Sailing: One black cloud in the doldrums can disrupt all our plans

Merit Cup's skipper expects a frustrating time ahead on the Whitbread Round the World race
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WE HAVE been expecting someone (hopefully Merit Cup) to make a break during this sixth leg of the Whitbread Round the World race. However, the most significant action has been Silk Cut doing a good job close inshore, but being steadily reeled in as the yachts further offshore get a little more pressure.

We expect the fleet will split as the yachts line themselves up for the run through the doldrums. First in and first out is the aim and a quick exit could be the winning edge of this leg. Once you're in the doldrums, it's purely a matter of chance what shape you're in when you emerge from the other side.

There is breeze in the doldrums - quite a strong breeze sometimes - but it is very patchy and shifts direction constantly. It's not unusual to be sitting motionless with the only sound the slop of the water against the transom.

Some of the boys on Merit Cup have been through the doldrums several times. Experience doesn't make it any easier to cope with a capricious breeze which deserts you while favouring another yacht only a few hundred metres away.

Frustration is not a descriptive enough word to describe the feeling as you watch it sail off towards the horizon. That is when the frustration levels get really high. The guys on watch are straining as they concentrate on keeping the boat moving, trying to catch any bit of breeze that's going.

The pressure on watch captains Kevin Shoebridge and Mike Sanderson, who are responsible for keeping the yacht moving at maximum possible speed, is relentless. The helmsman and trimmers cannot afford to relax for even a few seconds.

In the navigation station, Mike Quilter, famous for his seemingly laid- back outlook at all times, is fuming at the injustice of it all - how a big, black cloud can make his tactical plan virtually worthless in just a few minutes.

In these sort of conditions, it's not unknown to have 10 sail changes in an hour as the wind shifts direction and the pressure rises and falls. In the heat of the doldrums it is very hard work.

The position schedules, which we get every six hours, impose a sort of terror campaign on board. A good sched, where we have made up a bit of time or even swapped positions on the water, is greeted with cheers. A bad sched casts a pall of gloom over the boat, even though in the circumstances prevailing on Thursday and Friday this week, the positions and distances between the yachts were insignificant.

For example, the 18.00 GMT position on Thursday had Merit Cup second, 17.2 miles behind Silk Cut. We were looking good. From sixth place to second in six hours.

Even though we knew that it didn't mean much, we glowed for a moment; then one of those big, black clouds smothered us, stopping Merit Cup dead in the water. Every boat in the fleet made distance on us.

At 18.00, when we were second, 3.9 miles separated the second and seventh- placed yachts. At midnight, 4.7 miles separated them, but the positions had changed remarkably. Merit Cup went from her hard-earned (helped by a little luck) second place to sixth; Innovation Kvaerner from third to second; EF Language from fourth to fifth; Chessie Racing from fifth to third; Toshiba from sixth to fourth.

Once we're out of the doldrums it's a 2,000-mile reach on starboard tack to Barbuda, an island in the Caribbean where we "turn" for Florida. Then the wind should be behind us for the run to Fort Lauderdale.

So far on this leg the heat has been remarkable. A chicken stew is not my idea of an ideal lunch when the tropical sun is heating the deck to sole-burning point and below decks the temperatures must be at least 50C.

There's nowhere to go to escape the heat. On deck there's no shade; below decks it's even hotter and it's beginning to reek of damp sails and clothes.

It was not this hot when we came south through the tropics on leg one and I don't remember it being this hot last time on New Zealand Endeavour or the time before on Fisher and Paykel New Zealand.

This is not a time to have trouble with the desalination equipment. It is working overtime to provide enough fluid to replace the sweat.