LA ROCHELLE, France -- For a race that is over for all practical purposes, the Whitbread still has plenty of drama left.
When EF Language pulled into a scruffy fishing port on the outskirts of La Rochelle in the pre-dawn hours yesterday, it had gathered enough points to set a Whitbread Round the World Race record. That is, it won the 31,600-nautical-mile sailing marathon around the globe one leg early before the race ends Sunday in Southampton, England.
Even though first is sewn up, the race for second and third is very much alive. The boats head into the final sprint of this nine-leg race with five serious contenders for the other two podium positions.
Sweden's EF Language, led by Paul Cayard of San Francisco, has enough points to win the race even if it breaks its mast seconds after Leg 9 begins on Friday. But second-place Swedish Match and third-place Merit Cup of Monaco still could lose their prize positions to first-ever Maryland entry Chessie Racing, Britain's Silk Cut or Norway's Innovation Kvaerner, in fourth, fifth and sixth, respectively.
Chessie must finish well and ahead of Merit Cup to finish third and make a strong finish five spots ahead of Swedish Match to capture second.
A handful have zero chance of a podium finish. Despite winning Leg 8, from Annapolis to La Rochelle, U.S. entry Toshiba is out of contention. So, too, are Sweden's all-women's boat EF Education and Dutch boat BrunelSunergy.
Yesterday was a big day for EF. But Language's win seemed to resonate only on paper, not yet in the hearts of the crew.
"It hasn't really sunk in yet," Cayard said later, his face scruffy from two weeks at sea. "There is a little bit more to it than luck, but I feel I was very lucky."
When the boat arrived in pre-dawn darkness, Cayard stood with a hand on the backstay and stared with a glazed smile at the small crowd there to cheer him on. It took someone else -- a spectator -- to scream, "You won the Whitbread! You won the Whitbread!"
Leg 8 of this nine-leg marathon was workmanlike for EF Language, which covered every move by second-place rival Swedish Match to finish ahead of that boat and secure its overall victory. EF Language finished sixth, a place ahead of Swedish Match, and has 744 points -- an untouchable 115-point lead.
"The problem for us was that we missed our approach to the Gulf Stream, so we ended up in the dirt and had to try to shake off EF Language," Swedish Match skipper Gunnar Krantz said after 13 days, 11 hours, 25 minutes at sea. "We always had to play a catch-up game."
The boats finished in a processional Saturday night through early afternoon yesterday. Toshiba crossed first, then Silk Cut, Chessie Racing, EF Education, Merit Cup, EF Language, Swedish Match, Innovation Kvaerner and finally BrunelSunergy.
A dramatic sideshow was the best placing of the all-female EF Education. The women said they were aided by their experience in the North Atlantic -- they have made 30 previous crossings among them. Adding to the sweetness of the finish was their victory over Merit Cup, a boat led by swashbuckling New Zealander and five-time Whitbread veteran Grant Dalton.
The women immediately demanded Dalton make good on several off-color bets that he had made in the event he ever got beaten by "the girls," as they are called.
After the race, Dalton was jovial, but clearly smarting. "I got beaten by a bunch of Sheilas," he said, only half-jokingly. "My life's never going to be the same."
Dalton realized that he put his third-place spot in jeopardy. But he, too, was sailing a cautious race, eager to cover Innovation Kvaerner, at the time its closest rival for third. Merit Cup sailed much of the leg at the front of the fleet with Toshiba, but broke away because Toshiba did not matter on the points scale.
"The boats split really wide, and no one really quite knew which way to go," said Dalton, whose boat hit a whale and badly damaged its rudder. "We decided to go where the people we needed to cover were."
As for the winners, their finish was anticlimactic, without even a bottle of champagne on hand on the sparsely filled dock at 5 a.m. Some EF Language sailors said they felt the boat raced in a frustrating way.
"Paul [Cayard] would come out and say, 'You have to slow down guys, you are sailing too hard,' " EF watch captain Magnus Olsson said, noting that the boat at times had to restrain its speed to stay on top of Swedish Match.
But the crew believed in Cayard's game plan -- hardly a surprise, as theirs has been one of the more unified crews of the race. They save their sarcasm for those who doubt or desert them. When asked when they knew they had a winning team, Olsson replied, "When we sold Lawrie Smith." He was referring to the original skipper of the boat, rock star racer Smith, who left abruptly to head Silk Cut.
Cayard said the chemistry on his boat would be tough to reproduce in future Whitbreads and for that reason was not certain he would do another Round the World Race four years from now.
"You have to know when enough is enough," he said as the sun rose. "You have to feel you can walk away from something as a winner."
Pub Date: 5/18/98