Fleet spread as Volvo first leg nears conclusion

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The Independent Online

In a rough night for the Volvo Ocean Race fleet, a cold front swept over the eight boats, each in turn facing huge seas and vicious squalls.

While Torben Grael's Ericsson 4 rode the front, extending its lead to 76 nm from the American Keny Read in Puma and broke through the magical 600 nautical mile barrier, claiming yet another 24-hour world record, Fernando Echevarri, skipper of Spain's Telefónica Black lost a rudder, wiped off the bowsprit and damaged a daggerboard, cutting away the spinnaker in the process.

On Ericsson 4, medi crew Guy Salter, said: "It's not every day you get to have a ride as we have had over the past day or so, and to get a new 24-hour record has been superb, but the reality of that feat out here hasn't really sunk in,". But it was a different story on Ian Walker's Green Dragon as he slipped down the leader board.

"I don't really know where to start as the last 24-hours has been so incident-packed," wrote Walker, after the 70-foot yacht hit something hard in the pitch dark.

"There was a deafening crunch and the boat went from 25 knots to a virtual standstill. Neal McDonald, who was helming, smashed into the wheel and everyone else fell over," he said. The crew inspected the hull, foils and keel for damage but reported that all seemed fine, apart from a huge vibration which later cleared itself.

As daylight broke, and the crew were tiring, the Chinese-backed, Irish entered Dragon buried her bow so hard that a spinnaker became stoved in the pulpit and forward stanchions before ripping to pieces. "The Green Dragon is wounded, but far from slain," said Walker. The team was in fourth place, 266 nm behind the leaders Bouwe Bekking, skipper of Telefónica Blue.

"The last 24-hours we have been hanging in, not only sailing-wise, but you can see that less sleep is taking its toll," he said.

After the close racing of the previous two weeks, the last two days of wild sailing has caused the fleet to spread out, with 458 nm separating first to last.

Green Dragon and Telefónica Blue have both taken a dive south, while Ericsson 4 leads Puma and Anders Lewander's Ericsson 3 in the north. Team Russia, in seventh, and Delta Lloyd, eighth, are also to the south, while the wounded Telefónica Black limps, with an emergency rudder, midway between the split fleet.

With the 1,000 miles to the finish marker in sight for Ericsson 4, computers were predicting a Sunday mid-morning arrival, but there are still challenges to be faced in the approach to Cape Town and the end of this 6,500 nm opening leg.

Race forecaster Jennifer Lilly says that winds easing to the mid-20s, would be down further to late teens on Friday and finally fall to around 10 knots over the weekend. She says the fleet is expected to slow as it approaches Cape Town, but it looks possible that the leaders will slow more than the chasers. "The question on everyone's minds will be: how much can the trailing teams gain," she said.

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