Mark Christensen is not a gambler, but when he saw the heavy odds the London bookmakers had given EF Language, his team in the Whitbread Round the World Race, he knew he had to do something. So a few days before the start of the competition in England, the sailboat racer took about $240 -- all the money in his pocket -- and put it on EF. To win.
"I don't bet -- I've been to Las Vegas and spent $10 over three days -- but I didn't see this as a gamble," said Christensen, 28. "Everything on this boat just felt really right."
Christensen's instincts have not let him down, and neither has his team. EF Language now sits at the very top of the fleet in the grueling, nine-month race -- a surprise showing for a syndicate that once was given 16-to-1 odds.
Only disaster can keep it from first place now, as the boats head to La Rochelle, France, from Annapolis today -- and finally to the finish in Southampton, England, later this month.
"The most challenging thing in the Whitbread is to figure out what makes a team tick," said watch captain Magnus Olsson, 48, a Swede known for an infectious laugh that persists in blinding storms and freezing winds. Olsson, who is on his fourth Whitbread, but has yet to come in first, said nothing keeps a team together quite like winning.
"Boats that get off to a bad start go down like this," he said, spiraling his finger downward. "It escalates like an avalanche."
But winning has made this team anything but complacent. Even when the crew unwinds -- popping open beers with a winch handle at the end of a workday on shore in Annapolis -- it is hardly relaxed.
Last week, when most Whitbread sailors took in an Orioles game, navigator Mark Rudiger studied charts of the coast of France. While his team went to a prize-giving, Olsson tinkered with repairs on the boat.
The $18 million campaign, sponsored by EF Education, a Swedish global language education company, started with an edge as part of a two-boat campaign. The team trained against EF's sister boat, EF Education, and was able to do extensive sail testing as a result.
EF Education, an all-female syndicate, sits last among the nine boats. At first, EF Language was expected to do the same.
The team was, after all, relatively unknown. At the helm was Paul Cayard, a top America's Cup racer, but a Whitbread newcomer. The crew included six America's Cup racers, but only three Whitbread veterans.
"For my own safety and from a career standpoint, it was a big risk," said Cayard, 38, who is American, like half his team. "But we have this attitude -- we are going to put more effort into this than anybody. It's psychological. We deserve to win. We will win."
As in an America's Cup campaign, EF Language was secretive from the start. The team not only built two boats, it constructed its own boatyard for them in Goteborg, Sweden. The boat was created largely by foreigners on overseas work permits. Several builders posed as tourists to continue the last bit of construction after their papers expired.
The secrecy continues today. When EF Language comes into port, the shore crew does most of its sail repairs and redesigns in a private tent, instead of at the more open commercial sail lofts shared by other teams.
This cloak-and-dagger approach to sail design yielded the Code 0, or "whomper," a revolutionary sail that many believe won EF the first and critical leg of the nine-leg race. Rival boats have copied it, although many still say it is illegal under Whitbread rules.
Some EF sailors believe the fleet has been so distracted by the Code 0, they have yet to notice the other new sail designs used by EF.
"We still have secrets," EF watch captain Kimo Worthington said, referring to a sail that all the boats have, but that EF redesigned. "A lot of the guys still don't know what we've got that's so fast."
EF continued to win even after other teams developed the Code 0 -- although it has done 10 redesigns since the start, while other teams have barely managed a few. Still, the crew said its success is not due to the Code 0 alone. It points to its performance in Leg 5, considered the longest and most dangerous leg in the Southern Ocean.
While other teams wiped out and broke masts, EF Language did not broach once, and glided easily around Cape Horn. "That was the best," said Olsson, who has sailed on Whitbread teams in which crew members got in fistfights. "There was just such a feeling that we were a team."
But the race is not just won at sea. When EF finishes first, its land-based crew -- which includes three Whitbread veterans -- starts major repairs often before the second-place entry reaches shore.
"It's psychological warfare," said Paul Murray, 29, a sailmaker who works as Crowded House and Arlo Guthrie CDs blare in the background. "We decided we'd have a race on shore, as well."
EF sailors seem to save the worst psychological attacks for themselves. After finishing fifth in Leg 2 from Cape Town to Fremantle -- its worst leg yet -- Rudiger was haunted. He couldn't stop thinking that the race was lost because he and Cayard went to sleep at the same time and left the crew without a clear sailing plan.
The solution: Cayard and Rudiger now refuse to sleep at the same time when racing. Perhaps they spooked each other, but now neither man can relax enough to doze if the other isn't watching the course.
"We both got so paranoid," said Rudiger. "Now, we won't do it."
Nothing drives this crew like disappointment. After finishing near-last in the Fastnet race around England, a pre-Whitbread competition considered a preview of the round-the-world race, the crew saw firsthand how much was at stake for their teammates.
"We have people on our team who have tried and tried, but not won a Whitbread," said Justin Clougher, 35, an Australian bowman, as he watched Olsson pull a crewmate up the mast. "It will be quite an emotional thing for those people if we win."
Clougher says the team's first place is the result of many little moments, like the time in the first leg to Cape Town when the boat was dodging squall after squall at the equator.
Clougher was changing sails every five minutes with Josh Belsky. After hours of the exhausting work, the two finally went below deck. The two fell on the floor in their wet gear, too tired to eat.
"I said to Josh, 'Remember that watch,' " Clougher said. "I told him: 'That could be important one day.' "
Indeed, that night the team moved from third to first, and later won the leg. From there, the team just kept pushing, debriefing each other on every mistake, trying not to make the same one twice. And all 12 men say their first place, as much as anything, is a result of good luck.
The good fortune has made the crew a bit superstitious. Olsson gets upset if someone leaves a shoe or a set of keys on the table -- a Swedish sign of bad luck. Cayard believes even-numbered legs are worse for the team. And everyone knows the boat always wins on a Tuesday.
Perhaps the superstitions are the main reason no one on the team will say that a win is almost inevitable. To believe so might be to jinx themselves. In some ways, they say, they have already made their point.
"To me, the most important thing was winning that first leg," said Clougher.
"I wanted everyone to have a little bit of respect for us. I wanted everyone to look at us and say, 'Those guys were good.' "
What: Start of Leg 8 of the Whitbread Round the World Race, Annapolis to La Rochelle, France.
When: 1: 45 p.m.
Where: Chesapeake Bay, one-half nautical mile north of the Bay Bridge off Sandy Point Park, Annapolis.
TV: ESPN2, 1: 30 p.m.
There will be no parking at Sandy Point State Park today when the nine-boat Whitbread fleet sets sail for La Rochelle, France. Take Route 50 to Exit 22 and follow signs to satellite lots off Riva Road. Shuttle buses will transport spectators to the park.
Today: The Volvo Race Village at Annapolis Salutes Its Maritime Heritage Festival, featuring a display of the Whitbread 60s at Annapolis City Dock, live stage entertainment, etc. Tandem's Cyber Cafe, Maryland microbrews, Whitbread gear for sale, antique boat displays, tours of historic homes. Whitbread crews complete preparations for the start of Leg 8 to La Rochelle, France. Blessing of the Fleet by Cardinal William Keeler, 10: 05 a.m. Parade of Whitbread yachts is escorted by historic Trumpys and other classic boats, 10: 25 a.m. Restart of race one-half nautical mile north of Bay Bridge, 1: 45 p.m. Best View on the Bay: The Volvo Race Village at Sandy Point Water Festival at the foot of the Bay Bridge features numerous bay educational and history exhibits, children's activities, etc., 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Today through May 11: Annapolis Salutes Its Maritime Heritage Festival, City Dock, Annapolis. The festival features historic outdoor exhibitions, storytellers, live historic re-creations, operas, art gallery exhibits, historical homes and more.
Pub Date: 5/03/98