Sailing: Eyeball to eyeball sailing as the fleet puts on its sprinting shoes to New Zealand

Five days of non-stop action lie ahead for the skipper of Merit Cup when the Whitbread Round the World Race restarts on Sunday
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Five days with everyone sitting on the side to Auckland? There seems to be an expectation in Sydney that is how the fourth leg of the Whitbread Round the World race will unfold. Eyeball to eyeball sailing. A sprint of an intensity never before seen in the Whitbread.

There is a lot of truth in what they say, but five days on the deck rail? Forget it. You cannot live on deck for five days. We expect to get Merit Cup into the watch routine within a few hours of clearing Sydney Heads at the entrance to the harbour on Sunday, and that is how we want it to stay for the following four days.

Not that were expecting a leisurely cruise home. In front of us is 1,270 nautical miles of ocean racing that will be as demanding as any I have ever been in before. I don't think that we will sail the boat any differently than in the longer legs, even though there will be extra intensity in the crew work - like all hands on deck for sail changes.

Leg three from Fremantle to Sydney showed just how close the racing can be in these boats at this level. So, it will be a tough leg. In this sort of fleet racing, these guys are not here to make friends.

The leg to Auckland will not be as demanding tactically as the one to Sydney. Basically navigators draw a straight line between Sydney and the North Cape of New Zealand. Depending on the weather, your course will be north or south of the line, or even right down the middle.

However, there will be a right way and a wrong way. And that will be apparent as the fleet converges on New Zealand.

From North Cape it is down the east coast to Auckland. And, despite what the experts say, local knowledge doesn't count for much in the dash down the coast. The island is narrow north of Auckland and there is no sea breeze as such.

One thing is for sure, everyone will be on deck for the final 24 hours it will take to sail down that east coast.

A downwind leg would be great, but the chances of that are almost zero. It is more likely to be light to moderate, sailing either hard on the wind, or just cracked off on a tight reach.

The New Zealanders on board Merit Cup are keen to get home. Most of us have been away since late June or early July. Three weeks in Auckland will be wonderful. The leg into Auckland has a special place for New Zealanders. But in the back of my mind is the knowledge that it won't be easy getting there, and that is a worry for me.

I have been in some tight finishes into Auckland. In 1990, as skipper on board Fisher & Paykel New Zealand, we duelled with Peter Blake on Steinlager 2 right down that coast and he got the better of a squall just a few miles from the finish.

Then, in 1994, New Zealand Endeavour and Tokyo fought it out metre by metre to be first into Auckland. It is something I will never forget. It was well after midnight and there must have been more than 3,000 small boats waiting for the yachts. Some people in launches had followed us for more than 100 miles and, depending on who was doing the counting, 25,000 people were waiting at Viaduct Quay.

The breeze was light and fluky. My maxi's huge sails were barely filling and the finish line seemed so far away. More to the point, Chris Dickson and his Whitbread 60 Tokyo were between us and the line. Then we got a few puffs and took Dickson on the inside. It was a very sweet victory.

It was about that time that I started to get a reputation for tight finishes. But it is not by choice. When Dickson pulled out of this Whitbread in Cape Town, my first thought was that we would not be able to do a replay of that finish. We had been rather looking forward to it. However, this fleet is so tight, it will probably happen anyway.

For this leg we will have Tom Dodson - a renowned yachtsman with a string of international successes to his name - on board. When we were doing the planning for this round the world race, it was apparent that the shorter legs would require additional skills. Tom will also sail with us on the short legs from Fort Lauderdale to Baltimore and from La Rochelle to the finish at Southampton.

We are looking for a top three result on this leg. Fourth place in the last leg put us back in the running, but what we need are consistently good results from here on in.

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