Sailing: Conner takes over as Toshiba skipper

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The Independent Online
The biggest name in ocean yacht racing has decided to show the rest how it is done in the Whitbread Round the World Race.

Dennis Conner is tired of seeing Toshiba among the also-rans, but as Stuart Alexander reports, it will take all the American's skill to make an impression on the outcome of the fourth leg from Sydney to Auckland which starts tomorrow.

Speak it softly, or the words will come back to haunt you, but, as Dennis Conner adds his presence to his Toshiba campaign, taking the helm away from Paul Standbridge, there is a pattern emerging in the Whitbread Race. If this leg hardens the trend, then the struggling syndicates are going to look more like desperate football clubs than dashing ocean racers.

There is not only a gap opening up between the top four and the other five boats, but also between the top two, Paul Cayard in EF Language and Knut Frostad in Innovation Kvaerner, and the second pair, the quietly quick Gunnar Krantz in Swedish Match, and Grant Dalton in the weather- sensitive Merit Cup.

By the time the fleet arrive in Auckland after a five-day, 1,270-mile sprint from Sydney they will have covered half the total of 31,600 miles and accounted for 45 per cent of the points, which is why Conner, the four-times America's Cup-winner and Olympic bronze medallist, may have thought it is time to make his move.

His boat, Toshiba - in seventh place after three legs - was initially captained by the New Zealander Chris Dickson, who quit after a disappointing first leg to Cape Town led to a falling-out with Conner. Dickson's successor, Standbridge, is now listed as co-skipper.

The 55-year-old Conner, Toshiba's syndicate chairman, has monitored progress by computer, but no longer. A veteran of the 1993-94 race, in which he co-skippered Winston on just two legs, he kept his hands-on involvement quiet until the last moment. Under race rules, teams have up until 24 hours before the start of each leg to name their full crew. He had earlier said that he did not want to disrupt the crew if they were doing well, nor did he want any move on his part seen as a criticism of Standbridge. However, after being third on the second leg to Fremantle, Standbridge was sixth out of nine in the tight finish to the third leg to Sydney

Conner will not be the only new face aboard Toshiba now that the Australian Barney Walker, who had a disagreement with Frostad in Fremantle, has been recruited for his helming talents.

Frostad, meanwhile, having been unable to persuade Torben Grael to do a second leg, welcomes back to Innovation, Robbie Naismith, who sailed the first leg, and another Kiwi, Tony Rae.

With two leg wins under his belt, Cayard is now the clear favourite to win the race. EF Language is a good, all-round boat, whereas, for instance, Dalton's Merit Cup is best at light to moderate off-the-wind work. Dalton has dropped the Italian Paolo Bassani and replaced him with Tom Dodson - the crew's 10th New Zealander.

The crew on board the British boat Silk Cut are determined to reach New Zealand first. "It will be quick and hopefully we will have plenty of breeze," said their skipper, Lawrie Smith. "We have to do well - we have something to prove."

The new dark horse is George Collins' Chessie Racing, where Paul Svan Dyke replaces the injured Rick Deppe. Collins has not only persuaded John Kostecki to stay for the next leg, but will have top match racer Gavin Brady along as well. One thing is for sure, there will be no easy points waiting in Auckland.

WHITBREAD ROUND THE WORLD RACE (third leg, 2,250 miles, Fremantle to Sydney): 1 EF Language (Swe) P Cayard 9 days, 8hr, 9min, 20sec; 2 Swedish Match (Swe) G Krantz 9:9:14:28; 3 Chessie Racing (US) G Collins 9:9:15:21; 4 Merit Cup (Monaco) G Dalton 9:9:17:37; 5 Innovation Kvaerner (Nor) K Frostad 9:9:19:18; 6 Toshiba (US) P Standbridge 9:9:30:40; 7 Silk Cut (GB) L Smith 9:9:35:01; 8 Brunel Sunergy (Neth) R Heiner 9:10:00:04; 9 EF Education (Swe) C Guillou 9:10:47:32. Standings: 1 EF Language 302pts; 2 Innovation Kvaerner 267; 3 Swedish Match 253; 4 Merit Cup 228; 5 Chessie Racing 213; 6 Silk Cut 208; 7 Toshiba 207; 8 EF Education 80; 9 Brunel Sunergy 66.