Sailing: Language lesson brutal

Andrew Preece in Fremantle on a grim stage of the Whitbread Round the World race
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With a lead of nearly 300 miles and the strong winds of the last week finally abating as the Whitbread fleet emerges from the Southern Ocean, Swedish Match look to have nothing standing in its way to victory. The rank outsider, skippered by Gunnar Krantz and navigated by Roger Nilson, has led leg two since the second hour of the race two weeks ago.

The battered crew, who have endured winds in excess of 50 knots and temperatures well below freezing, are due to arrive in Fremantle, Western Australia, late this morning. The second-placed Innovation Kvaerner is not due until tomorrow, with Toshiba and her new skipper, Paul Standbridge, in third and more than 150 miles ahead of his former skipper Lawrie Smith aboard Silk Cut.

"We are still sailing in heavy air, 30 to 40 knots," Krantz said yesterday. "We were forced to back off and take down the spinnaker at night, but some of our highest speeds - in excess of 30 knots - have been made with a reefed main and a poled-out jib. Coming close to a wipe out on one of these waves - with 26-knots of boat speed - made us take down the chute. We are all very tired after wrestling with the Southern Ocean."

Behind, others have been wrestling less successfully with the ocean. Fourth-placed EF Language was overtaken by the record-breaking Silk Cut on Friday. EF Language had been limping along with both spinnaker poles broken while the British boat steamed up on a world-record 449.26-mile, 24-hour run to overtake the leg-one winner and move into fourth place.

The ability to sustain high speeds has been the remarkable feature of the second half of a leg that started very slowly: Silk Cut reeled off 1,000 miles in 60 hours, an average over nearly three days of 17 knots. And while Smith retains the King of the Southern Ocean title he earned in the last race with record performances aboard Intrum Justitia, the newcomer Paul Cayard has been learning some of the more brutal lessons of the open seas that have trashed sails and gear and threatened the lives of his crew.

Cayard's most recent message from the boat told of how EF Language broached with his bowman, Curtis Blewitt, up the mast. "We were resetting the spinnaker after repairing it from an earlier mistake and it opened before it got to the top. The helmsman lost control, the boat spun into the wind, the rig was shaking violently. I thought he was going to die."

The toll that this leg and the new supercharged Whitbread 60s, with bullet- proof masthead spinnakers, is exacting on their crews was evident in Cayard's decision to back off and regroup. "Life on board is a horror show," he said. "When you have a scene like that it takes two or three hours to clean up the mess. Then you start on repairs, no one gets any sleep and meals get forgotten. What we had to do right after was take time out: two hours of nothing. Two people on deck making minimal headway. We always knew we were short of experience down here and yes, there has been a price to pay."

But if the leg-one winner has been humbled by an ocean he is visiting for the first time, behind him the Whitbread veteran Grant Dalton is suffering severe humiliation. Merit Cup is lying seventh with little chance of recovery.

Dalton is desperate and nearly 1,000 miles adrift of Swedish Match despite making a good tactical move yesterday. "We are hard on the wind as the predicted low pressure starts to move over us," he said yesterday. "It looks finally like we may have got a play right but it is no more than the words of a dying man. We are just going through the motions of 'delivering' our boat as fast as we can.

"Congratulations to Swedish Match, though. They sailed an immaculate leg and even though they made an early jump they have been good enough to protect it. No one would have expected a three-mile tack out to sea to have ended with such consequences - but that's yacht racing and it can be very cruel."

Whitbread Round the World Race Second leg (4,600 nautical miles, Cape Town to Fremantle): Positions at 12.00 GMT yesterday: 1 Swedish Match (Swe) Gunnar Krantz, 285 nautical miles to finish; 2 Innovation Kvaerner (Nor) Knut Frostad, 277 miles behind leader; 3 Toshiba (US) Paul Standbridge, 387; 4 Silk Cut (GB) Lawrie Smith, 558.2; 5 EF Language (Swe) Paul Cayard, 600.4; 6 Chessie Racing (US) Mark Fischer, 745; 7 Merit Cup (Mon) Grant Dalton, 984.6; 8 EF Education (Swe) Christine Guillou, 1,070; 9 Brunel Sunergy (Neth) Hans Bouscholte, 1,140.