When 16 of the world's top women's sailing teams gathered in Annapolis for the World Match-Racing Championships last week, U.S. Olympic skipper Carol Cronin and crew were on hand to enjoy one last competitive outing before heading to Athens for final training for the Games in August.

But while Cronin had sail trimmer Liz Filter with her, the third member of their team, bow hand Nancy Haberland, was off on another boat doing her level best to knock off her mates. You'd think they'd want to stick together this late in the process, but no matter, said Cronin. Sailing separately is just one of a number of unconventional steps she's taken on the way to sailing's premier test.

Cronin as usual flew the flag of her longtime sponsor Atkins here, plastering the logo on hats, shirts and whatever else she could find. That's the popular Atkins Diet, which thumbs its nose at carbohydrates, and Cronin is a keen proponent. The system works, she said, and she should know. She and her crew may be the only people who use it to gain pounds as well as lose them.

"Weight is critical in Ynglings," the 22-foot sloops selected for the first women's Olympic keelboat event, said Filter, the sail trimmer. "The weight limit for the Games is 451 pounds total for the three of us, and we need to be right at the limit. You give away too much if you come in light. Atkins is giving us lots of nutritional information to gauge how to carbo-load to reach maximum weight."

She proved she wasn't kidding by tucking cheerfully into a breakfast of three eggs, juice and a bagel and cream cheese while she and others at the championships waited on shore for a sea breeze to fill one day last week.

Filter and Cronin have been training together since 2001. Haberland, a sailing instructor at the U.S. Naval Academy, joined them only last fall after declining an earlier offer from Cronin. "I had a job and a house to pay for," she said. "I was asked to join about five teams early, including Carol's, but I had to say no. Then Carol came back to me last September with the shorter commitment, and I was able to say yes."

It was well into autumn before Haberland was fully in harness, leaving only a few months before Olympic trials in Miami. Other teams were well established by then, and some considered the late shakeup dicey. But it worked out as the trio won the trials with a race to spare. "It was nice not to have to sail that last one," said Haberland. "Every other race was up in the air right to the finish line."

Only six U.S. boats turned up for the women's trials, but there wasn't a dime's worth of difference between the top five, she said, adding, "Ynglings are the strangest class I've ever sailed in. You can't say one person has the advantage in certain conditions. It seems like nobody has a predictable speed edge.

"I think it's going to be the same at the Olympics," said Haberland. "It'll come down to who handles stress best. At the trials we were at our psychological peak. We were underdogs so no one expected much. Other teams had high expectations, and when they weren't realized, we watched them fall apart. If we had a bad day, we said, 'Okay, how can we do better tomorrow?' "

Cronin and Filter are both 39 years old, and Haberland is 43, putting them among the older athletes making the journey to Athens. Cronin says adding a women's keelboat event to the Games was a good move. "It gives us a place to go when we age out of dinghies. That's the good thing about our sport -- you can stay with it your whole life."

Cronin, Filter and Haberland knew each other from their early years racing Snipe dinghies. Haberland, who lives in Annapolis, and Filter, from Stevensville on Kent Island, will carry the sailing hopes of the Chesapeake region to the Games, along with single-handed Finn sailor Kevin Hall, who lives in Bowie.

The two Maryland women come from opposite sides of the bay and from backgrounds about as unalike. Filter has never been a skipper, always working the middle of the boat as crew. She was an all-American in that capacity at Tulane University, then backed her husband, Henry, in his unsuccessful bid for an Olympic berth in single-handed Laser at the 1996 Games. She held the house together for him then; now, with two kids age 3 and 6, he keeps things going while she gears up for Athens.

Haberland, by contrast, is a skipper at heart. "I've been steering race boats since I was 10 years old, and I've won more than 20 national titles," she said. She's crewing now only because she lacked time and money to put together her own campaign. But her experience at the helm pays off as she passes tactical suggestions to Cronin from her spot in the bow, both women said.

Meantime, Filter and Haberland must come to grips with the travails of an Olympic keelboat crew, which means donning the tools of ignorance that long have plagued male crew in Solings, the men's Olympic class Ynglings replaced for these Games.

Yngling and Soling crew fit out in harnesses and footgear before racing so they can fling themselves over the side to keep the boat level when the wind pipes up.

Once the breeze hits 8 to 10 knots, both of Cronin's crew spend much of their time hanging out of the boat with their heads just above water level, suspended by ankle hobbles. It looks supremely uncomfortable but isn't, said Filter. "It's actually pretty comfortable once you're out there. The graceful part is the step, pivot and step to get across the boat and throw yourself out on the other side when we tack."

Unfortunately, it's almost impossible to see anything of interest from that vantage point, griped Haberland. "I trim the jib, but I have no idea what the sail looks like. I'm just going by some marks on the sheet [controlling line]. I have to count on Carol to tell me if it looks right, and I don't like that."

Area sailors Carol Cronin, left, Liz Filter, Nancy Haberland will compete in Yngling class during the Athens Olympics.