Sailing: The South Atlantic high is in the wrong place

The skipper of Merit Cup describes how the wind is playing more tricks than usual on the first leg of the Whitbread Round the World Race
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The Independent Online
After almost two weeks at sea and half-way through leg one, I would have expected a clearer picture to have emerged - who's fast and a threat and must be watched every step of the way, who's off the pace and in need of a miracle or two.

If normal weather patterns had prevailed, we would have had a pretty good idea by now. But first the light, shifting winds and now the south- easterly headwinds have denied us this vital information. Unusual weather is the story of the leg so far. All we have learned since we left Southampton is that you can't trust the weather.

Our navigator, Mike Quilter, still has a touching faith in the weather doing what it's supposed to do, in spite of mounting evidence that it doesn't. Those 20-mile losses in six hours, which we all experienced in the first10 days had nothing to with performance or crew, but just about the wind and where you happened to be on the ocean.

It's not helping us to get a handle on the opposition. Toshiba and Swedish Match, for example, cannot be written off. Silk Cut is hanging in there, uncomfortably close even though for days there has been 100 miles between them and the front three yachts.

The forecast is for more headwinds for the next few days. We are hoping that they will continue at least until we get to 35 degrees S.

Our current discomfort is brought about by the South Atlantic high. It's in the wrong place! It should be further north and to the east, giving us south-easterlies off the top of it. If it was further north and to the east, we would be reaching across the back of it towards the next mark and then running around the bottom of it to Cape Town. That's what we expected, but it's certainly not what we've got.

Whitbread 60s are not designed for this sort of work. They're built to sail fast off the wind and a beat really hammers both the yacht and the crew. The noise as we crash off the waves in this moderate sea is tremendous. The movement has to be seen to be believed. It's impossible to move about without clutching on to something. The rigs and sails are under immense strain, so the crew must keep an eye out for danger. In conditions like this, I worry about breaking something big and vital that will affect our chances of winning.

But there's always something to worry about out here. When winds are light and shifting, I worry that someone else is in a better breeze and getting the jump on us.

I have to say that we might have left the wrong boat at home. Most W60s - this boat in particular - are optimised for downwind sailing. We're not slow upwind, but it's certainly not our best point of sailing. I'm sure the other boat, which is wider and more powerful, and a lot faster upwind and reaching, would have been performing better in the sea conditions.

However, we are pleased that we have been able to hang on to Innovation Kvaerner and even make some little gains since we rounded Fernando de Noranho.

On paper, we should be losing a bit. Kvaerner has an L-shaped keel, which tank tests show is more effective up- wind. L-shaped keels tend to be bigger than the Ts. Merit Cup has a very fine T-shaped keel and small rudder (the smallest in the fleet), which produces less drag and therefore higher speed downwind.

We have to trade that off against our performance upwind. We're not surprised - just pleased - that we're hanging on upwind.

We have good speed downwind, but the best all round boat will win the race. You can't be bullet fast in some conditions and embarrassingly slow in others and expect to win the Whitbread.

WHITBREAD ROUND THE WORLD RACE (first leg, 7,350 miles, Southampton to Cape Town) Latest positions: 1 Innovation Kvaerner (Nor) K Frostad 3,031 miles to finish; 2 Merit Cup (Monaco) G Dalton +17 miles; 3 EF Language (Swe) P Cayard +22; 4 Silk Cut (GB) L Smith +147; 5 Chessie Racing (US) M Fischer +174; 6 Toshiba (US) C Dickson +357; 7 America's Challenge (US) R Field +393; 8 Swedish Match (Swe) G Krantz +422; 9 EF Language (Swe) C Guillou +592; 10 Brunel Sunergy (Neth) H Bouscholte +612.