KEY WEST, Fla. -- The East Coast's longest ocean race of the year -- destination Baltimore -- gets under way here today with two Maryland sailors competing for line honors.
George Collins, a Baltimore millionaire who owns so many boats he says "I don't count them," will be at the wheel of his 70-foot Santa Cruz, Chessie Racing. Chessie is handicapped second in the 1,000-mile sprint from the Florida Keys, past Cape Hatteras and up the Chesapeake Bay.
Ranked first is California venture capitalist Bob McNeil's 73-foot speedster, Zephyrus, co-skippered by John Bertrand, a professional sailor and race consultant from Annapolis.
The two Marylanders have never raced each other, but their boats are the fastest in the fleet of seven, with Zephyrus newer and longer than Chessie. In sailboats, length translates into speed.
"She's bigger and faster," Collins conceded as he tried his new red and black weather gear on for size under a blazing sun here on the eve of the race. "I know what I would like to do -- build a bigger boat.
"But I can't do that, so we have to hope that we sail a good race, make the right decisions, find the right way. And, maybe, Zephyrus won't be quite so fortunate so we can correct over them [sail jargon for taking advantage of competitors' mistakes). Of course, we also have the rest of the fleet to worry about correcting over us."
On board the green-hulled Zephyrus, the bearded Bertrand, an ocean- and match-racing veteran, said the two boats would be "pretty close" with the wind from the stern or from the side.
He gave Zephyrus the edge upwind, but cautioned, "Collins is going to be fast enough that if we make a mistake on the weather in the Gulf Stream, he could beat us.
"It's going to be a really competitive race."
The weather forecast calls for light winds at today's noon start, becoming brisker from the east as night sets in and the seven-boat fleet turns north in the Gulf Stream. As the boats move along the coast, a low front is expected to develop south of Cape Hatteras.
This brings the threat of northeasterly winds, which could whip up steep waves in the Gulf Stream. That normally helps boats with its average three-knot northerly flow but threatens them when it gets rough.
"Our big concern would be if we see a lot of rough weather, and a lot of wind and waves in the Gulf Stream," said Bertrand, who was on board Zephyrus for its record run in the Cape Town-to-Rio de Janeiro race last year. "Then we would really have to throttle back to keep the ship together."
Both Zephyrus and Chessie Racing are turbo-sleds, designed primarily for downwind sailing. But on the way to Baltimore they are likely to encounter winds from all directions.
Dobbs Davis, another Annapolitan who is a sail trimmer aboard Zephyrus, pointed out that the turbo-sleds were not as strong as the Whitbread 60s used in the round-the-world race.
In the last Whitbread, in which Collins entered an earlier Chessie Racing, the worst leg of the 33,000-mile race was the run from Florida to Baltimore.
"If we have the wind and current situation they had two years ago in the Whitbread, this fleet is going to [have problems]," Davis said.
"These boats do not have the ability to do that. At that point you have to think about getting out of the Gulf Stream and getting out of the rough water."
Less likely to be troubled by sailing into the wind is New York investment banker Bob Towe's 66-foot Blue Yankee, ranked third by the handicappers. It could take advantage of heavy weather to steal the lead.
"If it's a fast [windy] race, we could do just fine," said Dee Smith, crew captain on the blue-hulled boat and skipper of Chessie Racing in two legs of the last Whitbread round-the-world race. "If it's a slow race they could take advantage of their extra sail area and luck out on us."
Rafted next to Zephyrus, Smith looked at his neighbors, busy provisioning for the four- or five-day sail, and said with complete frankness, "Those guys should win, boat for boat, and if it's mostly off the wind."
The winner is expected to cross Baltimore's Inner Harbor finishing line Wednesday night or Thursday, coinciding with the annual Waterfront Festival.
The race was scheduled to start in Havana, Cuba, but the Treasury Department nixed a Cuban connection, citing regulations against individual travel by U.S. citizens to President Fidel Castro's communist island.
The veto coincided with the furor over 6-year-old Cuban refugee Elian Gonzalez, and race organizers believe this influenced the Clinton administration's decision to ban the Havana start.
"Havana probably would have happened if there had been no cause celebre in the wings," said race committee chairman Charlie Ulmer of the Storm Trysail Yacht Club, which is organizing the Key West-Baltimore run. "I think most people felt that, given the political atmosphere, it was better not to stir the pot."
When the Treasury veto was announced, the fleet quickly shrank from 25 boats to seven. The organizers considered canceling the race but were persuaded by the remaining big-boat skippers to stage it from Key West.
"They wanted to do this race," Ulmer said. "It is our hope that this will lead in two years to an event that will be able to take place in Havana."