Whitbread boats head for Europe Start: "A mass of boats as far as the eye could see" is on hand as the race fleet sails for France.; WHITBREAD 1997-1998

THE BALTIMORE SUN

With a floating audience of thousands and cheers from a die-hard crowd, sailors in the Whitbread Round the World race glided down the Chesapeake Bay yesterday, heading for Europe and an end to their nine-month adventure through the planet's oceans.

Chessie Racing, the first-ever Maryland boat in the contest, crossed the line first when the cannon fired by the Bay Bridge at 1: 45 p.m. It held the top spot as the fleet headed to the Atlantic last night.

Fans -- looking like specks as they stood on the Bay Bridge during the annual Bridge Walk -- whistled loud enough to be heard from the water as Chessie passed below. When the boat swept past spectator boats at Thomas Point, shouts of "Chessie!" wafted over the bay.

But the boat with the mythical Chesapeake sea monster on its hull could not hold off Swedish Match, the elegant midnight-blue boat which overcame a back-of-the-pack start to lead the nine-boat pack most of the afternoon. By nightfall, however, it had fallen to second.

Accompanied by gentle breezes and sunshine after two straight days of rain, the Chesapeake Bay delivered in its first-ever role as host of this 31,600-nautical mile competition. Meanwhile, on the water, more than 6,000 spectator boats came out for a glimpse of the racers, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.

But spectators could only get so close. While some Whitbread starts had all the order of an all-night fraternity bash, this one was more like a tea party. Vigilant officials on patrol, some dressed in Army-style camouflage outfits, shooed spectator boats, keeping them a mile from the competition and giving the race course a polite hush.

Still, enough boats cruised alongside the racers to make seven miles of the bay look like a marina. The day set a Whitbread milestone.

"We reckoned there were more boats here than at the start in Southampton," Whitbread spokeswoman Heather Dallas said yesterday, referring to the start off the English coast last September. "There was a mass of boats as far as the eye could see."

This is the second-to-last leg of this race, a two-week trek across the inky North Atlantic to La Rochelle, France. From there, the boats make a short sprint to Southampton, for the finish on May 24.

A complicated start

From the looks of it yesterday, the boats were anything but settling in for the long haul. They raced in tight formation, fighting current changes and finagling speed from 6- to 8-knot winds. The bay start was one of the most tactical and complicated yet in this nine-leg race, marked by quick tacking and match-racing maneuvers.

Swedish Match, which sits in second place overall, must come in first in the last two legs to win the race -- assuming that first-place Swedish boat EF Language finishes no better than sixth both times.

Although such a finish is considered a long-shot for Swedish Match, at least for an afternoon the boat appeared to be pulling it off. As it coasted in first, EF Language languished at the back of the fleet. EF Language was in sixth last night, as a storm swept the Chesapeake.

"Don't read too much into who is leading at the end of the bay," Swedish Match navigator Roger Nilson warned before the start. "It's not that simple, and leading out of the bay might not mean anything."

Private preparations

Before leaving for the start line off Annapolis, sailors prepared for the long trip in private ways. Swedish Match skipper Gunnar Krantz posed for pictures with his wife, Anna, and daughter, Emma, a 3-year-old wearing a Cinderella dress and white-and-pink sneakers. Silk Cut skipper Lawrie Smith, the perennially cool Englishman, strode dispassionately on the dock bluejeans. Chessie Racing's Rick Deppe cuddled his newborn, Isabelle, and called her name as the boat left City Dock to head out for the start line.

The day began with a bit of God and Country, as Cardinal William Keeler blessed the fleet -- asking for protection "from the dangers of wind and rain and all the perils of the deep" -- while crews tied American flags to the rigging on their boats.

Prince Andrew climbed aboard a Monaco boat, Merit Cup, while a gaggle of Maryland politicians, including U.S. Democratic Sens. Paul Sarbanes and Barbara Mikulski, bid the boats goodbye.

All around them, Whitbread organizers delighted in the day.

"Aww! The sun is out," said Annapolis Economic Development Director Susan Zellers, a Whitbread organizer for more than two years. "When they came in, I was crying I was so excited. An event like this makes such a huge difference for a place like Annapolis."

To show their gratitude to the host port, the crew of BrunelSunergy, the Dutch boat that finished first in the leg from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to Baltimore, released orange balloons as theyleft City Dock and donned T-shirts meant to spell THANK YOU USA. But the Dutch-speaking crew stood in the wrong order, and the message read like a word scramble.

Overcast skies lifted as the boats headed for the Chesapeake, offering a sunny start but then turning to thundershowers by early evening. As for the bay, it behaved true to form. Queerly.

Searching for wind

At first, boats that took to the westerly side of the course -- like Chessie Racing and Toshiba -- seemed better off. But Swedish Match, which favored the eastern side, caught strong breezes and roared past the competition despite being sixth under the Bay Bridge. Meanwhile, BrunelSunergy and EF Language, desperate for wind, sent crew members up the mast to search for signs of a breeze.

The boats spooked each other in the style of a bloodthirsty day race. As they passed a course marker, Chessie Racing and BrunelSunergy roared directly toward each other, although the rules of the sea required Chessie to yield. The Maryland boat did not do so immediately, getting ever closer to Brunel, even as Brunel skipper Roy Heiner refused to bear away. Finally, Chessie tacked -- prompting gasps from spectators. The boats were expected to leave the bay overnight and enter the Atlantic, where they will search for the fast-moving current of the Gulf Stream, or chase scattered low pressure systems further north.

Several navigators said they hoped to dodge the light winds associated with a high pressure system looming over the course today and tomorrow, although they cannot go as far north as they would like to find stronger breezes. Race organizers, fearful of icebergs and foul weather, have imposed a first-ever ban on racing above Newfoundland.

Adding to the complications of this leg: a possible hurricane in the Caribbean. That storm could distort the wind further north and kill the breeze for the racers. Whatever the outcome of this 3,390-nautical mile leg, sailors say it will be anything but predictable.

"I think you'll start to see people do fairly radical things in this race," said Silk Cut navigator Vincent Geake. "After all, there isn't much time left before the whole thing is over, and everybody wants to win this leg."

Pub Date: 5/04/98

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