Sailing: Whitbread Round the World Race - Weather eyes open as we leave the bad ju-ju behind

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The Independent Online
The third leg of the Whitbread Round the World Race, from Fremantle to Sydney, starts today. Merit Cup's skipper needs to engineer a recovery after a disappointing second leg left his boat in fifth place overall, but he still has faith in his crew and his strategy.

This has been a difficult stopover. Not because we had too much to do. More because we came through the last leg with very little damage and we have had too much time waiting impatiently to get underway again to erase the disappointment of being seventh on the last leg.

When you have taken a knock-down the natural thing is to get up and start fighting again. But we have had to wait for two frustrating weeks before we can throw a punch again. A mandatory eight count is bad enough. Fourteen days has been bloody awful.

Navigator Mike Quilter and I have analysed the strategies for the next leg over and over again as the boys have made good the little damage we suffered on the way over from Cape Town. But it is this morning, as we leave Fremantle Sailing Club for the start line, that we can square up again to the game.

Twice before the Whitbread run into Fremantle has been bad ju-ju and when I was here in 1986/7 with the New Zealand America's Cup team I was one of the tune-up crew. Fremantle is a great place and I can't wait to be away from it.

We have resisted the knee-jerk urge to make changes just because we had one bad result. We have confidence in the boat, the sails, and the crew. So why change everything? All the crews have been concentrating on weather and the choice of sails for a leg which will be a lot different from the previous two.

The options are fewer, the length is shorter, and once again the theory is that the fleet will be more bunched. Sooner or later that prediction has to come true. So there will be plenty of pressure and tension out there with the extra pressure on us being the need to bang in good result. In a way we are over the last one, but we won't really be over it until we are in Sydney with the target of a top three place achieved.

We are also aware that part of our hurt was based on old-fashioned feelings about the amount of time we were behind the winners. If we had been seventh by seven minutes instead of seven days we would still have scored the same points and it is points that decide the overall winner of this Whitbread/Volvo Race.

There came a point when we were so far behind that the race for us was over for that leg, and we sailed very conservatively for the rest of the time. This time the conditions are likely to be such that those behind will always have the chance to catch up, and those ahead will have to concentrate like mad to protect their lead. The general expectation is for a nine, maybe eight-day leg. We're taking enough food for 10 and are geared up to scrap every inch of the way.

One job I have not had to do is rebuild the crew in any way. They are far more relaxed than me and in Kevin Shoebridge I have a watch captain, boat-builder and sailmaker who would still be smiling and telling people to take things easy at the last trump.

But we know we have a lot of people in Britain, Italy and New Zealand who are looking for a big result this time and, of course, next. So this is when the structure of that team should be really valuable. Not as a collection of rock star individuals, but as a group of guys who can play really effectively for each other. And for their harassed skipper.