Sailing: MacArthur's lead disappears as wind drops

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The Independent Online

All the hard-earned gains accumulated by Ellen MacArthur over nearly two months of slogging through some of the most hostile conditions on the planet were slipping, like the sands of time, through the open grid of her bruised and red-raw fingers last night.

All the hard-earned gains accumulated by Ellen MacArthur over nearly two months of slogging through some of the most hostile conditions on the planet were slipping, like the sands of time, through the open grid of her bruised and red-raw fingers last night.

The barrier is not mental or physical. All the effort in the world cannot combat the arch-enemy of any ocean-racing endeavour - adverse weather conditions. With the essential ingredient of wind power being cut to starvation rations, MacArthur could only watch and wait as what, going into Cape Horn less than two weeks ago, had been a lead of over five days in her attempt to set a new record for sailing solo around the world turned from eight hours in credit yesterday into a deficit overnight.

From being "bruised beyond belief" and feeling "like I've been beaten up", MacArthur's 5ft 3in body has been enduring some punishing treatment, sometimes as much on deck as in the treacherous climbs up the 30-metre mast.

Because it is so large, it is difficult to hang on to the mast and work at the same time. The higher MacArthur goes the more of a pendulum effect she has to endure and it is easy to be swung away from the carbon fibre tube, only then to be flung back into it as the boat rolls the other way. That is also how it is possible to trap a leg between the luff - the leading edge of the mainsail - and the mast itself.

On deck, the motion of the boat can be so jerky that it is only possible to move around on hands and knees, leading to repeated impact damage, especially to knees and elbows. Fall over and there is another bruise; put out a hand to save yourself and there is another cut for the salt water to attack.

In the equatorial heat, 30 miles west of the island of Trindade, off Brazil, she could at least report that she seemed "to have found some kind of inner peace" - a stark contrast to the fraught dispatches which have set the tone of a gruelling test of her remarkable determination.

Not all is lost. The comparisons being made every hour with the performance of Francis Joyon, who set the current record of 72 days, 22 hours and 54 minutes last February, show that he slowed significantly on days 60 and 61 of his attempt (which will be Wednesday and Thursday of this week for MacArthur), having been able to make much more direct progress up the south Atlantic. MacArthur has had to zigzag many more miles to make her way north and lost several hours when twice having to go up the mast to repair the track which houses the front of the mainsail.

With over 4,000 miles still to go and 15 days left on the clock, there are still the traps of the Doldrums to negotiate. But delays there seem to diminished at present, if the experiences of the leading trio in the Vendée Globe round-the-world race are any indication. And a fast run up the north Atlantic to the finish line between Ushant and the Lizard could see both distance and time recovered very quickly.

Vincent Riou continues to set the pace in the Vendée, but Mike Golding, after having to replace a main halyard that broke for the third time, is in third place just 40 miles off the silver medal position held by Jean le Cam. Golding could still take the top prize, especially if he has a trouble-free run over what is now less than 2,500 miles to the finish in Les Sables d'Olonne.

"With the new stronger halyard I have every confidence it will take me to Les Sables," Golding said. "It's getting harder. Vincent seems to be lucky and I'm unlucky. I'm spending my time catching, and he's spending his time leading."

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