Yachting: Collins doing the business on the water

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George Collins is the man who liked the Whitbread Round the World Race so much he spent $5m on a yacht and a top-line crew.

Stuart Alexander talks to the American investment manager, who is beating the cream of ocean racing at their own game.

When the Whitbread fleet of ocean racers crosses Chesapeake Bay next April to finish the seventh leg in Baltimore, George Collins will, he says, "almost be able to reach over the guard rail and shake the hands of my friends as we race to the finishing line. As a matter of fact it goes right by my house."

Here is a man, a competitor and fan, who liked the idea of joining the world's best in the best round-the-world race so much that he bought himself a place on the start line, his city a major role as host and his favourite piece of water the starring role of being writ large on the side of his 64-foot yacht, Chessie Racing.

But this is not just the whim of a dilettante. To be the chief executive officer of a multi-million dollar company you have built up yourself needs a competitive streak. He insists that this is not just a game to take his mind off things now that he is semi-retired at the age of 57 from the investment management business he created. That he is not another example of the blazer brigade meddling in sport because they have nothing else to do.

"I could have bought a minor league baseball team, but I couldn't play and would probably only have ended up interfering in the training," he said. "I'm not a spectator, I would rather be out there participating. But at my age there are very few games in which you can still participate and enjoy it."

Not that Collins has not had to modify his expectation about when he can play in the team, and when he can not. At the moment he is waiting to fly to Cape Town to welcome in his boat, skippered by Mark Fischer, at the end of the 7,350- mile first leg, but he will not be joining them for the second leg across the rough and testing southern ocean.

The delivery trip across the Atlantic Collins undertook aboard Chessie Racing taught him his limitations on what can be a bucking bronco of a beast when the wind whips up. On one 24-hour run they topped 400 exhilarating, but nerve and muscle-jangling miles.

"This is a non user-friendly, full-on racing machine. This type of boat is very difficult," he says. Instead of racing, Collins' contribution is cold, dispassionate management skills and a funding programme that ensured that every development worth doing was done and a top-line crew properly paid.

Collins has had to dig deeper into his pockets than he first thought. He put up the basic $2m (pounds 1.3m) to pay for the boat, expecting other sponsors would jump aboard clutching another $3m. They did not, but "it's been a good stock market, so I have stepped up," Collins says.

That has meant no reasonable request being refused, staying calm when gear was breaking during the bedding- down period when he was "ripping up my dollars".

"This is serious stuff. It doesn't come more serious than this," Collins says, "and I don't want things to blow up when it counts. Then you are in deep trouble."

The planning was meticulous, the training serious and his crew have been in the top five since the race started in Southampton on 21 September. Chessie Racing is ahead of the favourite Toshiba, skippered by Chris Dickson, and the 1994 Whitbread winner Ross Field on America's Challenge. Only bad luck will stop them maintaining their position to Cape Town.

This is not an amateur affair, but there is, however, the inevitable vein of romance. The picture of a monster on the side of the yacht recalls how grandfather Wilson came from Glasgow as a baby, along with a bottle of water from Loch Ness which was poured into Chesapeake Bay. For Nessie read Chessie.

Collins' boat was fifth yesterday, 173 miles behind the leader, EF Language, as light airs slowed the fleet on the final 2,500 miles to Cape Town.

Paul Cayard, the skipper of EF Language, was predicting 20 hours of uncertain winds as the back markers in the 10-boat fleet reduced the gap and Britain's Lawrie Smith tried, from fourth place, to outflank the problem.

Cayard, leading by 14 miles from Grant Dalton on Merit Cup, was battling to make headway. "We are going nowhere - fighting to go 100 metres in 10 minutes during the last four hours," he reported.

WHITBREAD ROUND THE WORLD RACE (first leg, 7,350 miles, Southampton to Cape Town) Latest positions: 1 EF Language (Swe) P Cayard 2,483 miles to finish; 2 Merit Cup (Monaco) G Dalton +14 miles; 3 Innovation Kvaerner (Nor) K Frostad +20; 4 Silk Cut (GB) L Smith +118; 5 Chessie Racing (US) M Fischer +173; 6 America's Challenge (US) R Field +247.9; 7 Toshiba (US) C Dickson +248.4; 8 Swedish Match (Swe) G Krantz +261; 9 EF Education (Swe) C Guillou +425; 10 Brunel Sunergy (Neth) H Bouscholte +550.