Sailing: Sluggish response to changing conditions proves very costly

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The Independent Online
The skipper of Merit Cup in the Whitbread Round the World Race comes up against a familiar jinx but refuses to use it as an excuse.

I am always being hit by the curse of Freo and it looks as if I have been hit again. If you look at Fremantle history for then, in 1989, we were leading in Fisher and Paykel nearly all the way, only to be overtaken by three boats on the run-in. No favours there.

In 1993, on New Zealand Endeavour, we broke our mizzen mast and I thought we were dead. But, amazingly, we held on and the damage in terms of time lost to the opposition was less than I thought it would be.

This time we are going to have a lousy result, so I am plagued by the run through the Southern Ocean being a bad leg. And I was conscious of that before the leg even started.

In terms of performance, it is the worst Whitbread leg I have ever experienced. But no one could say that it has been physically tough for us. While others have been reporting wipe-outs and wave damage we haven't had any real wind. We didn't even have a lot of water over the deck until the middle of this week.

Instead we have been grumbling among ourselves that our average windspeed has been about the same as Swedish Match's average boat speed. So why has it happened?

Well, basically, winners make their own luck, so you won't hear me complain we have been unlucky. There has been a series of technical mistakes, and the first was right at the start. The forecast for all of us was that there was a ridge of high pressure pushing in under South Africa, but the timing of our start from Cape Town meant we should miss it and get away before it affected us. Otherwise you have to get from one side to the other before you get any wind.

What actually happened was that Swedish Match did that while the rest of us were delayed for four hours at Sea Point and that was enough for the ridge to push in. The forecast was spot on, Swedish Match was the only one to jump the bridge, and what should have happened was a major reassessment of where we were.

We had a course laid out that was fairly aggressive south. We wanted to be on the southern side of the fleet. Kvaerner saw what was happening, went hard south, even going hard on the wind to do it, and that was our first mistake: we just didn't realise it quickly enough.

Our next was trundling along in fourth place with Paul Cayard caught at the back in EF Language. He decided to act and went behind the fleet to get south while we were still going east and south. Then a pressure system came in from behind and the west, allowing the boats to the right of us to pick it up first and also dig south while we were left waiting for it to reach us, by which time were 100 miles behind.

Now, having been through the bottom of our arc south of the Kerguelen Islands, we have also missed the big south-westerly flow which the others were hanging into with an extra 10 knots of wind.

Our own tactical misjudgements are at the root of this series of events, but normally we wouldn't expect to be punished this hard. This is a tough race. Put a foot wrong and you are dog meat. Perhaps being dumped so hard at Sea Point just spun us out of our heads for 12 hours.

Crew morale is improving again, though we don't like the position we are in. We are all aware that we may be lucky enough to get away with one leg like this, but we would never get away with two. And I am angry with myself. This has been just stupidity and it's unfair on the guys, who are still grinding, still steering, still on the edge as much as anybody on any other boat. They still have to work as hard, but find they are putting the effort in the wrong direction.

But we gave it our all on the first leg, and we will shake ourselves up again to come right from this bad second leg. The way the points system works, even though Kvaerner and EF Language will now have a little cushion, there will be a bunch of us all within a handful of points of each other. With seven more legs, there is still plenty to play for.

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