Sailing: Computers and know-how sunk by the weather

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The Independent Online
Pundits and crystal ball gazers have all been made to look as much off the pace as the competitors in the first 10 days of the Whitbread Round the World Race.

Stuart Alexander explains how the weather has defied the cream of ocean racing.

A fast race with the 10-boat fleet bunched all the way round was how the Whitbread was supposed to turn out. Instead the multi-million pound yachts are spread over 200 miles of sea from east to west, with 427 miles the distance from the leader to the back marker.

The favourites were Chris Dickson in Toshiba, who is now furthest east of the top contenders, and Britain's Lawrie Smith in Silk Cut. But where do we find them? A long way behind in fifth and sixth places.

The new generation of W60 boats were expected to be significantly quicker than the boats which competed for the first time in 1993-94. Instead, they are well behind schedule and there has been talk of food rationing in order to avoid running out before the end of the 7,350-mile leg from Southampton to Cape Town.

In control has not been the prodigious line-up of racing talent, nor the know-how of some of the best navigators hooked into powerful computers.

The boss has been the fickle weather and light winds, though those who have followed the Royal Navy maxim issued in 1732, to go as far west as possible rather than sailing closer to the African mainland, seem to have benefited.

Innovation Kvaerner was leading by 40 miles yesterday and after her came Paul Cayard's EF Language and Grant Dalton's Merit Cup. But although they were well separated on the water, there was less than a mile in distance to the finish between the second and third boats.

Nor has there been much shuffling of positions, though the dice will again be rolled again over the next few days as the fleet chooses where, if not always when, it will cross the Doldrums.

Once through the Doldrums, there should be trade winds for days on end, but until then the underlying emotion will be anxiety, especially about being left behind in the sticky heat and unpredictable squalls.

Smith's mood was sombre as the leading boats, heading towards the Cape Verde Islands, ran into fresher breezes. "It looks like things may get worse before they get any better in terms of mileage lost," he said.

WHITBREAD RACE (First leg, 7,350 miles, Southampton to Cape Town): Latest positions: 1 Innovation Kvaerner (Nor) K Frostad 5,177 miles to finish; 2 EF Language (Swe) P Cayard +40.3 miles; 3 Merit Cup (Monaco) G Dalton +40.5; 4 Chessie Racing (US) G Collins +90.7; 5 Silk Cut (GB) L Smith +124.1; 6 Toshiba (US) C Dickson +193.5; 7 America's Challenge (US) R Field +205; 8 Swedish Match (Swe) G Krantz +212.2; 9 Brunel Sunergy (Swe) H Bouscholte +347.9; 10 EF Education (Swe) C Guillou +426.9.