Sailing: Fight on to escape humiliation and trap of breeze-snapping clouds

Grant Dalton, the skipper of Amer Sports One, has found conditions pushing his boat to the back of the fleet on the fifth leg of the Volvo Ocean Race
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The Independent Online

This has been a week from hell. Every black cloud that God ever invented has camped on our head at some time or another. I thought only Britain's Lawrie Smith attracted black clouds like that, so we seem to have taken over his mantle.

When I last spoke a week ago the eight of us were together, all in line. It was that night that everything turned upside down. A cloud came through and split the fleet like a machete slicing through a watermelon.

The effect continued and we are in the Doldrums while the leading trio zoomed away. They are going to be hundreds of miles ahead. For the last six degrees of latitude climbing north we have still been in the Doldrums with cloud after cloud. It has been horrendous and it has been humbling, very humbling. I know there has been lots of interest in the fact that we were at one stage dead last and our other Amer Sports team, the women on Amer Sports Too, were ahead of us. But we are back in front of them now and that means I will not have to fulfil my promise to walk up the main street of Auckland with no clothes on – plus other unquotable humiliations.

In fact, we are back up to fifth as I speak and our next target is SEB, but the top three are away and gone. While you should never say never in a yacht race, logic says that we cannot now catch illbruck, Assa Abloy and Tyco on this leg.

And, while I was saying last week that we were still fighting for first place overall, not protecting second, the way I feel at the moment is that, if illbruck makes this their fourth leg win out of five, then you can say they have it in the bag, even if there are four more legs to go.

It took until Baltimore for Paul Cayard to achieve that cushion in EF Language last time, so John Kostecki has done it in one leg less. For the rest of us it is probably realistic to say we are in a fight for second.

Right now, though, the pressure is on, especially for my navigator, Roger Nilson, and the tactician, Dee Smith. All the time there are people asking them "what do you want and where do you want us to place this thing". We know that the weather models do not always work and there is not enough detail in the satellite pictures to tell us how to work out where the clouds are and whether each oneof them will be a good cloud or a bad one.

I have seen others caught in the trap I am in now, but it has never happened to me before. Normally, over here on the west side of the Atlantic, you have an 80-20 chance of getting through the areas of calm which pulse through from the coast of Africa in a four-day cycle. Instead, we find we cannot escape the breeze-killing clouds; they seem to be travelling with us.

On the other hand, it looks as if Marcel van Triest, Gunnar Krantz's navigator on SEB, foresaw what might happen and managed to wriggle round it. Still we want to overtake them and aim for fourth place, which should keep us at least third overall going into the next leg, we may even still be second. So, there is a lot to play for and we are at last slowly clawing our way back.

The mood on board has been rather low at times. It is still very hot and almost impossible to sleep during the day. That makes things even tougher and you feel even more scratchy tired than in the Southern Ocean. If you can sleep at all, you wake up stuck to the side of the bunk. At the same time we have found we are not as competitive as we would like in under six knots of breeze, despite the addition of lots of new sails for this leg.

But the mood is also gritty. We have no breakages, no injuries except for a few sore bottoms, plenty of food, though we noticed that the pasta was being strained through a singlet as the proper implement had been left behind. We are drinking huge amounts and our heads are up. We want to beat SEB on the water, although I think the organisers should be looking at why they had a collision earlier in the race. Still, given the record so far on that front, I do not think we can expect too much. Staying in the game is what it is all about right now.

Grant Dalton was talking to Stuart Alexander

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