A reverent, roaring last hurrah Send-off: After the boats were blessed, an estimated 25,000 burst into celebratory cheers as the Whitbread fleet sailed on. WHITBREAD 1997-1998


Wearing bright red vestments, Cardinal William H. Keeler officially began yesterday's send-off of the Whitbread fleet at Annapolis' City Dock, where he sprinkled holy water on the boats as crew members bowed their heads and the crowd grew silent.

"Bless this boat, its equipment and all who will use it," Keeler said. "Protect them from the dangers of the wind and rain and all the perils of the deep. May Christ who calmed the storms for his disciples bring us all to the harbor of life and peace."

It was a blessing he repeated nine times as he moved one boat at a time down the dock.

When the last boat was blessed, the crowd, estimated at 25,000 by Whitbread officials, began whooping and hollering, whistling and screaming.

It was a moment worth celebrating, a last hurrah for the Whitbread fleet's visit to Maryland, a layover that began in Baltimore 12 days ago and culminated yesterday with Keeler's blessing and a parade of boats to a point just north of the Bay Bridge. There began the next-to-the-last leg of the round-the-world race, 3,390 miles from Annapolis to La Rochelle, France.

First to pull out of the dock was the all-women Whitbread team, EF Education, followed by skipper George Collins and his Maryland entry, Chessie, which left as their theme song "Tubthumping" by the rock group Chumbawumba, played in the background. The crowd roared in approval when the loudspeakers blared, "I get knocked down, but I get up again. You never gonna keep me down."

Last out of Annapolis, BrunelSunergy -- the underdog Dutch team that won the seventh leg from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to Baltimore -- released dozens of orange balloons into the air and waved American flags in appreciation as it sailed out of the harbor.

The jubilation continued as the yachts made their way out to the starting line just north of the Bay Bridge through a corridor of recreational boaters waving flags and cheering. Helicopters and small planes buzzed overhead, swooping down close to snap pictures.

New fans

It was clear that the international race's visit to Maryland had helped it gain fans.

"I think I've followed it more now since it's been in Baltimore," said Jesse Watson, who was leaving City Dock aboard a 36-foot cruiser with his wife, Dorothy, headed for the Bay Bridge. "We're going to watch them take off."

"To think, this is a real big deal and I've never heard of it before," said Marlena Winfrey of Reston, Va., who hopped a bus to Annapolis yesterday with her friend and sailing fan, Bill May, of Alexandria, Va.

"I'm so glad we came," Winfrey said. "I'm from Los Angeles. This doesn't happen in L.A."

As she stood on the Bay Bridge watching the sailing below, Courtney Smith, 9, asked her parents, "How long will they take to get to France? France is like a whole different country from Annapolis. This could take months. Years." (Actually, the trip will last 12 or 13 days.)

Courtney's mother, Mary Casamento, 36, an Annapolis travel agent, said: "This is one of the best things about living in Annapolis -- getting to see unusual and spectacular events like this that few other people get to see."

Added attraction

Many of the 50,000 people state highway officials estimated trekked across the 4.3-mile Bay Bridge yesterday for the 24th Annual Bay Bridge Walk stayed for 1998's added attraction: a chance to watch the golden-sailed yachts of the Whitbread set sail for France.

Thousands more spectators formed a nearly solid line of humanity on the beach at Sandy Point State Park, too, propping cameras with long lenses on tripods and gazing through binoculars.

The sky was clear and the sun shone on the choppy bay waves as the wind blew moderately from the south-southeast -- a pleasant improvement from the overcast skies yesterday morning at the park, which lies at the bridge's western terminus.

Ready and waiting

Robin and Richard Briggs of Pasadena snuggled up early under heavy blankets on lounge chairs waiting for the race to begin.

"We have been following the race from the beginning and of course, Chessie is our favorite," Robin Briggs said. "We went to downtown Annapolis yesterday, and today we wanted to be here. We would have come no matter what the weather. We are toasty under these blankets."

Nearby, a group of school-aged children had stretched a pale yellow banner between two life guard chairs.

"Cape St. Claire says GO CHESSIE!" it read in big blue letters, with the Chessie sea monster logo on the end.

Many of the park's spectators -- state Department of Natural Resources officials estimated 7,000 to 10,000 were in the park -- sat on blankets and beach chairs, sipping beer or soda and munching on picnic lunches or hamburgers, hot dogs and fries from the concession stands as they waited for the race to start. Children played in the water, jumping the waves lapping at the beach.

"Chessie is my favorite, dare I pick another?" said Susan Shipley, who had been following the race on the Internet from her home in Cincinnati. "I really enjoy sailing -- but as a spectator."

Pub Date: 5/04/98

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