.

The nine teams depart Annapolis tomorrow for a 3,390-nautical-mile trek to La Rochelle, France. When the cannon fires at 1: 45 p.m., more than half of the fleet still will be in contention for a trophy.

"We're at the business end," said Grant Dalton, skipper of third-place Merit Cup. "The die is going to be totally cast at La Rochelle."

The trip to France will be the second-to-last in this nine-leg race, followed by a quick jaunt later this month to the finish in Southampton, England, where the race began last September.

Even first-place EF Language, whose crew has refused to breathe easily despite a strong lead, is hoping to seal its victory this race. Although the crew is known for shunning parties in favor of work, the end of the next leg could change things.

"Maybe," said the crew's Curt Oetking, "we will finally celebrate."

Among the possible disaster scenarios for EF Language: It could still lose if it places sixth in the next two legs and second-place Swedish Match finishes first twice. But EF Language has never finished sixth, and Swedish Match has only finished first once.

"If you look at the mathematics side of it, we have a very, very slim chance [of catching EF], but we can't do it on our own," said Swedish Match skipper Gunnar Krantz. Swedish Match will try to secure its second-place spot in the next leg, as it is chased by Merit Cup and fourth-place Norwegian boat Innovation Kvaerner.

"We do have to look carefully behind us," Krantz said, adding that his team must "make sure we don't take too many risks."

A handful of teams has nothing to lose -- including Chessie Racing. The first-ever Maryland boat in the Whitbread is now in fifth overall, fighting for the 115 points available in the next leg.

"Hopefully, we'll see some change in the next leg for Chessie," said helmsman Gavin Brady. "We're not out of it by any means."

One of the trickiest moments will come the night of the start, as the boats leave Chesapeake Bay in the dark, fighting a tidal change, shifting winds and troublesome crab pots.

With the Chesapeake behind them, the boats will head north on the Great Circle route toward Europe. Whitbread officials have changed the course this year, barring the boats from the most direct, northerly route to avoid icebergs and foul weather above the Grand Banks.

Once again, the boats will search for the swift-moving Gulf Stream, which runs northeast, then move east toward Europe. They must pick the perfect moment to leave the stream and head directly to France.

With at least two extra knots of speed from the Gulf Stream, and with heavy weather all but a certainty, several boats are expecting to hit record speeds. Silk Cut, a British boat, now holds the world monohull speed record of 449.1 nautical miles in 24 hours in the Southern Ocean.

"With 25 or 30 knots of wind in the Gulf Stream, we'll break the world record, no doubt," said Gordon Maguire, watch leader on Silk Cut. "If we can do it, all the other boats can, too."

No team is ready to concede defeat on this leg. For Dennis Conner's Toshiba, a team plagued by penalties and losses, the leg offers a chance to finally finish first and win back some pride. The crew will have to bond with a new navigator, two-time Whitbread veteran Murray Ross, after Andrew Cape abruptly quit in Baltimore.

Conner, an America's Cup veteran, said his crew is more determined than ever to win the next leg. When asked where that fighting spirit will come from, Conner said: "I think it will come from Dennis."

Conner is not alone in this all-or-nothing attitude. For the all-women's crew on EF Education, the race offers a chance for French skipper Christine Guillou to bring her boat a trophy as she sails home.

"We are ready to do this kind of race," said Guillou, whose boat has finished last in all but one leg. "We want to show the girls we can do it -- I continue to think we can win one leg."

Pub Date: 5/02/98

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