Sailing: Endurance test for the very best

For nine months the competitors in the Whitbread Round the World Race, which starts in the Solent tomorrow, will have their physical and mental capabilities stretched to the limit. Stuart Alexander reports
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The Independent Online
The seventh and final Whitbread Round the World Race brings some of the best ocean racing in the world to the start line of one of the most gruelling tests in sport.

The first leg alone, 7,350 miles to Cape Town, will take 30 days of non- stop concentration and effort, 24 hours a day, with rarely more than three hours of continuous sleep for any of the 12 crew on board. That is 12 consecutive Fastnet Races, back to back, without any break at all.

Lawrie Smith, bidding to become the first outright British winner in the big-budget Silk Cut, says that, on the shorter legs, there will be no opportunity for any structured sleep at all, and this on 60-foot boats generating huge amounts of power and requiring fierce focus on extracting maximum speed every inch of the way. Drop for even a moment and the ever- watchful computer will squawk a warning.

From being as much an adventure as a test of endurance when it began in 1973, the race has developed a grand prix status, with professional competitors driving equipment, enjoying research programmes sometimes as complex as Formula One race cars. Having reached this level of international professionalism the race is now leaving the UK to be run in Sweden and Brussels by Volvo in 2001, if they stick to the four-year timetable. Everything is up for discussion, including the route and the boats to be used.

Race director Ian Bailey-Willmot says he is disappointed with a turnout of 10. He believes there should have been 15, but he is more than satisfied with the presence of Dennis Conner for the second time, Paul Cayard for the first time, and a clutch of big names both as skippers and crews who draw on the best from an international pool.

The course has been changed to allow a return to Cape Town, a shift from Uruguay to Brazil, a second stopover in the United States and the inclusion of France, which then provides a sprint finish. Gales and ice remain a hazard on the runs from South Africa to Australia, and from New Zealand round Cape Horn. The shorter legs will provide an intensity that will be equally draining.

This is no arena for amateurs. This is no race in which, when the winds grow violent, you strap everything in, batten down the hatches, and wait for it to abate. In the southern ocean you are going downhill, driving the boat right up to the edge of its capabilities, risking the sort of serious wipe-out that can rip the mast right out of the boat.

There is no one down there to launch a lifeboat. The competitors have to rely on each other, as they did last time when the Italian yacht Brooksfield was taking water. And you have to keep pushing to gain those vital yards which mean places, and therefore points, at the finish.

All the previous six races have been decided on accumulated time for the whole 31,000 miles. This time there is virtually a series of nine races and it will be consistency in them that will decide the winner; the bonus of a points, rather than time, system is that one bad leg need not cost any boat the whole race.

The new format, coupled with the relegation of the old maxis and the use only of Whitbread 60s, has led many to believe there will be permanent cat and mouse game as the whole fleet shadows each other. But Merit Cup skipper Grant Dalton thinks there will be major differences in speed, especially over the first leg.

The deciding factor will be the success of the programmes to develop fast sail designs. The sails deliver the power, but they are also the gearbox of the yacht. Their development will continue right to the end. The right shape and size is crucial, sailing the boat at the optimum angle to deliver maximum power adds to the conundrum, and those that can achieve both, as well as having all the right clubs in the bag as conditions change, will be the winners.

Assuming they do not suffer from gear damage. Both the race favourite, Chris Dickson who skipper's Conner's boat, and his greatest rival, Smith, are willing to push both yachts and crews very hard. Any miscalculation and both Dalton and Gunnar Krantz in Swedish Match will be waiting to pounce.

These are good times for Smith, whose 2000 America's Cup hopes have been given a considerable boost this week. The Spirit of Britain syndicate, which is challenging New Zealand through the Royal Dorset Yacht Club, announced major design and technology backing from the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency, Bristol University's Aerodynamics department, the Parametric Technology Corporation and Silocon Graphics. For syndicate chairman, Prof Andrew Graves of Bath University, the heavyweight credibility should smooth the search for up to pounds 15m sponsorship.

BOAT-BY-BOAT GUIDE

Silk Cut (GB): Britain's best chance by far to win the Whitbread outright, according to skipper Lawrie Smith who switched from Sweden's EF team to a position of greater control, a crew he picks himself and a big budget. He has the bit between his teeth and a tight-knit crew. Joint favourite with Chris Dickson.

Merit Cup (Monaco): Skipper Grant Dalton talks up his administrative skills and leaves the sailing plaudits to crew and navigator Mike Quilter. He is tough, confident about a two-boat development programme, and has shown speed where it matters. A top three banker.

Brunel Sunergy (Netherlands): An almost unknown quantity with one of the two non-Bruce Farr boats and a team with almost a corinthian look. Their tightly-funded boat, from the German-Dutch team of Friedrich Judel and Rolf Vrolijk, has yet to impress, but they have a new keel bulb and rudder and replacement skipper Hans Bousholte is hoping for success in heavier air legs.

Kvaerner Innovation (Norway): Looked very strong early on and then slipped in the ratings a little. But the addition of Frenchman Pierre Mas is a big plus and in Marcel van Triest skipper Knut Frostad has a navigator not afraid of big decisions. The crew is strong, but may find themselves in the second peloton.

Swedish Match (Sweden): Of all the teams picking up pace as they approach the start, this is the quickest, with the influence of Kiwi hard man Erle Williams most noticeable. This is not a boat of management by consent but by uncompromising example and their backers have been ready to spend whatever it takes.

EF Education (Sweden): The all-woman approach is proving a hard challenge for a crew with a strong French influence. Skipper is Christine Guillou, navigator Christine Briand. Marie-Claude Kieffer joins for the Cape Horn leg, Isabelle Autissier for the last two. Wanted to increase crew to 14 to compensate for admitted lack of equal strength.

EF Language (Sweden): Generously funded, their reward has been a catalogue of grief. Lost, won, then lost Lawrie Smith as skipper, plus many crew. Lost two more key players and then had row over defecting navigator as skipper Paul Cayard finally concentrates focus away from his America's Cup ambitions.

Chessie Racing (US): What looked to some like a rich man's whim has seen investment manager George Collins turn a gentle representation of Chesapeake Bay into a hard-edged team. Guests like Gavin Brady, John Kostecki, Dee Smith and Mike Toppa added to crew with deceptive strength could embarrass some of the higher profile rivals.

Americas Challenge (US): Dark horses turned maverick colts. Last time's winning skipper Ross Field has taken charge of the other non-Bruce Farr boat, but will sail with only 11 as he turns a last-minute dash into an art form. They say Alan Andrews' design is significantly quicker; if so the others are in trouble.

Toshiba (US): Joint-favourite with Smith for the sailors, if not the bookies, as the management skills of Dennis Conner combine with the talent of Chris Dickson. Sure to have original ideas on sail design, including Cuben fibre mains. Dickson's ability to drive fast when on the edge has even his detractors gasping.

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