The Whitbread game shifts from man against the sea to man against man when the third, 2,250-mile leg to Sydney starts here in Western Australia tomorrow. The amount of weather information crammed into the small acreage that is the Fremantle Sailing Club, where the boats have all been parked for their three-week stopover and makeover, is enough to keep a television station going for a week and send some reputations crashing for a few years.
The gurus have been flown in, the faxes have been humming, the phone lines have been hot, and all in pursuit of that little extra understanding about what is going to happen in the hard-to-predict Great Australian Bight.
This is not the heavy weather confrontation of the second leg from Cape Town, though the Bass Straits between Tasmania and south-east Australia can serve up some very nasty conditions, and if a southerly buster comes through at the right time to drive the boats up the east coast of Australia there will be some exciting times.
But the real tension comes from the combination of a points system that means there is everything to play for, instead of having to endure a near hopeless grinding down of hours, perhaps days, of lost time, and a track which does not allow so many gambles to be taken.
Going south for fresher westerly breezes could be just too expensive, and no one is expected to go round Tasmania, as they all would have done on the old route from Fremantle to Auckland. So the game should rest on having the right sails aboard and being able to combine the endurance of over 200 hours of continuous racing with the concentration of an afternoon three-hour thrash round the buoys.
Said the race leader, Knut Frostad: "I think there will be less chances than we have had in the first two legs to go for opportunities like those which arose, so probably there will be more of a speed race than we have seen before."
And so hope all of his competitors. Paul Cayard, lying in second place in Sweden's EF Language, expects his crew's day racing skills to come more to the fore on this leg. Third-placed Lawrie Smith is biasing his sail selection to performing well in lighter airs and is looking to improve on two fourth places so far. They can all carry 17 sails, two mains, seven spinnakers and eight jibs, but no one carries the second main, so all go with 16.
While Norway's Frostad has a 10-point lead on Cayard, that is only one place on this leg. But these two have a good buffer on Smith. The four places of third to sixth are covered by 11 points, in effect one place on this leg, and none of them are sure that they have any speed edge on another. It will be as easy to be sixth as first.
And that is if there is no improvement from George Collins' Chessie Racing, now he is on board with John Kostecki, or last-placed Brunel Sunergy, also with a new skipper in Roy Heiner. Christine Guillou and her all-woman crew on EF Education have a 24-point lead on Heiner, so he will have to beat them by three places to get ahead on a leg where Guillou feels the playing field is more level for them.
WHITBREAD ROUND THE WORLD RACE: Standings after two legs: 1 Innovation Kvaerner (Nor) 207pts; 2 EF Language (Swe) 197; 3 Silk Cut (GB) 168; 4 Swedish Match (Swe) 161; 5 Merit Cup (Mon) 158; 6 Toshiba (US) 157; 7 Chessie Racing (US) 132; 8 EF Education (Swe) 60; 9 Brunel Sunergy (Neth) 36.Reuse content