Sailing: Dickson aims to make 60s swing: The crews depart from Uruguay today on the daunting second leg to Fremantle through the Southern Ocean. Stuart Alexander reports

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The Independent Online
A JOURNEY into the unknown begins today in Punta del Este, Uruguay, as the 14 (or will it be 13?) yachts in the Whitbread Round the World Race set out on the perilous second leg to Fremantle, Western Australia.

Lawrie Smith is back in the race as skipper of Intrum Justitia; the Women's Challenge, now led by the American Dawn Riley, is back in with a clutch of Maiden veterans, while the Ukrainian skipper, Anatoly Verba, refuses to accept that Odessa will not start with the others, even though he has daunting financial problems and was still recruiting crew on the dockside until the last minute.

Although the first-leg time advantages are a comfort to the leaders, the boats are now so fast they can pull back deficits in chunks at a time and they all know that the ever-present threat of gear failure can turn everything upside down.

The leg poses two completely new questions. How will the new breed of racing yachts perform in conditions which can be as wild as anywhere in the world? How will the crews, who are operating at a wholly new level of intensity, cope with the extra physical demands in an environment that is unremittingly hostile?

No one knows, because this is the first time that the boats will have raced in this way, even though this is the sixth time that the first Southern Ocean leg will have enthralled those watching at home and, at times, scared the living daylights out of those taking part.

The three new maxis, the leader Grant Dalton in NZ Endeavour, Pierre Fehlmann in Merit Cup and Daniel Malle in La Poste, have all made their boats lighter and more powerful. Push things too hard, though, or lose concentration at a vital moment, and years of work and millions of pounds of investment can be instantly wrecked.

The people need looking after, too. Especially on the new Whitbread 60s. The America's Cup skipper Chris Dickson leads the class in Tokio after the first leg and his bubbling enthusiasm for what has turned into a high-pressure style of racing will be resumed from even before the start today.

While Dickson insists that he is unconcerned about the maxis and wants to see the 60s given their own separate positions, instead of the two classes being mixed together, he would take great pleasure out of beating everyone into Fremantle. And Dalton, who knows the 60s and thinks they can beat the bigger maxis on this high-rolling downwind leg, is just as determined to be first overall into Fremantle, not just the first maxi.

Dickson stays with his crew of 11 while Smith, Guido Maisto on Brooksfield, and Javier de la Gandara on Spain's Galicia, all increase their numbers by one to 12. In contrast, Brad Butterfield, now in sole charge of Winston, is not replacing his departed co-skipper, Dennis Conner, and goes down one to 10.

'It's a hard leg, for sure, but I don't think it's harder with 10. To put it into perspective, Endeavour is going to sail this leg with 14 and they have got another rig (second mast) and about twice the amount of sails,' Butterworth said.

Which is fine until one of the crew is injured or sick. The pressure on the first leg was enough to make this Whitbread different to any other. The crews were all noticeably more tired at the end of it. Now they have to push their boats and themselves to the limit in big winds and seas, through bitter cold, constant drenchings from spray and a life below decks which is noisy, smelly, uncomfortable and forever damp. Reconstituted freeze-dried noodles are neither exciting nor psychologically comforting.

Above them the masts need constant nursing and beneath hang slender keels with five-ton bulbs suspended from the bottom. The motion of the boat is jerky, its ability to broach wildly ever-present.

But a second British skipper, Matt Humphries on Dolphin & Youth, is looking forward to it all. His vessel has new sails and new equipment, and he believes it will come into its own in the heavy conditions. 'I have every faith in my crew to push the yacht as hard as possible without taking serious risks,' he says.

The whole leg is a serious risk.