After almost nine months of competition, the Whitbread Round the World Race is coming to an end, and over the past few days the e-mails from the nine boats racing across the Atlantic Ocean to France on the penultimate leg show relief, disappointment and absolute foolishness.
"Life on board is good, but we all have started to talk about life after the Whitbread, since that is just around the corner," Knut Frostad, skipper of Norway's Innovation Kvaerner, wrote as the fleet closed on the northern limits of the course, where growlers and icebergs have been reported.
"It seems that everyone is looking forward to some weeks in a normal bed without a crew bag with thermals ready to go by the side of your bed. Some guys are even talking about going back to a normal job after this. But what is normal?"
Since Sept. 15, when the fleet started the race in Southampton, England, normality has been the abnormal. The limits of civilization have been the hot and steamy or cold and clammy confines of a 65-foot sailboat, a speed machine that bounces, shudders and shakes.
The limits of society have been the 12 sailors on board, who time-share bunks, cook over a single-burner stove and share a toilet set as a throne in the center of the cabin.
For several days, said Chessie crew Jerry Kirby, the Maryland racing society has lived at a 15-degree tilt, "which poses many problems to daily living aboard any boat."
"The biggest problem is moving around inside. Without any external references, you have no idea which way the boat will move next," he said, as Chessie blasted through the Gulf Stream more than 12 knots in 20 knots of wind.
"The worst thing is when you take off your boot to pull on pants or socks. The boat heels [tilts], you slide with an annoying certainty toward the 3-inch deep puddle our boat permanently has -- and your dry socks are now wet for the rest of the trip."
Food preparation and personal hygiene also are problematic during life on the edge, he said.
"Cooking, which is a messy job on a good day, leaves you looking like a 3-year-old, and the galley as though a small incendiary device went off in the beef Stroganoff," he said. "I will not go into detail regarding the toilet except to say it is a real pain."
There have been consistent winners -- EF Language and Swedish Match, the two teams from Sweden who are the overall leaders -- and consistent losers: EF Education (the women's team), Toshiba (Dennis Conner's U.S. entry) and Silk Cut (the British boat that was a pre-race favorite).
Aboard all of the boats, the crews said during their stopover in Baltimore and Annapolis, the race has taken its toll. All crews reported at least some members sick with flu or bronchitis.
On the current leg, the Gulf Stream and an unusually placed Azores High have confounded navigators and crew as they worked north off the U.S.-Canadian coasts to the Grand Banks off Newfoundland. Along the way, leaders have changed often -- and sometimes first has gone to last over a short period of time.
"It must be some sort of record in the history of the Whitbread to go from last to first and last again in 24 hours," Swedish Match skipper Gunnar Krantz said. "Stressful at times with so many changes. We have been last and first twice already on this leg."
For Frostad and company on Innovation Kvaerner, Friday was a turning point as the boat broke away from the Gulf Stream and entered the colder waters of the North Atlantic. The crew donned cold-weather gear and poked fun at American navigator Ed Baird.
"Ed prefers the Florida style of weather -- tornadoes and &L; hurricanes combined with heat -- and is wondering whether the air-conditioning has been turned on too high," said Frostad, whose crew trained extensively in the icy waters off Norway.
"The Norwegians are thriving, and with the expected welcoming fleet of Viking ships out of Greenland due to rendezvous tomorrow, party preparations are in full swing.
"It is expected that we will find an iceberg to play on, do the annual polar bear hunt, swim with the seals, do some ice fishing and do your average amount of feasting and plundering before we push on upwind to France."
While closing on the foggy area of ice brought south by the cold Labrador Current into the edges of the Gulf Stream, crews have been on constant radar watch for shipping and bergs and are wearing infrared goggles on deck for better night vision.
Oddly, race organizers said, there is a greater chance of ice in the sea in the western North Atlantic than in the Southern Ocean on the fringes of Antarctica. One large berg has been sighted on the course.
"As we saw only a few bergs on the radar, but not with the eye in the Southern Ocean this time," said Frostad, a Whitbread veteran, "a few of the new guys on-board are pretty keen to see this monster floating around. Personally, I can happily live
Aboard Brunel Sunergy, which won the leg from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to Baltimore, some members of the crew have been discussing boat and gear improvements for the next round-the-world race.
Brunel Sunergy crewman Michael Joubert, meanwhile, was thinking of what since September has become abnormal.
"Maybe we have spent too much time getting far too waterlogged and having too much fun," Joubert said. "My personal remedy for this is going home from Southampton to mow the lawn, sit in a traffic jam and try to salvage what sanity I have left."
Pub Date: 5/10/98