Sailing: Humphries steers in his dream team

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The Independent Online
Swedish Match won the second leg of the Whitbread Round the World Race, with a Briton at the helm.

It was a personal triumph that should never have happened, for, as Stuart Alexander writes from Fremantle, Matt Humphries' race looked to have finished in Cape Town.

Matt Humphries always wanted to lead the charge through the Southern Ocean and be the first Briton into Fremantle. However, never in his wildest dreams did he expect to do so at the helm of Swedish Match.

The 26-year-old Humphries thought his race would get no further than Cape Town, where his hopes disintegrated in the financial wreckage and withdrawal of Neil Barth's America's Challenge.

It looked as though he would be left on the dock when the second leg started, but a last-minute transfer to Swedish Match turned not only into a triumph for a crew who finished eighth out of 10 boats on the first leg from Southampton, but a personal victory snatched from the ashes of a burned-out campaign.

Humphries hardly knew the men he was joining; they had been together for nearly a year and did not know much about him. "They are hard men, so to join a team like that is potentially very difficult," he said. "I kept wondering if I had done the right thing. Fifteen days and 5,000 miles is a long time at sea and we were going to go though hell together."

Humphries should not have worried. "From day one it all came together very well," he says. "Their acceptance made me feel I should give as much as I have got. It was a kind of gratitude, almost. The result was I probably worked harder on this leg than on any in any other yacht race in my life.

In some ways it was like joining Manchester United and finding a whole new way of playing the game. At the same time, a helmsman is always under scrutiny. The crew want to know if they can produce speed without risking their lives too much, while they are aware that the onboard computer is monitoring their performance against previous efforts in the same conditions.

As if peer and personal pressure was not enough, the conditions in which Swedish Match raced were as tough as any on board have seen. "They were not just hard, they were relentless, and not just for me, for everyone," Humphries said. "There was no respite, no time to re-energise." And all the time the style of both the skipper Gunnar Krantz and co-skipper Erle Williams was to keep driving the boat.

"These guys are workaholics, nothing like the occasionally more laid- back attitude of some British crews," Humphries said. "Gurra wants 100 per cent the whole time, driving the crew on whether we had the energy or not. He and Erle work well together. Both put boat speed as a priority. We are not there to cruise around the world at 90 per cent of potential.

"If something goes wrong then the first thing we do is get the boat back up to speed. Then we tidy up, or eat, or get some sleep. Everything was done very smoothly and even when there's chaos it's smooth chaos. There is never a raised voice. You know what you have to do."

Humphries admits there are times when everyone wonders how much more they can take. But there was never any temptation to ease off. Even when they had a lead of 300 miles, the pressure to increase the gap on Innovation Kvaerner was always there.

The crew of Swedish Match feel that they have now been blooded and will know how to produce the power again. "It was only one leg out of nine, but having experienced victory, we want to do it again," Krantz said.

The dream for Humphries now is to be first home on the third leg to Sydney.