Determination powers Polish skipper

Skipper Zbigniew Gutkowski arrives last week in Charleston after boat damage knocked him out of the fourth leg of the Velux 5 Oceans.

When the Velux 5 Oceans fleet sailed out of Uruguay in March, Zbigniew Gutkowski had to like his chances.

The Polish skipper had finished second in each of the first three legs of the around-the-world race, a feat he managed while overcoming a series of boat problems and even a head injury when he hit it on the autopilot.

In the third leg, he was looking at a third-place finish, but at the last second managed to slip by British skipper Chris Stanmore-Major, beating him by 40 seconds -- the closest finish in the history of the 30-year-old race.

"Chris was making the victory sign when I slipped by," Gutkowski remembered with a laugh last week.

So going into the fourth leg, Gutek -- as his friends call him -- was not only poised to become the first Polish skipper to race solo around the world, he had the points to challenge Charleston skipper Brad Van Liew for first place.

But then everything went wrong.

Shortly after setting sail for Charleston, the alternator on his yacht, Operon Racing, conked out, his bowsprit cracked and Gutkowski injured himself in a nasty fall on deck. He worked through these problems with the same determination his competitors had come to respect and fear. But then Operon Racing's forestay broke.

Without the forestay supporting the mast, Gutkowski had no choice but to turn around and find a port to make repairs, taking himself out of contention for the leg, and perhaps the race. He had been racing for days with one broken rib and another one that was cracked.

Gutkowski sailed into Fortaleza, Brazil, the same port where he had stopped 10 years earlier with boat problems and injuries during another race. Same city, same problems, different year.

Sitting at Seabreeze Marina after the 11-day layover in the middle of a grueling 38-day journey, Gutkowski managed to laugh about history repeating itself.

"Next time, I have to go around another way," he said.

Gutkowski has proven that nothing much is going to stop him. The 36-year-old native of Gdansk, Poland has been sailing since he was 10, a stint that included a long tenure on the Polish national sailing team, representing his country in dinghy races between 1987 and 1995. He was an Olympics sailor.

In 2000, he competed in The Race -- a non-stop around-the-world race for multihulls. Later, he attempted to break the record for monohull circumnavigation, but boat damage in the Indian Ocean put an end to the quest.

He got into the Velux 5 Oceans race late and even though his boat has an impressive resume -- winning the 1992-93 Vendee Globe, a non-stop single-handed race around the world -- he had little time to prepare it. That has manifested itself in his various mechanical problems, which included a broken auto-pilot earlier in the race.

Race Director David Adams said Gutkowski's competitive spirit has put a tremendous strain on his boat and his body -- and it shows.

"Gutek has got where he is by sheer force of character," Adams said. "He wants to achieve what he wants to achieve."

Van Liew said as a result of that drive, he never once worried that Gutkowski would drop out of the race as a result of his pit stop in Brazil.

"He's not a quitter," Van Liew said. "He's a special guy, and he just pushes his boat and himself hard."

Gutkowski said even with only a week to prepare, he'll be ready to race again on Saturday. As for the setbacks, that's sailing.

"I'm really happy being in the race," he said. "The boat is really old, but the hull is strong. Everybody has boat problems. Without any breakages, we'd probably be doing excellent."

The fleet sets out for the finish line in La Rochelle, France on May 14. Gutkowski goes into the last leg of the race tied with Canadian skipper Derek Hatfield for second place. But he knows there is more at stake than podium position. If Van Liew doesn't finish the leg, Gutkowski has a chance to win.

Don't think a competitive guy like Gutek hasn't already thought of that.