Sailing: Feeling the frustration from full body abuse

Grant Dalton, Amer Sports One's skipper, is confident of success despite losing ground in the Volvo Ocean Race
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The Independent Online

I am not happy. Whatever any others think I may have gained by luck earlier in the race – and I dispute that – I have lost by misfortune on the fourth leg of the Volvo Ocean Race, from Auckland to Rio de Janeiro. I suppose what comes around goes around, but to have an 11-mile lead and the prospect of a second place 24 hours before the finish and then to see it all fall the pieces in the last eight, with the lights of Rio clearly visible, was very frustrating.

I am not happy. Whatever any others think I may have gained by luck earlier in the race – and I dispute that – I have lost by misfortune on the fourth leg of the Volvo Ocean Race, from Auckland to Rio de Janeiro. I suppose what comes around goes around, but to have an 11-mile lead and the prospect of a second place 24 hours before the finish and then to see it all fall the pieces in the last eight, with the lights of Rio clearly visible, was very frustrating.

When, finally, we did cross the line in fifth place I looked up at the famous statue of Christ the Redeemer and thought to myself: "Well, this time you were not my friend". It was a perfect result for John Kostecki, the overall leader in illbruck.

If they could have written the script themselves, they could hardly have hoped for better. It was born in heaven for them. They sailed very well and they deserved to win, but I have seen this movie many times so I am still confident of a happy ending.

But, to see a backmarker like Knut Frostad's djuice take second place, while ourselves, second overall, were knocked back to fifth, just means they were able to deepen the cushion between themselves and their nearest rival.

And all this at a time when there was another kind of paradox playing itself out. We had come out of Auckland calling for a better result, we sailed aggressively, and we were second round Cape Horn. So the result in the record books has masked our true performance. All luck apart, I was happy to say, when we were second into Cape Town at the end of the first leg, that our true position in the fleet, having started the campaign late, was probably about fifth. Now we are fifth into Rio and I believe our true position in the fleet has improved to second. I think we have arrived, we are OK now, we are on the pace.

It is easy to forget that, physically, this was a hell of a leg. There was a lot of ice, big winds and seas. My body was beaten up and I have lost weight, including a lot of muscle.

One of problems we all have to look for is the "fuse" effect of weaknesses in the boat. On the old basis that it is the weakest link that gives way first, the stresses have an unerring way of seeking that out. At times it has been rigging, or deck fittings, even masts. At the moment it may look as though the problem has shifted to rudders.

But, although I have yet to see the full details of what happened to News Corp on this last leg, as far as I can gather all three rudders that have broken so far have been for different reasons and the problem on the third leg for our own Amer Sports Too was to do with collision damage, not structural failure.

My own feeling at the moment is that the "fuse" which is blowing most consistently on this race is not equipment but people. I do not say that just because I had personal problems with a back injury after a fall on leg two. On the last leg, too, I have had a real problem with what used to be called trench foot – in both feet. A combination of pain and numbness has meant I have had to fly home to Auckland for a consultation yesterday with a circulation specialist.

But there has been a general problem throughout the fleet of niggling, and sometimes more serious, injury. The way these boats are being driven may be a testimony to the way they have been built, but that relentless pressure is transferring itself to vulnerable human bone and tissue. The problems are not just because the conditions are so tough, but because we are all pushing so hard.

Our whole watch system collapsed as the regular four on, four off all merged into each other. You just grabbed an hour's sleep when you could and meals were all out of joint. I've never had it happen like that, but it was because there was so much work to be done. At least that meant you just lived from watch to watch and the time went very quickly, but it was a physical encounter with a blunt instrument. Full body abuse.

That changes for the next leg to Miami, where Dee Smith will be back as tactician to work alongside Roger Nilson, our navigator, and Paul Cayard returns to San Francisco. We also have a whole load of new sails, which we hope will improve our speed again. But we need a good result and we have to skirt the Doldrums and negotiate the West Indies. We are not defending second; there are still five legs to go and we still want to be first. But illbruck has stamped the authority I believe to be important. We know the size of the task ahead.

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