Sailing: Dispute over distress call: Whitbread Race

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NEWS last night that Brooksfield, the Italian yacht at the centre of a dramatic search and rescue operation in the Whitbread Round the World Race, was due here today may help defuse the increasingly bitter squabbles casting a shadow over the second-leg win by Britain's Lawrie Smith.

An argument has arisen over claims that some yachts were ready to break a fundamental rule of yacht racing: that you must go to the aid of a competitor in distress. It has been said that two yachts, who no one named, were reluctant to go to the aid of Brooksfield.

The boats concerned are Yamaha and Galicia. However, Ross Field, skipper of Yamaha, and Javier de la Gandara, skipper of Galicia, have stated categorically that they would have been willing to go back.

In fact, neither was asked to because it made much more sense to race officials in Southampton and the duty yacht, New Zealand Endeavour, to send Dennis Conner's Winston and the French maxi, La Poste, skipperd by Daniel Malle. Both went unhesitatingly.

There is a second dispute which follows from an Italian newspaper asking why the Italians had been told that only one distress signal from Brooksfield had been picked up when, in fact, a series had been received. The race director, Ian Bailey- Willmot, said a misunderstanding of search-and-rescue procedures was to blame. 'Until there is something specific to tell people it is better not to go public,' he added. He admitted that four position fixes of a distress signal had been picked up by passing satellites.

He also responded to Malle's claim that Brooksfield's skipper, Guido Maisto, had turned the signal on and off just to reassure people they were alive. 'There is a good way of giving that impression. You switch it on and leave it on,' Bailey- Willmot said.

Today the problem passes, in part, to the international jury, who must decide how much time to give to the two rescue yachts in compensation for breaking off racing and heading south in vicious weather.

Winston's skipper, Brad Butterworth, has estimated a loss of 26 hours. Malle, who stood by Brooksfield during a 70-knot storm, makes it over 60. The jury's chairman, Marcel Leeman, will be under pressure to be encouragingly generous and wise enough to be just to the other competitors.

His first task will be easier. Chris Dickson, skipper of Tokio, is accused of demounting his radar, which is against the rules. If found guilty, Dickson could suffer a small time penalty, which may annoy him less than the theft over the weekend of his navigator's information-laden computer.

Promising up to four crew changes if funding can be found for the next leg, the Ukrainian skipper Eugene Platon finished in Hetman Sahaidachny yesterday, followed, at midnight local time, by Womens' Challenge.