Sailing: Leaders find life just swell

Andrew Preece makes a hazardous trip to join the Whitbread's surprise package
Click to follow
The Independent Online
When you try to board a Whitbread 60 in 25 knots of wind and a rolling South Atlantic swell, you realise just how fast 11 knots really is. The boat is powering through the waves, plunging from crest to trough, spray jetting out on either side. Getting a boat close enough to jump aboard is difficult enough in the homely Solent, doing it in the open sea, courtesy of the Brazilian Navy, for whom the whole experience is new territory, borders on James Bond.

The Whitbread 60 fleet has been passing the island of Fernando de Noronha, 200 miles from the North-east tip of Brazil, since Tuesday. The surprise leader, Innovation Kvaerner, arrived just as dark was falling. After several abortive attempts, my Navy driver finally got near enough for me to have a go. I jumped, grabbed at something solid. A short drag in the water and I was aboard and shaking Knut Frostad's hands.

Spirits were really up. After the uncertainties of the first week, when the fleet was changing places and luck could take a boat from last to first, having burst through the Doldrums with a lead of six hours, the crew knew they had emerged from two of this leg's three big tests unscathed. "The first two weeks confirmed what we thought and that was that our boat was as fast as the rest," said skipper Frostad. "But this was the first half of the first leg. We haven't won the Whitbread."

But between them Frostad and his navigator, Marcel van Trieste, have called nearly every shot to perfection, particularly early on. "Who said we took a risk?" van Trieste asked in response to a query about the route Kvaerner took during the first week. "There was no risk at all. We just went where the wind was. That's what you do, isn't it?"

Van Trieste's plotting has worked miracles, but yesterday they eventually surrendered their lead when Paul Cayard's EF Language and Grant Dalton in Merit Cup managed to slip by. With barely 12 miles covering the front three, though, and 3,000 miles to go, the move was anything but decisive.

Since last week's news that Innovation's crew had left soap, shampoo and shaving gear behind, I was expecting to find a horror show. In fact, the inside of the boat was clean and meticulously stacked. I arrived for dinner - freeze-dried mince, peas and potatoes. They offered me some and I was tempted, but because they were already on rations, I made do with a taste. It seemed fine, but they told me that after a few days of the same dish, you soon get to hate it.

Love it or hate it, the food doesn't really come into the overall equation. Around Frostad, van Trieste and the lurking presence of 40-year-old Pierre Mas are a crew of young blades, who care little for comfort and a lot less for reputations. Running out of food? So what? Beating Paul Cayard, Grant Dalton, Chris Dickson and Lawrie Smith? Why not?