Sailing: Cayard looks back in hope

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The Independent Online
THE next three days will be watershed days in the Whitbread Round the World Race for the Volvo Trophy as the fleet grind out the last stage of the fifth leg up the South American coast from Cape Horn to Sao Sebastiao in Brazil. With EF Language gone, more than 500 miles ahead and likely to finish at least two days ahead of the second boat, the order behind will determine whether Paul Cayard and his rookie Whitbread crew will walk the rest of this race.

Behind him, the group of boats locked in combat are having little time to reflect on the longer term implications of Cayard's runaway lead. The chasing bunch of boats - Swedish Match, Merit Cup, Innovation Kvaerner and Toshiba - for whom second place is now a crucial result if they are to retain a realistic chance of winning this race, have been within a few miles of each other for a week and trading places regularly as they have fought to make progress in patchy conditions.

Just about 10 miles separated Swedish Match at the head of from Toshiba at the back, but for the time being this otherwise compelling four-way battle has been upstaged by Brunel Sunergy, whose British navigator Stuart Quarrie has taken his boat around the outside of the embattled group, outside the Falklands, and into an 80-mile lead. It is the kind of margin that, given the right conditions, the hitherto lacklustre performer could hang on to until the finish.

But while that result would be rapturous for Olympic bronze medalist Roy Heiner and his mainly Dutch crew, in the broader picture Brunel Sunergy would be nothing more than a buffer between an increasingly invincible Paul Cayard and whoever winds up in second place overall when the results of the current crap-shoot are decided.

Whatever the outcome of the battle for second overall, Lawrie Smith and the crew of Silk Cut will be no more than observers from a distance over the next few days. The team arrived in Ushuaia, Argentina, early on Friday morning, happy to reach civilisation after nine days under jury rig after the top of their mast came crashing down. Their nine days of two hours on watch and 22 hours off has given them plenty of time to reflect on what now will never be.

Silk Cut looked a sorry sight as Smith and half the crew waved her away, jury rig improved, on the delivery to the finish at Sao Sebastiao. They have a race against time to get the boat to Brazil and a new mast fitted in time for the start of the next leg in three weeks' time. But not all hope is gone. The boat will cross the finish line in about 10 days' time in the hope that some points will be on offer for completing the course. But, as Smith pointed out: "Anything can happen. It did to us. Anyone can lose a mast. All we can do is to try and win the next four legs."