Heat on as Silk Cut enters danger zone

Andrew Preece tracks a strategy for rescuing the reputation of Lawrie Smith's crew
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The Independent Online
BY TOMORROW morning the crew of Silk Cut will know if their Doldrum strategy has paid off. If they find themselves still in the lead when the Whitbread Round the World Race scheds come into their onboard computer on Monday, they will know they have a reasonable chance of winning this leg despite the fact that there are still nearly 3,000 miles to run to Fort Lauderdale. The past 48 hours have been nail-biting times for Lawrie Smith and his crew as they struggle to rescue damaged reputations from a Whitbread Race that has not gone their way so far.

The team left Sao Sebastiao a week ago with a new mast and a new resolve. The navigator Vincent Geake took them up the inshore track close to the coast of Brazil when the received wisdom said there would be more wind offshore. "I was happy that the wind was solid across the track," said Geake from Silk Cut. "And that being the case, there was less adverse current inshore."

Silk Cut has been leading for several days, a fact that confirms to the competition that the boat is as quick as Lawrie Smith had always maintained. At the end of last week the lead was up to nearly 20 miles but as the weekend began this leg entered its most testing phase as the boats rounded the corner of Brazil and into the windless Doldrum zone. For a while on Friday night Toshiba, which had crossed behind Silk Cut and on to a southerly inshore track, registered a small lead over the British boat but by yesterday Smith and his team were back ahead. "We are pretty happy with our track around the corner and into the Doldrums," said Smith from Silk Cut. "But with the fleet spread laterally across nearly 100 miles and with only 40 miles between first and last, there are boats all around threatening to spring us."

Only the best possible course over the next day or so will do. At Whitbread headquarters the weather team reckon the boats may not completely stop. The windless zone, they say, is very narrow. If this is the case it will not please Gunnar Krantz and the team aboard Swedish Match, who took a more westerly offshore route and have been a solid last behind the women aboard EF Education for several days; the Education team have suddenly found themselves carrying the world-wide mantle of women's sailing after the loss of Tracey Edwards' mast in the Southern Ocean last week.

The Swedish Match logic - to sail further but to get north faster into the North Atlantic Trade Winds that lie north of the Doldrums - will be confounded if Silk Cut and the boats inshore sail right through and into that new breeze.

But nobody knows. Not the Met Office in Bracknell, which issues the weather files to the boats, not the teams' weather experts, who sent them to sea a week ago with a plan, and certainly not the skippers and navigators on board. All of them know that with reasonable certainty the wind will blow at a cooling 20 knots from the north-east once the boats are into the Caribbean Trade Winds, but certainties in the hot zone right now run at less than 10 per cent.

"We`re up around 100 degrees in the nav station right now and we're both dripping sweat with the heat and the worry," says Geake as he and Smith monitor data. The scheds tell one story with Toshiba nearly three miles behind, Brunel eight, Chessie 10 and the race leader EF Language nearly 11. "It's when you see it on the chart that you know that you need to be exactly right," Smith says. "Because we've got boats to the left and boats to the right and if we don't sail precisely the fastest course over the next two days we'll be passed from one side or the other." Anxious moments indeed.