Sailing: 'Free Willy' breaks loose to overturn Ericsson

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The Independent Online

A massive bang just after midnight yesterday signalled the end of any further serious competitive racing for Neal McDonald and the crew of Ericsson on the first leg of the Volvo Race from Vigo to Cape Town. He is the fourth of seven starters to be hit by damage.

"I thought, 'What the hell was that?', slowed the boat and went into damage-control action," he told the duty officer at race headquarters between Southampton and Portsmouth.

He then heard someone shout: "We have a Free Willy on our hands," which meant that the six-tonne keel, usually held in place by hydraulic rams, was swinging out of control from side to side. "Willy" refers to the shape of the lead bulb at the bottom of the keel fin.

The boat had been making a fast 20 knots through the water and revealed no obvious damage. McDonald ordered the boat back on course, but was immediately flattened, "practically capsizing", he said.

McDonald had to throttle back for the remaining 1,000 miles to South Africa, denying him any chance of overhauling Torben Grael in third place on Brasil 1.

Out in front, Mike Sanderson's ABN Amro 1 should cross the finish line tomorrow to take the maximum seven points.