Sailing: McDonald builds up his strength

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If Neal McDonald took his responsibility for the care of his crew seriously before the start of the first offshore leg of the Volvo Ocean Race from Vigo to South Africa - and he did - he is showing even more concern now.

Standing behind all the wives and families on the dockside of the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront for the breakfast-sunshine arrival yesterday was David Powys, his shore manager, and 500 metres away was a crane to lift out the 70-foot Ericsson, the boat McDonald is skippering in the race, for a damage inspection.

Most of McDonald's many problems over the 6,400 miles had been with the hydraulic system that swings the keel from side to side. Losing a vital sail early on - and damaging the rudder - had not helped improve his fourth place but, having won the prologue inshore race and come second round the stage gate of Isla de Nor-onha, off Brazil, McDonald is second equal with Torben Grael's Brasil 1, just one point off the leader, Mike Sanderson, in ABN Amro 1.

The next leg, which starts on 2 January, is through the gales and endless rollers of the Southern Ocean. Not a time when he wants to make vital repairs.

While McDonald is confident enough in the boat's overall condition to ask the crew to step straight back on board today to look at some new sail designs - an area in which he is playing serious catch-up - the craft then comes out for 10 days.

Special permission has to be obtained to change the interior structure and design, and applications are being made by four of the seven teams to do just that.

Paul Cayard's Pirates Of The Caribbean is locked away in a repair shed, Bouwe Bekking's entry movistar has had major surgery, Ericsson will be beefed up and even Brasil 1, which had no structural problems, has applied to make changes ahead of tackling one of the most hostile and desolate marine environments on the planet.

But the greatest contribution to safety may lie in the way the skippers and crews handle their boats.