SOUTHAMPTON, England -- For the crew of Chessie Racing, the end of the Whitbread Round the World Race was anticlimactic. Sitting at the finish in next-to-last place, it couldn't even return to the docks for its celebratory homecoming because the tide was out.
So the team left its boat behind in the high water and came to shore in an inflatable motorboat. The sailors' faces told it all -- tired, resigned, straining to smile as they stepped to shore.
"It was brutal," said bowman Jerry Kirby, who, like other Chessie sailors, had barely eaten or slept in two days of all-out racing. "It was push, push, push. We had sudden death, and we didn't score."
The crew was in fourth place overall and hyped up for this leg when it started in La Rochelle, France, on Friday. The team of "comeback kids" had just recovered from another setback -- finishing third in France after coming into Baltimore eighth -- and was hoping for a top-three podium spot.
Chessie had a strong start and was first after the first 12 hours of the race, but that lead quickly evaporated Saturday morning. Things went awry when the team miscalculated wind and current changes at Ushant, an island off the northwest corner of France.
After that, Chessie slowly fell to eighth in the nine-boat fleet.
"The problem was just a lot of small things not going right," skipper John Kostecki said. "We just got beat by better boats."
The team could have placed anywhere from as high as second to as low as sixth overall after this leg. It finished sixth.
"After Ushant, we weren't going quite as fast as everybody else, and we ended up slowly getting passed," said Kostecki, devouring a plate piled high with salmon, chicken and beef. "And then the wind pulled up and helped the boats in front, and the rich got richer."
As the crew went through the motions of spraying each other with a ceremonial bottle of champagne, Chessie founder George Collins took it with some disbelief.
"I thought from the beginning that we'd get a podium finish," he said. "The other teams just ended up having more experience."
Collins left his job as CEO of Baltimore mutual fund company T. Rowe Price last year to devote all his time to Chessie, a team he created with more than $7 million of his own money. Doubters said the boat would self-destruct from lack of experience, and yesterday Collins was clearly disappointed after seeing his underdog boat come so close to proving the skeptics wrong.
"I wish we could have placed better, particularly in this leg. We fell hard," said Collins, 57, an amateur who normally competes in short ocean contests, but is most familiar at Wednesday night races in Annapolis. "But you know, I'm happy for the guys -- to be able to compete in this race has been a lifelong dream for them."
Before the race began last September, Collins pulled himself off the boat for the most punishing, longest legs of the race, saying he didn't want to hold the team back from a top-three finish. Days before the final sprint to England -- a payoff leg for a boat owner if ever there were one -- Collins took himself off the boat fTC again. In his place, he put Derek Clark, an Englishman with local knowledge about the course.
Several team members said Clark was an asset, but added that the boat had problems that far predated the tricks of this leg. The boats that finished in the top three -- Sweden's EF Language first, Monaco's Merit Cup second and Swedish Match third -- changed one crew member each in the entire race, while Chessie repeatedly altered the makeup of the team.
Compared with other syndicates, Chessie also started its program late. "Me and [helmsman] Gavin Brady were not involved in the key stages at all," said Kostecki, who plans to skipper a boat in the 2001-2002 race, renamed the Volvo Ocean Race for its new sponsor. "I think a lot of the results for the team happened from a year out."
Those top boats also trained and sail tested using old Whitbread boats, collecting information that went into revolutionary new designs in the current Whitbread. Chessie had only one boat from the start.
Chessie still pulled out some exciting finishes, placing third in four legs. And the boat reached up to 400 schools through the Living Classrooms Foundation, a Baltimore nonprofit organization that owns the boat and coordinated an educational program to run alongside the race.
Still, sailors really wanted one thing from Chessie: The Big Win.
"I've really got mixed emotions," said Chessie bowman Greg Gendell, an Annapolis area native who plans to do the Volvo next time. "Obviously, we didn't do what we wanted to do to win the leg -- we kind of botched it. But the campaign was definitely fun and positive, and we did well. We're just kind of sad to see that it's gone now."
Leg 9 standings
1. Merit Cup
2. EF Language
3. Innovation Kvaerner
4. Silk Cut
5. Swedish Match
8. Chessie Racing
9. EF Education
Boat, Total points
1. EF Language, 836
2. Merit Cup, 698
3. Swedish Match, 689
4. Innovation Kvaerner, 633
5. Silk Cut, 630
6. Chessie Racing, 613
7. Toshiba, 528
8. BrunelSunergy, 415
9. EF Education, 275
10. America's Challenge, 48
Pub Date: 5/25/98