Sailing: Goss thankful for great escape: Stuart Alexander reports from Hobart on one yacht's four-day dice with dismasting in the British Steel Challenge

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THE bruised and battered brigade in the British Steel Challenge docked thankfully in Hobart, Tasmania, yesterday. Some prayers of thanks were almost visible above Hofbrau, the first home of the day and the third of the 10 that started from Rio de Janeiro more than seven weeks ago.

How skipper Pete Goss and the crew of Hofbrau managed to keep the mast in their 67-footer only the gods will ever know. They had a lucky escape. They also moved into second place overall, 21hr 27min and 21sec behind John Chittenden's Nuclear Electric at the halfway stage.

The 80-foot mast weighing a ton and a half has a gaping crack for nearly three-quarters of its circumference at deck level. A cat's cradle of tensioning ropes have been winched taut. Then some makeshift wooden chocks have been hammered around the mast where it runs through the deck to keep it steady. It had been trying to rotate. The boom was removed to reduce the leverage and a staysail replaced the main as a trysail.

The horizontal tensioning lines radiating at deck level from the mast were in addition to an earlier set slung over the first rigging spreaders to keep the mast upright when the forestay rigging screw broke, one of six such failures, the worst of which cost British Steel II a dismasting.

Hofbrau's rigger, Mark Steadman, worked 30 hours non- stop when the crack was noticed four days and 400 miles out from Hobart. He had not slept since. Just to make matters worse, the engine packed up as they were gingerly covering the last 36 hours.

The two problems arising so close to land meant that while there was a drama, there was no crisis. If they had happened halfway between Cape Horn and Tasmania and the mast had fallen down there would have been a full-scale emergency. As it was, the only real disruption was the constant creaking of the mast as it worked, making sleeping a nervy business towards the end of a leg which took 50 days, 9hr, 29min, 55sec.

Seven hours after Hofbrau, Vivien Cherry, the only woman skipper, guided Coopers & Lybrand home and delivered her walking wounded to the home comforts of fish and chips and a dry bed. Cherry has an inflamed left knee, two crewmen have cracked ribs, another a broken collar bone, and a third a severe case of seasickness.

BRITISH STEEL CHALLENGE ROUND-THE- WORLD RACE: Second leg (Rio de Janeiro to Hobart): Positions (with miles to finish): 1 Nuclear Electric finished; 2 Commercial Union finished; 3 Hofbrau finished; 4 Coopers & Lybrand finished. Dismasted: British Steel II.

(Information supplied by BT).