Sailing: Cayard proves the master ocean racer

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The Independent Online
WHEN Paul Cayard turns the nose of EF Language round the corner of Cape Horn today, out of the Southern Ocean and into the 2,000-mile hike up the Atlantic to Sao Sebastiao, Brazil, and the end of the fifth leg of the Whitbread Round The World race there will be no crowds in a grandstand to cheer him.

But, as surely as there is a throaty roar when a marathon runner lopes through the entrance of an Olympic stadium for a last lap to the tape, so a worldwide armchair audience should be applauding warmly and appreciatively.

A lot can still go wrong, of course, on those 2,000 miles of increasingly tricky breezes. The fifth leg of the Whitbread scores the most points because the organisers think the system should reflect the degree of difficulty. Right now, few would bet against Cayard picking up the 135 points on offer for first place, along with his third Volvo Trophy for a leg win. And that should line him up for overall victory at his first attempt in the ocean marathon.

He will also have shown that it is possible first to learn, at astounding speed, the ways of some of the most difficult seas in the world, and then to master them. And this, don't forget, in an out-and-out racing machine in conditions far more uncomfortable, and for longer, than any other in professional sport.

It is a far cry from the end of the second leg, when a chastened Cayard arrived in Fremantle in fifth place having tried to break everything on the boat and having seen the crew drive themselves to a standstill on the haul from Cape Town. Much heart-searching, analysis and planning followed, and Cayard wanted to show in his second Southern Ocean foray, not only that he had learnt but that he could beat the experienced hands. He has scored straight As, and some of the credit for that must go to the wise counsel of his right-hand man, Magnus Olsson.

By the time the fleet reaches Sao Sebastiao, the crews will have had a few days in the sun to feel better. Right now, however, they, and their boats, are battered. Marcel van Triest, the navigator on Innovation Kvaerner said he had never endured such tough conditions, even in 1993-94, when he was with Lawrie Smith on the world record-breaking run by Intrum Justitia.

"It has been extremely windy for two or three days," he said. "We have had over 60 knots, the conditions were brutal, survival conditions. Not life or death perhaps, but very rough."

Smith has retired from this leg after Silk Cut lost the top half of her mast, and he is leaving the boat along with rig expert Neal McDonald to make advance preparations for repairs and a new mast. The women on EF Education are also just limping to the southern tip of South America. The damage on Chessie Racing has slowed both boat and people. On every boat the battle has been gruelling.

The rewards for the second-placed Swedish Match and Cayard may be a lead they can both protect for the rest of the leg, as Paul Standbridge, in Toshiba, Grant Dalton, in Merit Cup, and Knut Frostad's Kvaerner scrap all the way for third place.