Sailing: Cayard prepares for the last laugh

Andrew Preece in La Rochelle says the battle to be second will be to the death
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The Independent Online
WHEN Paul Cayard and the crew of EF Language arrive in Southampton this afternoon, they will be officially crowned as winners of the Whitbread Round the World Race. Cayard and his team have known they would collect the trophy for a week since arriving in La Rochelle at the end of leg eight with their only mathematical rival, Swedish Match, behind them and out of contention. But despite being unbeatable, they have had to wait until today to lift the crown.

As Cayard and his crew were battling mid-fleet last night in the light airs off the north-west coast of France, they were happy to get racing properly again. They have been looking over their shoulders for some time now.

"It seems like we haven't been racing for a month," said bowman Curtis Blewitt. "Since Lauderdale we've just been going around camping on Swedish Match to make sure they stay behind us. Rudi [navigator Mark Rudiger] was going crazy on the run into La Rochelle, knowing he wanted to do something different but having to sit around in fifth and sixth position just to stay ahead of Swedish Match."

Last night, EF Language was battling with eight other boats as the fleet compressed off Ushant in light northerly winds. Cayard left La Rochelle saying: "We started something pretty nice when we led the fleet out of Southampton last September and even though we've won the race we're looking to finish it the same way by winning the final leg."

Cayard's only concession to certain victory has been the fact that Marco Constant is still on board. Constant, a trimmer and sailmaker, fell down the hatch and snapped his wrist on leg six into Baltimore. A key member of a crew who have hardly changed throughout the race, he is now out of action with his arm pinned in four places and in traction.

The fleet poured out of La Rochelle on Friday with a weather forecast predicting light and patchy winds, ideal conditions for boats like Silk Cut and Chessie Racing who will need some luck if they are to elevate themselves to podium level.

The first night at sea gave the sailors a bumpy ride with typical Bay of Biscay winds of 25 knots. The crew of Kvaerner, which led off the start line, were in eighth place as they patched their split mainsail while Brunel Sunergy took the lead on an inshore track passing the boats out to sea stuck in lighter airs.

If some of the excitement of this final stage has been diluted because the winner of the Volvo Trophy is already established, the battle for second and third could not be more open. Late last night, less than seven miles separated Brunel in first and EF Education in ninth with the permutations for the final podium anything but settled. With EF Language and Silk Cut leading for a while, the spread behind gave Lawrie Smith some hope of third overall while Grant Dalton aboard Merit Cup was sufficiently ahead of Swedish Match to have a sniff of second.

The conditions in the English Channel last night will have been critical and if the predicted light north-easterly winds prevailed, then the minor places in this race will indeed have been settled almost within sight of the finish.