Sailing: An overdose of Southern discomfort

The skipper of Merit Cup says feeling unsafe was the normal state on the latest relentless leg of the Whitbread
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IN THE Southern Ocean, if you're not feeling unsafe, you're not sailing hard enough. That means if you are not sailing right on the edge of being totally out of control, you are being beaten.

It is this simple truth that makes this Whitbread so hard on crews, boats and sails. Prudence and good seamanship are not a serious concern when you are racing people like Lawrie Smith at 60 degrees south.

It is a measure of the intensity of the competition that an out-of-control mentality has developed since the start at Southampton last September.

On my four previous Whitbreads, I had never felt unsafe. I have had my moments, for sure, but not days on end of never being quite sure if a massive broach at 25 knots is just beyond the next wave.

The big mast-head spinnakers are 300 square metre in size. They capture a lot of breeze and can catapult a yacht through big seas at 30 knots in bursts and at sustained speeds of 20 knots.

It is impossible to stand on deck and sheets of water slam crew back to the extent of their lifelines. The yacht rises high on the wave then slams back into the trough.

In those sort of conditions, helmsman and trimmers have to work in complete harmony to keep the yacht perfectly balanced. They cannot relax for even a second.

A broach at that speed would probably break the mast, certainly shred the sail and depending where it happened, could put you out of the leg or even the race.

Silk Cut lost her mast in the Southern Ocean and she subsequently retired from the leg. What happened to Lawrie Smith and his crew could have happened to any yacht. There is no doubt that the yachts are strongly built. Crews have confidence in the boats and themselves, and know only too well that a safe night is a slow night.

Merit Cup arrived at Sao Sebastiao with the crew vowing never to sail again in the Southern Ocean. I've heard it all before. The combination of a bone-jarring, virtually sleepless trip to Cape Horn followed by a few days of no wind, then another vicious night on the wind and then more shifting, light breeze in hot, humid conditions had something to do with it.

Some of the younger ones will have forgotten their vows after a few days ashore.

The 2,000 miles from the Cape to Sao Sebastiao was frustrating. There was the added indignity of watching Brunel Sunergy and Chessie Racing, seeing what was happening to us, sail further east and go from 350 miles behind at Cape Horn to beat us into Sao Sebastiao by a day. We, Swedish Match, Toshiba and Innovation Kvaerner, too, lost something like 500 miles in 1,500 miles. That doesn't have much to do about boat speed, crew skill or even yacht racing. But it does have something to do with luck and the weather.

The media says we had a disappointing fifth leg. Disappointing for who? I wasn't disappointed. Neither were the boys. I thought we had sailed very well. Despite what our critics had predicted, we held on to boats that were proven heavy-weather performers.

There is a feeling through the fleet that leg one (31 days from Southampton to Cape Town via a couple of specks on the charts off South America) and leg five (27 days from Auckland to Sao Sebastiao) are just too long.

Not that these boys are wimps. They're professional yachtsmen who feel that there are enough regattas around to make a living without putting themselves through that torture again.

There is a need to put the fun back into the Whitbread. I have no answer, but somebody must find one.