Sailing: Keen Kiwis primed for bare-knuckle fight: The third leg of the Whitbread Round The World Race begins tomorrow. Stuart Alexander reports from Fremantle

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THE 3,272-mile sprint that is the third leg of the Whitbread Race from here to Auckland is unlikely to see the leader of the maxi class, Grant Dalton in New Zealand Endeavour, and Chris Dickson in Tokio, the top Whitbread 60, dislodged. But it will be bitterly fought by the four Kiwi skippers, who all want to be first home, and in addition a row is due to break out as soon as the 60s arrive in Auckland.

Where the first stopover, Punta del Este, saw two skippers depart - one following the mutiny on the US Women's Challenge, the other as Intrum Justitia's Roger Nilson retired hurt - Fremantle has seen France's Daniel Malle hand over to Eric Tabarly, while five of the crew of La Poste have departed. And on Yamaha, the arrival of Murray Ross has resulted in the navigator, Godfrey Cray, withdrawing 'for personal reasons'.

Dennis Conner is back as the co- skipper of Winston, Lawrie Smith has made his job on Intrum Justitia look as though it was always his, and the former Italian America's Cup skipper, Mauro Pelaschier, yesterday left Brooksfield in what may not be the last crew reshuffle on the troubled boat.

The Women's Challenge, meanwhile, has been showered with Heineken, which normally reserves its sponsorship for events. Except now.

While Dalton, Dickson, Ross Field in Yamaha, and Conner's co- skipper, Brad Butterworth, are all Aucklanders, the bare-knuckle fight will be between Dalton and Dickson when the third leg gets under way tomorrow. Dalton badly wants to beat Dickson and by enough of a margin to regain the lead, in terms of elapsed time, for all of the 14 yachts.

The underlying disquiet in Fremantle was about the structure of the W60s as two of them, Galicia and Winston, had to tackle some serious delamination in the hull. Brooksfield, the Italian yacht, has made good the damage to her rudder shaft and hull following the collapse of the stock and consequent flooding 2,000 miles out of Fremantle.

Winston and Galicia are believed to have added further strengthening to the panels which failed. None of the boats are likely to take, on this leg, the pounding which can occur in the gales of the second leg.

The W60 has done nearly enough to deserve being chosen as the only option for the 1997-98 Whitbread and it was inevitable that a new design in previously untried conditions would continue to need some extra modification. Dickson's Tokio and Field's Yamaha had also found prior to the race that, when the going gets tough, these new, highly loaded hulls needed toughening.

The W60 crews, too, have found the boats physically testing. Instead of finishing the legs in the peak of fitness and spot on fighting weight, they have been tired out and lighter by several kilos than expected.

There should be no such problems this time. Weather predictions are more accurate, so they should be able to avoid being becalmed unless events conspire to park them at the bottom of Tasmania. There can be unpleasant blows up the Tasman Sea, but moderate reaching conditions are more likely.

The extra intensity will be in the shortness of the leg. There should be little time for any yachts to steal away from the others, though, equally, there is little opportunity to make up a deficit.

The welcome in Auckland will be the biggest of the whole trip. The city will unashamedly turn out to greet and cheer its own, especially given the level of interest throughout the country for a race in which they are the defending champions.

WHITBREAD ROUND THE WORLD RACE: Overall positions after second leg: Maxi: 1 New Zealand Endeavour 50days 6hr 16min 25sec; 2 Merit Cup 50:12:53:13; 3 La Poste 51:23:00:07; 4 Uruguay Natural 60:13:08:40. Whitbread 60: 1 Tokio 50:03:07:57; 2 Winston 50:14:29:58; 3 Intrum Justitia 50:17:19:55; 4 Yamaha 50:17:58:13; 5 Galicia 93 Pescanova 50:18:41:01; 6 Brooksfield 56:14:03:59; 7 Woman's Challenge 57:20:53:27; 8 Hetman Sahaldachny 58:02:02:27; 9 Dolphin and Youth 59:22:45:27; 10 Odessa 74:00:27:06.