Sailing: Kostecki starts to feel the chill breeze of real competition

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The Independent Online

A last-ditch shoot-out in the approaches to the finish line in Auckland has breathed new life into the Volvo Ocean Race as the event reached its spiritual home in New Zealand.

The leg was tied up by Neal McDonald's Assa Abloy on Thursday afternoon (UK time), the depleted crew of the Swedish entry holding Grant Dalton at bay for long enough to deny Dalton the chance to play to his home crowd. Dalton's second took Amer Sports One team to at least second equal in the overall standings, depending on whether Jez Fanstone's News Corp could finish third.

But what came next brought better news for Dalton. Illbruck and News Corp had been within sight of each other for days and as they fought for third place down the north-east coast of New Zealand, they gave Tyco the chance to roll the dice and split away. With just 10 miles to the finish and a cushion of 15 miles to the sixth-placed boat, Tyco gybed away and sailed around the duelling pair and into third place. Illbruck skipper John Kostecki then kept News Corp at bay to finish fourth and give Dalton second place overall.

The good news for the fleet is that Kostecki's green German boat can be outsailed. The Illbruck afterguard admitted to mistakes a week ago that cost them the leg lead going into the pit stop in Hobart and again on the blast south down the coast of New Zealand to the finish. And the opposition think they may have found weaknesses in Illbruck's performance curve.

Though the race leaders enjoy a comfortable, if not cushy, lead at the top of the table with six legs to go, Amer Sports One and News Corp are in touch at three and five points adrift and Assa Abloy and Tyco promise more to come as Tyco recover from their retirement from leg two and McDonald settles into his new and increasingly secure position as skipper.

"If you'd told me before the start in Southampton that we'd have had two second places by Auckland I'd have said you were mad," said Dalton who expects his sail programme to be significantly upgraded before the restart for the leg to Rio on 27 January.

But as the top group dream of toppling the previously imperious Illbruck, in the Scandinavian quarter there is considerable unrest. The Swedish SEB crew retired from this leg with rudder damage and languish in sixth, one place ahead of the Norwegian Djuice Dragons, who have failed to impress. "We have a knife against our throat for the rest of the race," said SEB skipper Gunnar Krantz.

"We're going out on the Hauraki Gulf on Sunday with our other Juice boat to work on our gyb-reaching speed," said Djuice's Knut Frostad.

As the upgrading and wound-licking continued ashore in Auckland, Amer Sports Too arrived around midnight on Saturday night local time as the final finisher for the third time in succession. Lisa McDonald's all-women crew suffered a broken forestay and a damaged rudder in the Sydney-Hobart phase. The delay for repairs cost them two days and extinguished any hopes of making an impression on the upper echelons of the fleet.