Sailing: Concluding episode of the odyssey: Whitbread Round the World Race embarks upon sixth and final leg today, crossing the Atlantic to the finish line in Southampton

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THERE is much still to fight for as the 10 Whitbread 60s and four maxis start the last leg of the sixth Whitbread Race off Fort Lauderdale, Florida, today.

Many predicted that some would have fallen by the wayside by now, knocked out either by gear damage or financial failure, but all are likely to return in one piece to Ocean Village, Southampton, nearly nine months after they started.

The only absentee is the Spanish maxi, Fortuna, dismasted after only 24 hours. It proved a blessing in disguise for the skipper, Lawrie Smith, who then took over the European W60, Intrum Justitia. He promptly won the second leg, pushed up to second overall and had the race in his grasp after Chris Dickson's Tokio was dismasted on the fifth leg to Florida, only for Ross Field's Yamaha to steam past into a 10 1/2 -hour class lead.

Field knows that Smith will now throw everything at him, that Dickson wants to win the final leg just to prove a point - he is more than eight days behind and cannot win the overall race - and that Grant Dalton, skipper of the maxi NZ Endeavour and in the overall lead, wants to claim he is the fastest around the world.

There are plenty of opportunities for things to change. The yachts have all suffered structural damage over 28,000 miles. They are fatigued and more prone to failure.

The navigation is also tricky, because of the huge influence of the Gulf Stream, which can provide a fast track for those who can stay in its centre where it is warmest and flows fastest, sometimes at more than three knots.

And at the end there is the English Channel - fiercely tidal and given to patches of light wind. If a leader is caught by a foul tide and little wind there is little to be done except anchor and watch while someone else forges ahead.

In between, the yachts will go far enough north under Newfoundland to sight ice, so they can pick up high winds from the low pressures which develop there. They could even threaten Smith's hold on the world record of 427.8 miles in 24 hours. But if they stray too far north, they could be beating into fierce headwinds instead of running before them.

'We will be pushing the boat hard on the last leg. We are going out to win,' said Smith, who knows he may already have done enough to attract a major sponsor for a British campaign next time.

For Smith and the Whitbread 60s, specially developed for this race, this is the end of the beginning. The new flyers will be the only class next time and, despite some teething problems over the construction specification, they have proved their worth.

Today is also the beginning of the end for the maxi yachts. They will be dropped for the next Whitbread, the seventh, though they may find new life as big-boat class racing on their own. Also leaving are two of the race's main sponsors, Heineken and BT.

WHITBREAD ROUND THE WORLD RACE Overall: W60s: 1 Yamaha, 107day 17hr 57min 35sec; 2 Intrum Justitia, +10hr 26min 02sec; 3 Galicia '93 Pescanova, +1day 2hr 46min 30sec; 4 Winston, +1:19:07:34; 5 Tokio, +8:02:45:46; 6 Brooksfield, +8:09:31:16; 7 Heineken, +10: 22:19:09; 8 Hetman Sahaidachmy, +13:12:30: 30; 9 Reebok (formerly Dolphin & Youth) +16:19:31:21; 10 Odessa, +34:16:56:54. Maxis: 1 New Zealand Endeavour, 107:06:14: 16; 2 Merit Cup, +18hr 20min 56sec; 3 La Poste, +3:10:04:43; 4 Uruguay Natural +21:04:35:47.

(Photographs and map omitted)