Sailing: Favourites start to feel the heat

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The Independent Online
As the nine-boat Whitbread fleet leaves Sydney today on the 1,270- mile fourth leg of the Round the World Race, several of the key players know this short dash to Auckland may be their last chance to perform to pre-race expectations. The front group, led by Paul Cayard and EF Language, are not yet out of reach at the top of the points table, but unless the likes of Merit Cup, Silk Cut and Toshiba manage a podium finish at the very least, the gap at Auckland, the halfway stage, may prove to be too large.

The final week of preparation here in Sydney since Christmas, has been a week of soul-searching. Dennis Conner finally decided to sail aboard seventh-placed Toshiba on Friday saying "I'm perfectly happy with the way Paul [Standbridge] and the boys have been sailing the boat but I remember the Auckland welcome from four years ago and decided to treat myself to a sail." Nobody believed him and Standbridge was left biting his lip.

Over on Merit , Grant Dalton has brought on the New Zealand sailmaker and helmsman Tom Dodson, who he feels will help strengthen an afterguard that on paper is short of top-level drivers. Dalton is absolutely desperate to get into Auckland first. Merit Cup, one of the pre-race favourites, lies in fourth place overall. Similarly, the crew of Silk Cut know that it is time for action. Their skipper, Lawrie Smith, has bought some new spinnakers here in Sydney. "We have something to prove," he said.

The atmosphere around these pre-race favourites is different from the mood in the Chessie Racing camp, where George Collins and his team of rookies have the bit between their teeth after a spectacular third-place finish on the third leg. Collins, 57, will again sail aboard Chessie, as will the helmsman John Kostecki who helped mastermind the third place.

Morale is high both aboard Innovation Kvaerner in second place and Swedish Match in third. And up at the front Cayard is looking supremely confident. "What we have learned so far is that this race can be ours,"said Cayard last week.

All the crews came ashore from leg three completely shattered after spending the final three or four days on deck and racing hard. It was, they said, much tougher than the marathon of leg one or the Southern Ocean punishment of leg two where in both cases the fleet was spread out over several days. This leg promises to be tougher still: at around five days at sea, the temptation to keep people driving will be increased. In Sydney the fleet finished within two hours. The weather forecasters are not predicting anything particularly testing, though there is the possibility of a tropical storm, so it could be even closer in Auckland and the winner will be the team who maintain their concentration best.