Sailing: Thompson's on board for make or break leg

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The Independent Online

It has been a remarkable year for Brian Thompson, who came to the rescue of the Oryx Trophy race last February and won it.

He helped Mike Golding to second place in the Calais Round Britain Race in the Open 60 Ecover, with Neal McDonald alongside him, and then went on to push Golding to within 25 minutes of fourth place in the Transat Jacques Vabre.

Just before Christmas, Mike Sanderson asked him to fly to South Africa to join the crew of ABN Amro 1, which had just won, comprehensively, the opening leg of the Volvo Race.

Sanderson needed a top replacement for one of his watch leaders, Mark Christensen, who broke two small bones in his wrist and right forearm just before the start of the race.

Family man or not, Thompson packed his bags and took a flight which landed him in Cape Town on 29 December. Tomorrow he heads for the Southern Ocean for the third time in three years and, in his typical unpretentious way, says: "It's just a privilege. The boat is very well sorted so it's amazing to be asked to do this race and I am so lucky to be on the best boat."

Frenchman Sydney Gavignet will take over the watch leader duties, with the 43-year-old Thompson, from Southampton, splitting his time between helming and sail trimming.

This could be a make or break leg in more than one way. In effect it counts double points because there are two stage marks which count half points, one at the Kerguelen Islands, in the middle of nowhere, and one at Eclipse Island, off the south-west coast of Australia. Add to that full points of one per place in the seven-boat fleet and anyone winning all three sections could grab 14 points.

Sanderson took the stage points at the Isla da Noronha on the first leg before storming into Cape Town and setting a new world distance record of 546 miles in 24 hours along the way.

That record could be beaten again during the 6,100-mile blast through the Southern Ocean but there will also be a worry about breakdown, particularly of the hydraulic systems, which control the swinging keels of the 70-foot ocean racers.

While there could be a flat patch caused by the shadow of Table Mountain soon after the start, forecasts are for choppy work in the first 24 hours as the yachts dig south to pick up the conveyor belt of gale-force westerlies and 40-foot high waves.

As a further safety precaution, the fleet will be kept north of where the greatest ice danger is thought to lie. An iceberg 10 miles long and six miles wide has already been spotted on the track, but just as dangerous are the smaller lumps which can rip the bottom out of boats, especially when they are hurtling along at 35-knots plus.