Sailing: In pursuit of victory and an end to strife: Grant Dalton, the skipper of the leading boat in the Whitbread Race, New Zealand Endeavour, anticipates an arduous final leg

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COMPETITION in the sixth Whitbread Race has been absolutely cut-throat. Both mentally and physically, it has been really tough, and there will be no let-up on the sixth and final leg.

Our almost 12-hour lead over the next boat, Ross Field's 60ft Yamaha, may look healthy enough, but, as the results from the last leg have shown, it is far from safe. As the boats put more miles under their keels, so they become more fatigued and vulnerable to failure.

So we have been especially careful to check everything in Fort Lauderdale. We have beefed things up as much as possible without imposing unacceptable weight penalties on ourselves, but I know that the fear of breaking down will haunt me every mile of the way to Southampton. However hard we check, we cannot see everything.

We know that the boats now have nothing to lose and will be hammering it all the way. So we, too, need to go for it with the opportunities to ease off and sail conservatively few and far between. We still want to be the fastest round the world, we want the maxi class Heineken Trophy for the last leg, and we want to be the first boat - maxis or 60s - into Southampton.

We have had to make major repairs to our hull for this last leg, as have many others, and doubtless we will all be looking at construction techniques for future races knowing now just how hard we are prepared to push. But, all things considered, the new W60s have come through well, and teething troubles were to be expected.

More unpleasant has been the undertow of strife and some bitterness during this stop-over. The race needs to be cleaned up if it is to avoid all the cries of cheating, and to do that someone needs to take a firm stand. If people want to cheat, they will always find a way, but the organisers can take away a lot of the opportunities. There has been an element of drift in this aspect of the game over the last few years, so perhaps it is time for the sport to be given a good whack from the rule-makers to straighten up a few attitudes.

A lot of it goes over the public's heads - perhaps they just see it as a sort of gamesmanship - and it does a lot less damage than some claim but, if there is enough of it, eventually it will bite and will hurt us all.

One area that is very difficult to police has been the use of outside weather assistance from on-shore sources or support boats, and one way of avoiding that is to allow it. But I remain opposed to using outside weather forecasters for two reasons. The first is that I think it should be up to the sailing team to sail its own race. The second is that it would add greatly to campaign costs. I estimate it could add at least pounds 75,000 to employ that kind of service for the necessary 18 months or two years.

So this time, again, we must make our own way up the Gulf Stream, decide when to turn right under Newfoundland's low pressure systems and the creeping Arctic ice, and work out for ourselves how to make the best approach to those difficult last 200 miles up the English Channel.

All can still be won and lost in that tiny last lap. There will be no relief until then. If anything, there is almost more pressure now than at any time before. We have seen people's dreams evaporate on the last leg too many times before.