SOUTHAMPTON, England -- Looking weary and just a little shellshocked, the competitors in the Whitbread Round the World Race finally sailed across the green waters here -- returning 246 days later to the spot where they began one of sailing's great adventures.
With a blast from a cannon and a crescendo of horns, Merit Cup of Monaco was first over the line, narrowly beating out Sweden's EF Language in the short leg from La Rochelle, France. But the day was owned by EF Language, which had already put a lock on first and which, with a burst of orange and yellow balloons from shore, finally made that victory official.
Thousands of spectator boats, including one named "About Time," gathered in the waters off Southampton to watch the top boats finish after 31,600 nautical miles of brutal racing. In the end, the overall finish was EF Language first, Merit Cup second and Swedish Match third.
"It's a special moment," said EF Language skipper Paul Cayard, 39, sharing the slightly stunned look of many Whitbread sailors -- his sea boots stained with salt, his eyes red, his hair a wild mess.
"I'm sure it hasn't sunk in yet," said Cayard, a San Francisco native and Whitbread first-timer who brought the hard-driving habits of day racing to his boat in this long-distance competition.
The nine boats finished the sprint in the afternoon within six hours, 26 minutes of each other, with Maryland's first Whitbread team, Chessie Racing, next to last. Chessie's eighth-place finish put the team in sixth overall -- the worst ranking mathematically ,, possible for the team after it entered the leg within 10 points of third.
But Chessie skipper John Kostecki said he did not believe the team was robbed, but rather dealt with the limits of a smaller-scale program. "We got what we deserved as an overall position in this regatta," he said. "When push came to shove, they sailed better than us."
After the last leg began, the course was lengthened by about 30 miles to ensure that the finish would coincide with a live television broadcast.
The strong finish by Merit Cup, led by swashbuckling New Zealander Grant Dalton, gave the boat a podium finish even Dalton would not have guessed could happen after several previous mediocre legs. Indeed, Merit Cup had conservative goals as it entered this leg Friday in third place.
"I thought I'd be satisfied with coming in third -- that was our goal when we started this leg," said Dalton, who finished 15 minutes ahead of EF Language after making a series of smart tactical decisions in the English Channel that put his boat at the top of the fleet.
Merit Cup's finish bumped Swedish Match, in second overall for several weeks, to third overall. The Swedish boat, whose crew never quite found the right track on the race course, finished fifth in the leg.
"It seemed like it wasn't our turn this time," said skipper Gunnar Krantz, whose crew threw him in the harbor with a cheer anyway. "We can only say, 'OK, we achieved what we could.' It's as good a reason as anything else to come back and try it again."
Every skipper in this race -- including five-time Whitbread veterans Dalton and Paul Standbridge of U.S. entry Toshiba -- said the race belonged to Cayard from the moment the start cannon fired. By bringing in a focused and well-organized
syndicate similar to an America's Cup campaign, Cayard forever changed the face of the Whitbread, many sailors said.
"All of us have learned a lot from Paul and the intensity of his sailing," Dalton said. What Dalton called the "damn the torpedoes" style of sailing brought in by Cayard has replaced the old philosophy, in which skippers slowed boats to keep from breaking in rough seas.
"If you let that determine how you drive the boat now," Dalton said, "you'll be absolutely slaughtered every six hours [in position reports]."
At the finish, the Solent was thick with boats, and the waterfront of this gritty industrial port teamed with thousands of spectators. The port -- normally gray, cold and overcast -- splashed itself with color for the day.
Along the docks, a brass band toodled the melody to "It's a Small World After All" as the musicians marched with plush pink pig heads over their faces.
Indeed, there was much to celebrate. This race was the closest in the 25-year history of the Whitbread and seemed to install this competition as one that any marquee racer will have to sail to be taken seriously. It was a race that showcased revolutionary racing technology -- Cayard's "Code 0" upwind spinnaker redefining the boundaries of sail design.
Although two boats lost their masts in the Southern Ocean -- Britain's Silk Cut and Sweden's EF Education -- no boat put out a mayday. And although Dalton broke his collarbone and Alby Pratt of Norway's Innovation Kvaerner fell overboard briefly, no one was seriously hurt.
Fourth place overall went to Innovation Kvaerner, whose crew munched heart-shaped waffles at the finish. Fifth overall went to Silk Cut, which finished the leg fourth. In typical bad-boy form, Silk Cut's crew pulled into port with two blondes in thong bikinis at the bow -- their bodies painted head to toe as a Silk Cut logo and a Union Jack.
The crowd in England had expected great things from British skipper Lawrie Smith, who said the team took some heart even in a middling finish. "It's nice to beat Chessie Racing," said Smith, adding the team's problems could be traced to technical issues.
A disappointed crew on Chessie came in sixth overall, and seventh went to Toshiba, the boat led by America's Cup veteran Dennis Conner. Eighth overall went to Dutch boat BrunelSunergy, and EF Education finished last.
Three protests against Conner's boat lodged at the start of the final leg were dropped -- in part because it became clear to those rivals that the protests would not have won their boats additional points in the standings.
Cayard, meanwhile, savored something yesterday that seemed to get lost in the shuffle: He had just circumnavigated the globe.
"When you're sailing your whole life," Cayard said, "just going around the world is a big deal."
Pub Date: 5/25/98