Sailing: All eyes on swift Smith

Feargal McCready in Auckland sees the world's best sailors head into danger
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NO ONE has yet made a decisive break, no one has an edge, and the weather is throwing a few curve balls, and yet the Whitbread Round The World fleet are watching Lawrie Smith every bit as carefully as the constant stream of weather information spewed out by their on-board fax machines.

The only unwanted break has been to EF Education's rigging. In 50 knots of breeze and the pitch black of night, the skipper Christine Guillou decided to drop the mainsail and sent Lisa Charles and Bridget Suckling up to effect repairs. All should be fixed by dawn and they will soon be back to full speed.

Which should be impressive. All nine boats, still led by Paul Standbridge in Toshiba, are now lined up for the Southern Ocean expressway that will take them to Cape Horn. It is not just the relative safety of turning the corner and making their way back up the Atlantic that will make the next eight days fascinating. Neither will it be the jostling for pole position as they begin the 2,000-mile strike north up to Sao Sebastiao in Brazil, nor the prospect of bagging as many of the points as possible on this, the heaviest scoring leg that most exercises the skippers' minds.

It is seeing Smith, lying fourth last night, continually position Silk Cut in such a way that he can once again produce the blistering performance for which he is so deeply respected in the most inhospitable seas on earth. As he reeled under 68-knot gusts last night on Innovation Kvaerner last night, Knut Frostad said his focus was on survival.

Smith is under no illusions about the need for a big result on this 6,670- mile fifth leg from Auckland. Seventh overall is not good enough and even maximum points will see him struggle back up only to a position from which he can continue to strike. But it will change the mood on a boat bewildered about why they were doing so badly. And it will serve notice on the others that a comeback is always possible.

Chris Dickson, who parted company with Toshiba in less than happy circumstances, is plotting a different comeback. Unable so far to find an America's Cup berth for the 2000 event in his home town, he is instead concentrating on a two-man Tornado catamaran, possibly with Olympic aspirations. He is leading the spring Olympic regatta at Mission Bay.

Another all-woman crew, led by Tracy Edwards on the 92ft catamaran Royal & Sun Alliance, should pass the Canaries today having completed 1,309 miles in the first four days of their attempt to break the record for sailing round the world non-stop. But they are now expecting light airs to slow their progress.

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