Sailing: Dalton holds on for slender home victory

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The Independent Online
New Zealand was on tenterhooks yesterday as a grandstand finish unfolded over 75 nail-biting miles with four boats fighting to win the fourth leg of the Whitbread Round the World Race. Auckland then erupted in celebration as Grant Dalton, the local man, hung on to a slender half- mile lead to win on Merit Cup, pounding home into the teeth of a 25-knot south-westerly in a bumpy Hauraki Gulf.

As the 1,270-mile leg from Sydney ended, Dalton prevailed by three minutes after being chased every inch of the way by Dennis Conner, whose Toshiba was flying a protest flag against a so-far unnamed rival. But the America's Cup veteran could not shake the Kiwi's nerve and had to settle for second.

Paul Cayard's EF Language had slipped from second to fourth behind George Collins' Chessie Racing after going east of the Hen and Chicken Islands, but retained the overall lead. The win pushed Dalton up to second overall, but the sixth place ground out by Britain's Lawrie Smith knocked Silk Cut down to seventh overall.

Dalton had been there before. In the last Whitbread he engineered a last- gasp win into the City of Sails, pipping fellow New Zealander Chris Dickson by two minutes 12 seconds.

The leading boats had been locked in a 24-hour, non-stop struggle for vital points and places after the weather gods turned off the fan at the northern tip of New Zealand. All night, full crews were on deck in the relentless battle for advantage.

All anyone had gained was thrown into the melting pot as the fleet leaders began a 220-mile dash down the east coast of New Zealand. The first to suffer was the skipper who had established what looked like a reassuring lead. Gunnar Krantz, in Swedish Match, could only watch as he ran into a calm spot off Cape Reinga while Conner held the breeze to sail through. Conner's thrill was short-lived as Dalton and Collins crept past him. Krantz finished to fifth, but remained to third overall.

"As we approached North Cape, the wind died everywhere except right on the beach," Cayard said. "Merit Cup recognised this and she and Chessie cut inshore and passed a floundering Swedish Match and Toshiba. We followed Chessie and Merit, passing Match and closing on the pack."