Cowes Week: A day of ups downs for Mandrake: Stuart Alexander joins the crew of a 50-footer chasing Cowes Week glory

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BLEARY-EYED and clutching polystyrene cups of murky, warm liquid, the valiant crew of the 50-footer Mandrake gathered at 9.15am yesterday in the tented section of the Island Sailing Club. It was time to limber up for the day's joust with their rival, Graham Walker's Indulgence, for the Bathsheba Trophy.

On one of the little boats which ferry the hordes to the lines of moorings, the skipper Jo Richards, the 1984 Olympic bronze medallist, says there will be a cast of thousands, but he will not know exactly how many or who they are until all are on board. He runs the show while on the helm is the former New Zealand Finn sailor, Graham Deegan.

The banter is still hesitant, feeble jibes about the length of time spent the previous evening in the beer tent, as the boat is prepared. The engine is started to charge the battery which runs all the electronic instruments, and to drive the boat out of the restricted area of moorings and into the field of play. From having plenty of time there is suddenly no time at all, the boat is jockeying for position on the start-line and Richards is telling Deegan: 'It doesn't matter where you are, just hit it flat out.'

But they are a good boat- length and a half behind the line as the gun goes and others, notably Indulgence, with Cathy Foster driving and Harry Cudmore talking, are away faster and driving down on Mandrake.

First blood to them as they cross in front and are to hold that advantage for a long time. The course takes the fleet, without any need to tack, first to a mid-Solent buoy and then on a short beat into the island shore. The only excitement is when the Irish boat, Storm Bird, tries to squeeze through the two, who both have right of way, causes Mandrake to head all the way up to avoid a collision, and then Storm Bird retires, her boom broken off the mast.

On the procession goes, around a buoy off Gosport and then out through the forts at Portsmouth to Bembridge Ledge Buoy. While the 15 on the weather rail of Mandrake watch quietly, except for Bruce Grant, who calls when gusts of wind are approaching, Indulgence is pulling away.

The deficit is attributed to a rather tired, heavy No 1 headsail and being slightly out of phase with the 14- to 17-knot wind which is tracking into the south. But the result is that, at Bembridge, Mandrake is a minute behind, which is more than she can afford.

On the spinnaker run down to Portsmouth the trimming is done by Sue Crafer, one of the Heineken crew on the last Whitbread race.

At the bottom mark the gap is cut to 52 seconds. A rather faster, medium-light genoa brings it down to 37 at the end of the next little beat out to sea, and by the time the yachts are back into the Solent on the second bit of spinnaker work they are four boat-lengths apart.

By the end of that long leg, at West Bramble buoy, the difference is 16 seconds, at the last turning mark, East Lepe, 10 seconds and at the finish just two seconds separated the two after nearly five hours of racing.

Both think they have won, in that Indulgence was first of the two 50-footers, and Mandrake, on corrected time, was 49 seconds ahead of Indulgence. Still not enough to beat Chris Little's Bounder of the Century, to whom the Bathsheba trophy goes. Then comes the cold shower.

After issuing the result the powers at HQ say they want to change things because they have decided the handicap ratings should be the same. It is enough to know that coming second may be nothing at all. Coming third is even worse, after being second, and also coming second to the boat you are racing against is positively painful.