Racing: At long last, we're ship-shape again

Gordon Maguire, watch leader on Silk Cut, is eager for a return to racing action
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THE Sao Sebastiao stopover has been one of the shortest in Whitbread history, not only for Silk Cut but also for the girls on EF Education. We had 11 days to prepare Silk Cut, including refitting a new mast, for leg six, whilst the girls had just over two days.

The mast saga has been a frustrating one for our shore manager, Howard Gibbons. Within a few days of losing our rig deep in the Southern Ocean, nearly 2,000 miles from land, he had managed to secure a container ship to bring the replacement from Lymington in Hampshire to Brazil. That, however, was the easy bit. Brazilian customs and red tape have been thwarting international trade for many years and there was no reason why the Whitbread should be any different. So it was with a huge sigh of relief that we gathered on the quayside just over a week ago to witness the delivery of our new mast, carefully wrapped in a 26-metre box bearing good luck messages from back home.

Once it was unwrapped we set to work that night. The heat and the humidity have been unbearable, restricting the hard physical work to the beginning and end of the day when the temperature dipped momentarily below 100 degrees. Within six hours of the mast arriving it was fully assembled and ready to be fitted. Although we had used it during our preparation in the Solent last summer, we still wanted to be sure that everything was in order. The first fitting was perfect. Then followed the detailed inspection, checking and rechecking of every one of the several hundred individual and specially engineered parts.

Meanwhile, the sail makers have been busy preparing the wardrobe. We have replaced those sails which were damaged beyond repair when the rig came down - a spinnaker staysail, masthead spinnaker and mainsail. Several of the new sails were delayed in customs and arrived only a matter of minutes before they had to be submitted for measurement, to ensure they conform to the rules.

But we have made it to the start line in good shape. All the repairs have been completed and we even managed to have a day off. Our crew is unchanged. Even though a couple of the boats have opted to go with 11 crew, we have stuck to our guns and are sailing with 12 because the hot sultry conditions we will experience around the Equator can sap the strength just as much as the severe cold.

We have made one small concession to the heat - a series of small fans which will help circulate the air below decks. We will be taking a minimum of personal kit - one T-shirt and pair of shorts only. We will have to take slightly more diesel than normal as the desalination plant will be working overtime to produce enough water to keep us fully hydrated.

Leg six is predominantly a light-wind leg. We are therefore not taking any storm sails. The huge revolutionary "upwind spinnakers" will come into their own once again. We'll be taking a couple as well as a series of light-air spinnakers. The first few days will be very light and you could see all the boats very close indeed. Off the Brazilian coast there are quite a few windless holes and it could be a bit of a lottery during the first night. During the 1990 race our navigator Vincent Geake, sailing with Lawrie, managed to head offshore and build a lead of nearly 100 miles by the time they passed Recife, on the corner of South America.

We're all very excited about this leg. Above all it gives us an opportunity to prove just what could have been. Our goal is a podium position - we still dream off winning, but realistically that's dependent on Paul Cayard having a series of very bad results. A good podium position is still achievable.

From now on we're sailing every leg as an individual race. We can afford to be more aggressive. There is no doubt that Silk Cut is one of the fastest boats in all conditions,. The crew are more determined than ever and it's about time we enjoyed a purple patch.