LA ROCHELLE, France -- Like a floating drag race, the last leg of the Whitbread Round the World Race started yesterday with the wave of a flag, the interference of an unruly crowd and the hint of a fight.
The nine boats started the shortest -- but most decisive -- leg of this 31,600-nautical-mile race in a tightly packed fleet that changed leads by the minute. After racing around the world for the past nine months, it all comes down to this sudden-death finish in European waters.
"It's going to be a crapshoot," said Jerry Kirby, bowman on Chessie Racing, which was in fourth place early this morning as it headed toward the English Channel. "It's sort of like you play the longest hockey game of your life, and then it all comes down to just one shot."
The race began with a pinch of controversy. Toshiba was first across the line in this 450-mile sprint, which is set to reach Southampton, England, tomorrow. Even though it can no longer win a trophy, Toshiba apparently sailed so aggressively that three boats, including Chessie Racing, flew protest flags against it for alleged course violations.
At the same time, the fleet of 2,000 spectator boats spent the afternoon performing its own sideshow. EF Education, the all-women's boat, collided with its own supporter boat -- a ferry covered in EF flags and filled with cheering fans. That same spectator boat allegedly cut off British entry Silk Cut, which flew a protest flag against EF Language as a result, saying the ferry forced it to change course.
The intensity of this race was clear from the minute the crews showed up at the docks yesterday morning. Chessie skipper John Kostecki was so wound up, he had anxiety dreams about the leg all last night.
And it's no wonder. Although EF Language has already won on the scoreboard, five boats are still racing for the two remaining podium positions.
By the time the fleet crosses the finish line, second-place Swedish Match could be sixth overall and sixth-place Innovation Kvaerner could be second.
Chessie, now fourth overall, could place anywhere from second to sixth.
Before the start, Chessie navigator Juan Vila huddled with Kostecki, analyzing dozens of weather scenarios. On the boat, Chessie founder George Collins wrote "WIN" on the steps to the cockpit. On the race course, a crew member zipped around in a motorboat, searching for wind patterns a couple of hours before the boats hit the start line.
Chessie is trying anything for an edge in this race.
During the stopover, Chessie sailors, many of whom are pals with EF Language crew, used tips from EF to speed up their boat.
Following the advice, Chessie racers recut sails into the wee hours this week and redistributed weight on the boat to make it move faster.
Chessie was hoping for a secret weapon in top British sailor Derek "Dell Boy" Clark, hired to decode the tricky English waters.
"There are very big tidal variations along different parts of the coast," Clark said. "The tides are flicking backward and forward every six hours. You just have to get used to knowing how to position the boat and anticipate changes. You must expect the unexpected."
With so much at stake, it's no surprise this leg already turned into a hostile one: After only minutes, the flags were flying in protest.
Chessie protested after Toshiba allegedly took too much time rounding a mark: Collins contends Toshiba requested three boat lengths from Chessie to pass the buoy, but then took five.
Collins, who is not sailing the leg but was on the boat for the start, said the team would drop the protest, but wanted to make a point to skipper Dennis Conner.
"We threw our red flag up to irritate him," Collins said.
Innovation Kvaerner and Merit Cup also protested Toshiba for allegedly passing into the zone reserved for the spectator fleet.
The boats are likely to sail a close race all the way to England. Merit Cup, now in third, plans to block Chessie's every move. Merit Cup is not interested in throwing away third to make a mad run for second.
"Hopefully, nature will take care of [second-place] Swedish Match," Merit Cup skipper Grant Dalton said. "We're going to be watching Chessie Racing pretty closely. That's a priority."
The fleet was sent on the shorter of two possible race courses yesterday, but the route could be lengthened if the boats race ahead of a window set aside for live television coverage of the finish.
Not just these potential changes, but the entire course continues to make navigators nervous.
A windless trough in the middle of the English Channel could force boats into a dead calm or off course on a long detour tonight. And the fleet's expected arrival time in the Solent -- about 10 a.m. tomorrow -- comes just as the tide moves out against them.
"Sometimes you find yourself anchoring in the middle of the English Channel because the tides are so strong against you," said Merit Cup navigator Mike Quilter. "It's a nasty old piece of the world."
Update Status: Day 1, Leg 9
Boat, Nautical miles to finish
1. EF Language 250.4
2. Silk Cut 251.9
3. Merit Cup 253.4
4. Chessie Racing 253.9
5. BrunelSunergy 255.6
6. Toshiba 255.6
7. Innovation Kvaerner 257.1
8. EF Education 257.7
9. Swedish Match 258.1
(as of 00: 03: 02 GMT)
Note: Information compiled from Whitbread Round the World Race Web site at www.whitbread.org
Pub Date: 5/23/98