With France looming, topsy-turvy look Toshiba, Silk Cut lead; Chessie holds onto third; Whitbread 1997-98


LA ROCHELLE, France -- It will be fitting for this journey -- a trek across the pond that has proven to be anything but predictable.

When the next-to-last leg of the Whitbread Round the World Race ends here today, surprise victors and teams long considered star-crossed are likely to be at the front of the pack.

The nearly two-week trip from Annapolis to La Rochelle has been one of the wildest yet in this nine-leg, marathon sailing adventure around the globe.

Battling for first are Toshiba and Silk Cut -- two hard-luck teams led by dueling British skippers. Toshiba, which has been penalized as recently as the Baltimore stopover, is in the lead. And Silk Cut, which, like Toshiba, often gets stuck near the back of the pack, is behind by only a small number of boat lengths as the teams zero in on La Rochelle.

And perhaps the biggest surprise of all: Chessie Racing is holding onto third, ahead of the competition by almost 45 miles.

The Maryland boat was first over the line and at the top of the fleet when the race started in the Chesapeake, but fell to ninth for most of the rest of the trip -- once more than 200 miles behind the leader.

"At one point, I had to collect up all the knifes [sic] so the crew wouldn't commit suicide," Chessie watch leader Grant "Fuzz" Spanhake wrote in a recent e-mail. "As I was looking up into the sky, I noticed birds circling overhead, I laughed as I thought to myself, 'Vultures waiting to feed, after a kill.' But it is never over until the end."

A third-place finish is critical for Chessie, which stands to be in fourth overall -- 10 points outside of a top-three podium position -- with up to 105 points available in the final leg of the race, which ends May 24 in Southampton, England.

Following Chessie is EF Education, the all-women's boat from Sweden. Many fellow racers are rooting for EF to beat Chessie, because the boat has finished only last, next-to-last or been disqualified in the other finishes of this nine-leg race. A hometown favorite, the boat is skippered by Christine Guillou and features veteran ocean racer Isabelle Autissier, both of whom are French.

The boats are expected to sail through the Bay of Biscay to the finish with 8- to 16-knot winds from the northeast. The bay, where condiitons are often fierce and can be lethal to Europe's commercial sailors, is expected to have a calm day.

A low-pressure system brewing offshore is expected to favor the boats to the north of the course, which includes the top four competitors.

The pack to the south, which includes first-overall EF Language and second-overall Swedish Match, is expected to be slower and is likely to finish early tomorrow. EF Language, which can guarantee a victory overall by beating Swedish Match in the last two legs, is holding off Swedish Match by 21 miles.

"It is not easy to match-race someone in the ocean for 3,500 miles only knowing their whereabouts once every six hours," skipper Paul Cayard wrote in an e-mail yesterday, referring to the fleet's position reports. "But it is the right strategy for us, and now that the course is narrowing, we feel less and less anxiety about [Swedish Match's] possible routes."

Pub Date: 5/16/98

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