John Kostecki sailed into Baltimore four years ago at the helm of Chessie Racing, the hometown rooting interest, yet ultimately a back-of-the-pack boat operating on a limited budget, in what then was the Whitbread Round the World Race.
He's back as skipper of illbruck Challenge and, despite finishing fourth in this leg of what now is the Volvo Ocean Race, holds a commanding lead because of three earlier first- place finishes. The big difference between this race and the other, he says, is the time and money German plastics giant Illbruck (the corporate name is upper- cased) has poured into the effort.
"We got an early start with this," he says over coffee at the crew's hotel. "With Chessie, it was a pretty last-minute entry, and we rushed to make the starting line."
Chessie Racing, with a budget of $7 million, didn't exist until a year and a half before the start of the 32,700-nautical-mile odyssey through equatorial doldrums and the howling winds and skyscraper waves of the Southern Ocean. The last crew member wasn't signed until August 1997, a month before the start.
Illbruck began organizing this $25 million campaign before the last race was over and signed Kostecki, who had sailed the company's boats in European races, during the Baltimore-Annapolis layover in April 1998.
Soon after the last Whitbread racer crossed the line, Illbruck bought the winner, EF Education, and its sister boat, EF Language, and began testing sails. Now, the other programs "are copying us," says Kostecki, who picked the crew, which has been sailing together for three years.
"They're the benchmark. They're what we're all aiming for," says Katie Pettibone, of the all-female crew on Amer Sports Too. And Kostecki is "a fantastic sailor," she says.
But Grant Dalton, skipper of Pettibone's sister boat, Amer Sports One, says Kostecki is being unfair to himself by attributing his success to the early start.
"How often have we seen someone get a lot of money and a lot of time and cocked it up?" says the veteran of five round- the-world campaigns. "It's what you do with your time and money, and he's done well."
Kostecki, 37, grew up sailing on San Francisco Bay, which spawned America's Cup stars Paul Cayard and Tom Blackaller and others.
"It's a great place to sail," he says. "You get strong sea breezes in the summer and strong currents. It can be tough. You learn a lot."
He's a veteran of two America's Cup campaigns, won a silver medal in the 1988 Olympics in the Soling class and 10 world titles in various classes of boats, including the 1997 Mum 36 championship with Chris Larson, the Annapolis-based tactician aboard ASSA ABLOY in this race.
"John's very organized, detail-oriented and very straightforward," says Larson, whose boat edged out illbruck for third place in the Miami-to-Baltimore leg. "He's what you see is what you get."
Dalton describes Kostecki as a "gray ghost."
"He's quite reserved and deep thinking. He's not real outgoing, but he's a great manager and has put together a brilliant program."
Kostecki took over a demoralized Chessie crew in Sydney, Australia, and had the boat in contention by the time it reached Baltimore.
"He's an excellent skipper who talks things through and an excellent tactician," says George Collins, the retired T. Rowe Price executive who bankrolled Chessie Racing.
But Chessie had "a strange crew" with a lot of "category two sailors, guys who worked in the business, but weren't really professionals," Collins says. And Kostecki worked better with the "true professionals who are more dedicated to the sport, doing it full time."
Chessie rarely kept the same crew from one leg of the race to the next, "which was rather unsettling," Kostecki says.
Illbruck's hand-picked crew of professionals has remained constant, with two exceptions through the race. And Kostecki directs them with nods and hand motions as much as calling to them.
They know their jobs and don't need much direction, he said during a promotional stop in Baltimore last spring.
But will all this time, money and attention to detail lead Kostecki and his crew to the top of the podium in Kiel, Germany, the finish for this year's race? Dalton, of Amer Sports One, says it's inevitable, "unless he gets a hole in his boat."
Illbruck has amassed 41 points under the system that awards eight for a first-place finish, seven for second and so on. ASSA ABLOY, second overall with 34 points, could win the leg to La Rochelle, France, which starts Sunday by the Bay Bridge, while illbruck finishes last and the German boat still would have a one-point lead.
After that, the race goes to Gothenburg, Sweden, before the sprint to finish in Kiel.
"There's still 24 points out there [for first-place finishes]," Kostecki says. "We could have a major breakdown on the trans-Atlantic leg, and then what?"
(After six legs)
ASSA ABLOY (N.McDonald)...34
Amer Sports One (Dalton)...32
News Corp (Fanstone)...31
Team Tyco (Shoebridge)...27
Team SEB (Krantz)...21
Amer Sports Too (L.McDonald)...9
Leg 7: Annapolis to LaRochelle, France, departs Sunday.
Leg 8: LaRochelle to Goteborg, Sweden, departs May 25.
Leg 9: Goteborg to Kiel, Germany(finish), departs June 8.
Points are awarded after each of the nine legs as follows: 8 points for finishing first, 7 for second, 6 for third, 5 for fourth, 4 for fifth, 3 for sixth, 2 for seventh, 1 for eighth.