Sailing: Doldrums hold the final key

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REPLENISHED, repaired and worn out by a Brazilian carnival, the nine boats in the Whitbread Round The World Race are now embarking on a critical phase of the race. If no one can catch EF Language during the next three weeks on leg six as the boats head up the coast of Brazil, through the Doldrums and up through the Caribbean to Fort Lauderdale, it may be too late. Paul Cayard and his largely American crew leave here with a 96-point advantage, a margin that would not be entirely eroded even if Cayard breaks his mast during the next 4,758 miles and fails to finish.

But hopes are running high. As the boats arrived two weeks ago, their crews drained by a Southern Ocean battering followed by a week of light- air frustration, many confessed to being beaten. Now there is a steadier resolve. While Innovation Kvaerner's skipper Knut Frostad has admitted defeat - saying "we will try to finish in the top three" having led the race after two legs - others in the frame are warning Paul Cayard not to expect an easy ride. "If he thinks he's got it in the bag, it had better be a pretty strong bag," Gunnar Krantz, the skipper of Swedish Match, said.

Likewise John Kostecki, who came aboard Chessie Racing in Fremantle and got them on to the podium with a third into Sydney, said: "This race is not over by any means. There have been a lot of weird things happening in previous legs. Boats have won legs and then finished down the pack in others. A lot can still happen." Kostecki, who will partner Cayard in his AmericaOne America's Cup campaign, is likely to sail the rest of the race and could prove to be EF Language's biggest threat.

There is also a psychological game being played. Lawrie Smith, the skipper of Silk Cut, broke his mast in the Southern Ocean and has refused to divulge the reason for the failure to the crew of EF Language, who have the same design of mast. All of last week the two syndicates were at loggerheads with Team EF complaining that the British skipper was endangering the lives of their crew.

Cayard, however, remains confident. "We've got the best-built boat in the fleet and we're doing the right thing. We're still in the mood to try to win legs. I've seen a lot of people get into trouble trying to sit on a lead."

The next week will be critical. The predicted light downwind sailing for the next few days means the fleet is likely to diverge. After that the Inter Tropical Convergence Zone, better known as the Doldrums, lies in wait . The first boat through will most likely be first into Fort Lauderdale after the race across the Caribbean trade winds. Last time the race was won and lost on this stretch when Chris Dickson lost his mast on Tokio and Ross Field found the fastest way across the Doldrums for an unassailable lead. One can only hope that similar changes in fortune will bring this race once again to the boil.