Natural high forces Dalton to think radical

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The Independent Online

Psychology could play a large part in the next week of the Volvo Ocean Race as the fleet track south and past the island of Trindade, the second of two turning marks in this first leg of the round the world race.

The fleet have endured slow progress south to the Equator: the leaders were nearly three days slower to the first mark, the island of Noronha, that was passed midweek. And in that week, although distances between the boats have extended and compressed, there have been no actual place changes.

Normality was restored after SEB's sudden burst down the east side and since The Doldrums early last week, Illbruck has led, Assa Abloy has matched the leader's pace, followed by News Corp, Tyco and Amer Sports One. For the next day or so little is likely to change as the fleet steam south in 18-knot powered-up, reaching conditions, the nuances of the designs making the differences at the six-hourly position reports.

But then things will change: right now the South Atlantic High stretches across virtually the whole of the South Atlantic from Africa to South America, the light-wind zone threatening to engulf the leaders. The good news for those who will run out of food and diesel after just over 30 days is that the high-pressure system looks set to contract and move towards the north-east, allowing the fleet to skirt around its southern edge on a meandering and tortuous route towards Cape Town. The trick will be to ride the receding edge and minimise excess miles sailed while avoiding being swallowed by the yawning calm.

And this is where the psychology comes in. In the last race round the world the rookies Mark Rudiger and Paul Cayard's mantra was "short-term loss for long-term gain" as they pointed the bow of EF Language practically due south while the rest of the fleet turned knowingly east and cut the corner. EF Language arrived in Cape Town a day ahead of the nearest rival. In The Race, earlier this year, Grant Dalton's catamaran Club Med sailed a series of zigzags first east and then south as they tested the waters and nibbled around the edge of the high; ironically, the man sitting in Dalton's navigation station right now, Roger Nilson, paid a price that was never to be recovered when he took Innovation Explorer into the dead zone in an attempt to cut the corner on Dalton up ahead.

But while the fastest route to Cape Town is the ultimate goal, the mind games are playing differently in the tactical brains trusts on board each boat. Up front Illbruck and Assa Abloy have been sailing within around 20 miles of each other for nearly a week now and the temptation for them to mirror one another tactically will be difficult to resist.

At the other end of the scale, Grant Dalton and Roger Nilson on Amer Sports One are in touch in fifth with a cushion of more than 300 miles on the next boat, SEB, and a radical move could bring them big rewards at relatively modest risk.

The final shape of this leg is likely to be decided before the end of the next week with the boats due into Cape Town in the middle of the following one and such is the similarity in boat speeds that if no one plays a wild card then, barring damage, there could be little to be gained or lost.

The good news for those who lust for intrigue and uncertainty is that the temptation to try something radical is compelling and the fastest route to Cape Town is far from clear-cut.