Sailing: High time to make a fast exit

Gordon Maguire, watch leader aboard Silk Cut, expects a Solent spectacular today
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The Independent Online
SO THIS is the end. After more than eight months of racing round the world on board Silk Cut we are now nearing the end of the ninth and final chapter, La Rochelle to Southampton, where it all started last autumn.

We have sailed well over 31,000 nautical miles and we have only a few more to sail to complete the last ever Whitbread Round the World Race - Volvo are taking the event over for the next running, in 2001. But we have still got plenty of work to do before we reach our home port of Southampton later this afternoon. This last leg from La Rochelle has been one of the most demanding, both mentally and physically. There is still a chance that we can finish in second position. However, we've been sailing this leg as we always do, to win.

We are not worrying about the mathematics, we just have to sail for as many points as we can and let the other boats worry about us. Swedish Match and Merit Cup are in the middle of a battle for second place and their own private battle may allow us to sneak through.

It's been a very interesting final leg, with a light and unpredictable breeze. The start in La Rochelle was pretty frantic, thanks to a massive spectator fleet coming out to watch in wonderful conditions - a 15-knot northeasterly.

We had a close encounter with a hospitality boat, and we had to throw in an emergency gybe to avoid it - not the sort of thing you want at the start of such a tight leg. We've lodged a protest and will have to wait and see what the race committee decide when we get to Southampton. It marred what was otherwise a perfect start.

Although we are sailing into our home port, the international nature of the event means there is no true home advantage. All the skippers and crew have spent a lot of time sailing in the English Channel and the Solent, so the playing field is pretty level and this final leg will be won by whoever has sailed the best over the two days. And we are pretty confident at the moment.

Since we broke our mast in the Southern Ocean, Silk Cut has been the highest scoring boat over the best part of 10,000 miles of racing. We have also secured two more fastest 24-hour runs, taking our total to four; not too bad when you consider that no other boat has won more than one. We have shown just how quick we can be and we have also demonstrated our consistency over the second half of the race. Had we not lost the mast we would be in second place now and overall victory would still be up for grabs.

But the mast did break, and the best we can hope for is a big finish today. We are expecting a good breeze for the final few hours and the one thing that is certain is that all the boats will be close and that we will all spending most of our time sat out on the windward rail.

The arrival in Southampton is always a very emotional affair. As it's a bank holiday weekend there's going to be a large crowd - family, friends and people who have been never been sailing but have caught up with the Whitbread for the first time.

The end of the race is always a time for reflection. Although the first half of the race was not good for Silk Cut, the second half has been far more satisfying. The teamwork is better than ever and the effort and time we have all put into the team is paying dividends. If only the race had been a couple of legs longer or that cold night in the Southern Ocean had never happened.

The future is a little uncertain right now. But it's never too early to plan ahead and I'm already thinking about the next round the world race. It's always been a dream to skipper a boat in this race. After two trips round the planet as a watch leader I think I've got a good feel for how a programme is put together and the important elements of a major campaign.

It's become one of the main topics of conversation - what are we all going to be doing in three years' time. It has often been said that you are only as good as your last race. So we have got to ensure that this last leg is truly one to remember for Silk Cut and make that dream become a reality.

There are several other big races that I would like to have a crack at, including The Race, a no holds barred drag race around the world in boats well over 100ft long. Each boat would have a crewman dedicated to telling the story, giving a real insight into the adventure.

But before all that I'm looking forward to unpacking for the first time in nine months, switching on the television and watching the World Cup. It couldn't have come at a better time. But it won't be long before I get itchy feet again and I'm preparing for the next race, wherever that takes me.