Sailing: Leaders neck and neck as Swedes suffer mast damage

Whitbread round the world race
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A second yacht has been hit by mast damage as the Whitbread fleet at least makes fast progress towards the Bass Strait on the third leg of the Whitbread Race.

Leg two winner Swedish Match, skippered by Gunnar Krantz, last night reported buckling on both sides of the near 100-foot aluminium tube in the section between the deck and the keel

But the Swedes, who are in fifth place, were continuing to race hard at what is now seen as a crucial stage of the race. With 400 miles to go to King Island at the entrance to what is a notoriously difficult piece of water between the south-eastern tip of Australia and the island of Tasmania, the leading group of yachts are only 14 miles apart in the 2,250-mile chase from Fremantle to Sydney.

Still leading was Dennis Conner's Toshiba, skippered by Britain's Paul Standbridge, but there is a big spread of over 150 miles from the most northerly boast to the most southerly and even slight variations in weather conditions can make for big differences in speed.

Six hours of better breeze would put any one of them in the lead as they then turn up on the east coast of Australia for what is tuning into a concentrated 500-mile match race to the finish.

Going fastest last night was Grant Dalton in Merit Cup, although he was praying that he would be able to give his yacht the light to moderate conditions in which he felt he had an edge over the opposition.

International weather routing expert, Roger `Clouds' Badham, who is based in Sydney, was forecasting there would now be a breeze to bring the fleet all the way to the finish, something for which both the competitors and the organisers would be thankful as the predictions of their arrival time in Sydney have been slipping back and back. They are still expected on Tuesday.

The strong Chinese team got into its Southern Cross Cup stride yesterday on a grey and rainy Sydney Harbour, whipped white by a gusting south- easterly breeze.

It also produced a few hairy moments for crews coping with the more difficult conditions.

Their 66-foot brand new Exile owned by Warwick Miller pulled a first and a third out of the hat, despite narrowly missing a big collision on the start line of the second race with Young Australia.

With Karl Kwok and his new Farr 49-footer Beau Geste, with Gavin Brady and Geoff Stagg at the back, adding a third and a second, China took a 43-point lead over Australia.

The British 43-footer Quest, crewed by a Royal Navy team, reversed a disappointing 22nd in the first race of the day to pick a sixth in the second with skipper Mickey Broughton hoping to consolidate the improvement in tomorrow's two races, a pair of windward/leewards outside the harbour entrance.

WHITBREAD ROUND THE WORLD RACE (third leg, 2,250 miles, Fremantle to Sydney): 1 Toshiba (US) P Standbridge 1,074 miles to finish; 2 EF Language (Swe) P Cayard 3.2 miles behind leader; 3 Chessie Racing (US) G Collins 7.4; 4 Silk Cut (GB) L Smith 7.6; 5 Innovation Kvaerner (Nor) K Frostad 14.2; 6 Swedish Match (Swe) G Krantz 16; 7 Merit Cup (Monaco) G Dalton 18.7; 8 EF Education (Swe) C Guillou 27.7; 9 Brunel Sunergy (Neth) R Heiner 28.