Sailing: Ugly sailing as our boat comes of age

Grant Dalton, the skipper of Amer Sports One, celebrates the new year in a rough Tasman Sea as the Volvo Ocean Race fleet nears Auckland
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The Independent Online

Well, the first day of 2002 may have dawned bright and sunny at home in Auckland but out here in the Tasman Sea it was a bit messy. We have been experiencing some ugly sailing in this third leg of the Volvo Ocean Race from Sydney to Auckland, lots of bunched-up waves, and plenty of sail changes. The boys are very determined, but they are also quite tired.

Well, the first day of 2002 may have dawned bright and sunny at home in Auckland but out here in the Tasman Sea it was a bit messy. We have been experiencing some ugly sailing in this third leg of the Volvo Ocean Race from Sydney to Auckland, lots of bunched-up waves, and plenty of sail changes. The boys are very determined, but they are also quite tired.

We are just hanging on to the edge of the weather system in which Assa Abloy is scampering further and further away from us, but at least we, too, have been carried away from the three chasing boats behind us.

It has even been a bit foggy and we have been able to do nothing to stop Assa building what I expect to be a huge lead by the time they reach Cape Reinga at the top of New Zealand's North Island.

So I am resigned to the fact that, having led the fleet into Auckland in the last two rounds of the world races, the best I can hope for is second this time. It is still too early to count any chickens, but we have a pretty healthy lead over the others and if I was to pick any boat that would beat us then Assa is the one I would have chosen.

Even if we do cross the line second then we will almost be coming of age in this race. I always expected it would take us the first three legs to Auckland to feel we knew the boat well enough and to be extracting her full potential. Finally we saw some of that as we were leaving Hobart in close company with Kevin Shoebridge, who I think has a fast package in Tyco.

At first we were both sailing upwind and we had no difficulty holding him. Then the wind freed us so we were power-reaching and they passed us. We made some adjustments to the way we were setting the sails, climbed up on her hip and were able to pass them back. We had never been power-reaching alongside someone like that and for a moment there I thought we were short of pace, but in the end it shows that we can also be quick in those conditions.

We know there was a little luck involved when we caught up going into Hobart in Tasmania and our hold on second place has as much to do with the route we chose as any superior performance. We had lost some time very early on when the water ballast system burst, but we suffered only a ripped jib in the waterspout incident. I have seen things like that before off Kawau Island, but never as big.

I am glad I am not on SEB, whose rudder failure combined with a mediocre result on the first leg cannot make them happy. And I am very glad I am not on djuice. They particularly have a lot on and are also staring at two bad results out of three, whilst the middle finish was only in mid-fleet.

Illbruck needed to be beaten and it looks like they are going to be bested unless something weird happens. The wind strength may be a bit erratic – it has just dropped five knots as I am talking – and the distances between us will vary. But we should have wind all the way to the top of North Island and then, as long as there is no repeat of the kind of calm patches which cost Gunnar Krantz his lead in the last race between Reinga and North Cape, we should have a straightforward run down the east coast of New Zealand to the finish.

There are no real tactical options open to us now and they shut down even further at that point. Which may be a good thing. Then I will be able to relax slightly and that would be welcome. The back problems I picked up at the end of the last leg, when I was thrown about below decks by a wave, continue and I am constantly aware that they are there. But I am taking medication and I think I am operating at about 90 per cent already.

We will probably be ecstatic being second for the second time and moving to second overall. There are still some important miles to do before that on this leg and there are six more legs before the finish of the race. But to be second overall would be exceptional. We are getting there.

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