Yachting: Drama of last dash keeps Merit on edge

Grant Dalton, skipper of Merit Cup, faces some difficult tactical decisions on the final leg of the Whitbread Race
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The Independent Online
WE HAVE got a great big problem. The final leg of the Whitbread, which started yesterday afternoon, we in Merit Cup knew would be a hugely tricky 450 miles for us. As if the tactical bind we are in was not enough, the vagaries of the English Channel are a minefield. And the points between the boats chasing Paul Cayard's EF Language for second place are so finely balanced that we could be in the silver medal slot in Southampton tomorrow or we could just as easily be fifth.

Which is great for all the people watching, and we hope the Solent will be full of boats, not just to mark the end of this race, but the end of the Whitbread as they hand over after 25 years to Volvo. But we would have preferred to be in Cayard's position, where things are sewn up. We thought we would be comfortable when we were leading the last leg across the Atlantic and had the two boats we wanted covered, Innovation Kvaerner and Swedish Match, safely tucked away.

We knew we were a bit vulnerable being on the southern side of the track, but those were the two boats we had to control. Then the weather arranged things so that the north paid in spades and Lawrie Smith in Silk Cut, joined by John Kostecki in Chessie Racing, came roaring through. I must have analysed my decision a thousand times. If I had it to do again, I would take the same decision.

Well done to Paul Standbridge for winning the leg in Toshiba. But his extra points do not matter. The danger we are facing is from Chessie, who are just 10 points behind us, and Silk Cut. The British have a rather tougher job as they are 33pts behind us, which means beating us by at least three places, maybe four.

But Smith and his men have probably forgotten more than we know about the way the English Channel works. And you can be sure they came out of La Rochelle smoking, fired up about a final place in the record books that will turn around the disappointments.

Which brings me to the problems. In theory, my only target should be to grab second overall from Swedish Match. In practice, I have to cover both Chessie and Silk Cut to protect third. In theory, I would like the wind to be a light, end-of-May south-westerly. In practice, it is a north- easterly between eight and 15 knots and swinging sometimes to north of west.

I would have liked the course to have had as many corners as possible, that would have done us a big favour. We haven't got that and it is going to be much more straightforward. We did not know the course, which has been designed to bring us all into the Solent late tomorrow morning, until 10 minutes before the start. But in midweek the weather charts were ruling out the option of taking us round Wolf Rock. So it is straight to the Fairway buoy at Poole and then a committee boat will tell us if there is a change.

In the end I am tempted just to go out and sail our own race. We, too, are pretty fired up. The rudder, which a whale took a lump out of, is fixed, the sails are in good shape, we know we are the boys with the problem, but that's what racing is all about. We can handle it.