Sailing: Reputations fall overboard in a fickle breeze

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The Independent Online
The skipper of Merit Cup in the Whitbread Round the World Race describes how luck can play a big part in the quest to be the first of the 10-boat fleet into Cape Town.

Fickle weather has played a huge part in the first six days of the 7,350-mile leg to Cape Town. The light, shifting breeze has made tactics something of a gamble and conditions have been very tricky, causing the fleet to split up.

Yachts that were in the right part of the ocean at the right time have been doing better than they could have hoped for. The tail-enders will have been wondering where they have gone wrong.

The hard fact is that a fickle breeze has no respect for professional yachtsmen's reputations. Not even the bookmakers guessed that after five days at sea, the man they made favourite, Chris Dickson in Toshiba, would be more than 110 miles behind the leader, or that Ross Field, the winner last time in Yamaha and this time skippering America's Challenge, would be 196 miles behind. That made Merit Cup - 22 miles behind the race leader EF Language on that same position report - look very tidy indeed

However, I shall not been reading anything into the position reports, until after things have settled down in the trade winds. I've been taking my own advice and sailing my own race.

Even though Merit Cup had been doing reasonably well, boat speed hasn't had anything to do with it. There was a large lump of luck, coupled with navigator Mike Quilter's knack of getting us into a better part of the ocean than most of the other boats.

Innovation Kvaerner is also benefiting from the experience of navigator Marcel van Triest, who has two other Whitbread races to his credit and has been working for over two years on weather patterns.

So some boats are not yet showing their true potential and others have been doing better than they might have expected.

Knowing all that didn't make it any easier to watch Paul Cayard on EF Language, who sailed alongside us for a day or so, pick up a few puffs and sail away. He got into a new breeze and put 22 miles on us in just a few hours.

Which is why Chris Dickson and his Toshiba crew must have been feeling pretty frustrated. He would have been desperate to get a breeze so he could stay in touch with the leaders. In analysing the strengths and weaknesses of the opposition, Toshiba, in particular, has every appearance of being fast in a breeze and a little sticky in the light.

In the past, the first leg of the Whitbread has tended to favour those quick off the mark. Boats that have established a good lead early on can be extremely difficult to catch. But it's too early yet to be breaking out the rum. Fortunes could change dramatically when the fleet gets into the north-east trades where the breeze is more reliable and a boat's true speed potential begins to play its part.

We hope the trades will give us a good run down to the Equator and then we have the Doldrums, where the pain of not making enough headway can seem to last forever.

I'm still trying to forget the sense of helpless frustration in the 1993- 94 race when New Zealand Endeavour was caned in the Doldrums. We were enjoying a hard-won 48-mile lead on the Swiss skipper, Pierre Fehlmann. It had taken us 13 days of hard work to build that lead and we had to watch helplessly as he sailed right up behind us. In 24 hours we had made just 108 miles, which was the slowest run any of us could remember in the Whitbread.

The Doldrums are well-known for their calms, but less so for the short, sharp and vicious squalls that can be the ticket out and into the south- east trades.

One of the things that makes this, the longest leg of the race, so hard is the heat of the Equator. All the drinks are warm, too, as we do not have the luxury of a cooler, and sleeping is also uncomfortable.

With progress slow, some crews are already keeping an eye on food. Innovation Kvaener left Southampton with food for only 28 days. At this rate they'll need to ration it, because the leg looks like it will take at least 30 days, maybe more. We have packed enough for 33 days.

WHITBREAD ROUND THE WORLD RACE (First leg, Southampton to Cape Town, 7,350 miles): Latest positions: 1 Innovation Kvaerner (skipper K Frostad) 6,295.2 miles to finish; 2 EF Language (P Cayard) +2.60 miles; 3 Merit Cup (G Dalton) +35.30; 4 Silk Cup (L Smith) +55.10; 5 Chessie Racing (G Collins) +59.90; 6 Toshiba (C Dickson) +144.10; 7 Swedish Match (G Krantz) +252.30; 8 American Challenge (N Barth) +267.20; 9 Brunel Sunergy (H Bousscholte) +281.40; 10 EF Education (C Guillou) +288.50.