Round the world UK yacht loses mast

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Disaster struck the British entry in the Whitbread Round The World Race yesterday when Lawrie Smith's Silk Cut was dismasted nearly 2,000 miles from Cape Horn. In the black of an Antarctic night, sailing fast in big, cold seas, it broke at its half-way point and came crashing down.

It was the second, heart-stopping problem in 30 minutes. First, the yacht had reported hitting what it thought was a growler, or semi-submerged iceberg, stripping a six foot by one inch layer of skin off the forward section of the hull on the starboard side.

The yacht was about halfway from Auckland to Cape Horn and being battered by high winds and big seas when the accident occurred.

Smith reported to race headquarters that the top half of the mast had broken off while they were blasting along in winds of 30 knots.

He said the crew were all safe and uninjured and there was probably enough of the mast still standing to be able to set up a rig to get them to the west coast of South America, which would involve cutting the sails down to fit the shortened mast and proceeding at a reduced speed.

The yacht asked for no support from the emergency services, nor for help from any of the other eight competitors in what is one of the most desolate and wild sections of the world's oceans.

Smith had been under considerable pressure to produce a big result on this fifth leg of the race, from Auckland to Sao Sebastiao in Brazil. Lying a disappointing seventh overall, he had said he needed a win to drag the big-budget campaign back into the reckoning.

So far, the highlight of his race has been setting a world record of 449.1 miles in 24 hours, on an earlier leg.

Yesterday Smith said: "We were moving steadily in about 28 to 30 knots (of wind), when there was a bang out of nowhere, and as the guys on deck looked up they saw the mast break. The surprising thing was that the break did not occur coming off a surf, but just at a random moment when nothing was really happening - we had the same rig up for several hours in a moderate breeze.

"We are assessing options at the moment. We currently intend to sail under jury rig to Ushuaia in the Beagle Channel, just inside Cape Horn, pick up diesel, and motor north, perhaps all the way to Sao Sebastiao, to take the new rig."

As frantic conversations were held with all the support services ashore, which are mainly in England, the project manager, Howard Gibbons, who is still in Auckland, said it was unlikely they would try to fly a new rig to either Ushuaia or Punta Arenas, as the airport facilities were unsuitable. Instead, the Southampton-based firm Peters & May were investigating the possibility of shipping the spare mast and rigging from Lymington to Santos, in Brazil, and replacing it there.

As well as picking up diesel, the yacht would be able to take on extra food, and it has its own desalination plant to make fresh water from salt.