Strong start buoys Chessie Local boat's founder sees Leg 8 as chance 'to get back into game'; WHITBREAD 1997-1998

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Chessie Racing wanted to "get back into the game" with a good performance on Leg 8 of the Whitbread Round the World Race, and yesterday the Maryland entry began with a bang, winning the start before a hometown spectator fleet of more than 6,000 vessels north and south of the Bay Bridge.

"We really need to get into the lead and keep it," Chessie Racing founder George Collins said yesterday morning as crews made final preparations along the Annapolis City Dock. "To get back into the game, we have to finish well on this leg."

Chessie is in fifth place in the overall standings and hasn't finished among the top three since Sao Sebastiao, Brazil.

But, Collins said, the addition of skipper John Kostecki for the final two legs of the race, crew continuity and improvements in sail inventory and mechanical gear aboard the Maryland Whitbread 60 should contribute to a strong performance on the 3,390-nautical-mile leg to La Rochelle, France.

"The changes we have made should help us in boat speed," Collins said before he and his wife, Maureen, boarded Chessie for the first few hours of Leg 8. "As a crew we need to stay focused, and I told the guys, 'Don't be afraid to take some risks on this leg.' "

Before the start yesterday, Monaco's Merit Cup, Britain's Silk Cut, Swedish Match and Norway's Innovation Kvaerner sailed down the race course toward Thomas Point Light to check the wind conditions and current. Meanwhile, Chessie paraded along the inner edges of the spectator fleet, slowly motoring in a large semicircle at the north end of the starting area, aloof and apparently enjoying the spectacle.

Chessie was the last to hoist its mainsail and slip through the prestart area and under the Bay Bridge, and the guess was that Collins, who has raced his various Moxies on the bay for many years, had a trick or two up his sleeve.

And at the start, the retired, 57-year-old financier and his crew did.

With two minutes to the 1: 45 p.m. start gun, eight of the Whitbread 60s sailed into the starting area, and most headed for the west end of the starting line. Collins, Kostecki and company wheeled around a Coast Guard buoy tender at the east end of the line and took the gun on port tack with a clear wind and only BrunelSunergy toward the upwind side of the course.

U.S. entry Toshiba and Silk Cut led the rest of the pack on the western, downwind side of the course as skippers and crew tried to figure a light, fractious wind and an ebbing tide.

Approaching the main span of the Bay Bridge, Chessie held the best position in the fleet, although Toshiba and Silk Cut appeared to be sailing a little faster. But Collins carried well to the east passing under the bridge before tacking back onto port and sailing toward the west side of the course and the spectator fleet packed in off Hackett's Point.

While several of the racers changed course several times as they passed under the Bay Bridge, which casts a curious wind shadow familiar to most Baltimore-Annapolis sailors, Chessie and Toshiba carried port tacks well to the west, with Toshiba pointing higher and sailing a little faster.

At the first crossing, 20 minutes into the race, as Toshiba tacked back onto starboard, the other U.S. entry had a lead of a few seconds.

At the second crossing, with the boats making 7 or 8 knots in 10 knots of wind from the south-southeast, Chessie was sailing well on starboard tack, crossed just ahead of Toshiba and went for a slam-dunk, tacking on top of Toshiba in an effort to block its wind. The maneuver was imperfectly executed, but Toshiba still chose to break way toward the eastern side of the course.

While Toshiba sailed east, Chessie continued toward the west and sailed into a hole off the mouth of the Severn River. At the next crossing, Toshiba had built a 10-second lead on Chessie -- BTC and Swedish Match, sailing a long, steady tack down the center of the 7-mile Coast Guard exclusion zone, slipped into the lead.

Roughly halfway to the exit gate off Thomas Point, Swedish Match, Silk Cut, Chessie and Toshiba were clearly the front-runners, but Dutch boat BrunelSunergy also was making a strong move.

By the fifth crossing, however, Silk Cut had fallen from immediate contention, sailing into an area of light winds on the west side of the course.

By the sixth crossing, Chessie has regained its lead over Toshiba, but Swedish Match was solidly in the lead and BrunelSunergy had sailed into position to challenge. Chessie managed to slam-dunk the Dutch boat and again turned its attention to Toshiba.

Toward the last quarter of the course to the exit gate, Toshiba and Chessie split tacks and Toshiba managed to squeeze by and pass the gate in second place, behind Swedish Match.

BrunelSunergy, having sailed well to the west toward the edge of the spectator fleet anchored off Thomas Point Light, charged toward the gate on starboard tack, as Chessie closed on port. The Dutch boat, with right-of-way and a slight edge in speed, forced Chessie to tack onto starboard and bear away, while it passed through the gate in third place.

An hour and 17 minutes after the start, Chessie was in fourth place.

At today's first position at midnight GMT (8 p.m. EDT), however, as the fleet worked south through the current rips, crab pots and fish traps of Chesapeake Bay, Chessie had taken the lead over Swedish Match by eight-tenths of a mile, Innovation Kvaerner had moved up to third and Silk Cut to fourth.

Toshiba had fallen to fifth and BrunelSunergy was last.

The lead most likely will change often while the fleet navigates the bay, but it will be won or lost once the fleet reaches the open Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf Stream and heads north along the U.S. and Canadian coasts before breaking away east for Europe.

Yesterday morning, Kostecki and Chessie navigator Juan Vila were crouched in the cockpit, the latest weather faxes in hand -- talking strategy and smiling, obviously pleased with what they saw.

Neither would comment on the weather reports, but as Kostecki and Vila conferred, Collins put the leg into its simplest terms: "We have to get out into the Stream, find the sweet spot and stay in it," he said. "We want a podium finish when we reach France."

Pub Date: 5/04/98

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