Sailing: Smith gamble paying off but Cayard is safe

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THREE important ingredients in sport are tension, tension and tension, and it was there in abundance yesterday as the closing stages of the eighth leg of the Whitbread Round the World Race promised punch-the-air elation for some, anguish for others.

The last 3,400 miles have brought everything from sunshine and calms to icebergs and 40-knot howlers. There have been multiple collisions and encounters with whales, sharks and seals. The lead yesterday was being disputed by two British skippers and a long-time back-marker. And when the dust settles the stage should be set for a finale to settle second to fifth places overall.

In former days, the hike across the Atlantic was the run home, most of the major issues, except finishing in one piece, already settled. Yesterday, however, the only near certainty - on a leg that has been as hard, tactical and demanding as the first from Southampton to Cape Town - was that Paul Cayard would bring EF Language into an excited La Rochelle with the race sewn up.

From saying that he would never ease off no matter how solid his lead, Cayard has been happy to surrender the Volvo leg trophy this time. His task was to concentrate on controlling second overall, Gunnar Krantz in Swedish Match, and this week he said the fluke weather conditions could bring them in first and second, or next to last and last. Either suited him as long as they were together and Krantz had no chance to break away and put lots of boats between them, so narrowing the points difference on the leg.

The race for the big silver salver on this leg is between Paul Standbridge, restored to power on Dennis Conner's Toshiba, and Lawrie Smith, finding new force on Silk Cut. And the man who was dead last, John Kostecki in George Collins' Chessie Racing, could bag his third bronze medal slot. These three were pulling further and further away last night.

At the beginning of the week Smith played his first cards by going north and slipping back to eighth, tumbling nearly 200 miles behind the leader, Grant Dalton. Everyone was anticipating the "wall" of no wind sitting in the Atlantic about 500 miles from the finish. Smith made the big move 700 miles before that. Standbridge, who had been disputing the lead, eventually peeled away to engage Smith.

Smith's early move was brave. However well developed weather pattern prediction programmes have become, they are hard to trust with such a long lead time. But fortune has favoured his bravery and when those weather system cards were fulfilling the prophecy and being dealt again on Tuesday, the gap was down to 20 miles and Dalton was in a muck sweat. "All the betting on board is that Lawrie will win this leg," Dalton said. Other top navigators ripped up their own betting slips and started praying the lead horses would run into a ditch.

Dalton had been involved in his own strategy of protecting his overall third position by keeping himself between fourth-placed Knut Frostad in Innovation Kvaerner and the finish line. That he has done, but has slipped to fifth and lost the points which would have given him a crack at Krantz for second overall on the final leg to Southampton.

A win would not only give Smith two Volvo trophies but alter the mood of the Silk Cut campaign, and even second would make him fifth overall and give him a crack at a podium spot on the sprint into his home territory of the Solent and Southampton. The dismasting in the Southern Ocean when strongly placed to take the honours on leg five now looks more costly than ever.

The extra excitement in the French Atlantic sailing centre was over the performance of the all-women crew on EF Education. Last night they were still fourth and could yet improve. In addition to French skipper Christine Guillou, they have two of La Rochelle's finest in Isabelle Autissier and Christine Briand to give them local knowledge. And, in terms of all- women crews competing on level terms against men, this leg has consolidated a credibility that has been growing and growing.