Sailing: Local hero Dalton rides his luck

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A WHITBREAD leg win could not have come at a better time for Grant Dalton and Merit Cup. For Dalton, to head the 1,200-mile fourth leg into his home town and thousands of applauding spectators was something he was desperate to do and something, two days out, he had given up hope of achieving. For Merit Cup, the victory has elevated the team to second place overall. And with EF Language arriving in fourth and Kvaerner sixth, the Whitbread Round The World Race is now tantalisingly poised.

But if Dalton's win was hard-earned, it was not without a plentiful helping of good fortune: Merit Cup and three others passed Swedish Match at the northern tip of New Zealand on the final evening as the one-time leader fell into a windless hole. The co-skipper Erle Williams was close to tears as he described how Swedish Match had run out of wind and provided a vital weather beacon to the chasing boats.

From then on a stiff southerly breeze punished the crews who hiked their boats hard - every person perched on the windward rail and taking a hosing every few minutes, nobody even taking time out to go below even to bring food on deck - for the remainder of the race. Dalton was relieved to find that his boat had the legs to hold off Toshiba, Chessie Racing and EF Language after complaining that Merit was short of upwind speed in a breeze. Behind him Dennis Conner aboard Toshiba and John Kostecki aboard Chessie were content to follow the Merit Cup navigator Mike Quilter's local knowledge and take the shoreside track. Offshore Paul Cayard gambled on a weather forecast which predicted a clockwise shift from the south that would allow him to make the finish without tacking. It never came.

The finish came just in time to save Merit Cup. The expression on Grant Dalton's face as his mainsail exploded just four minutes after he had finished told the story. Had the sail given out any earlier, Toshiba and Chessie Racing would certainly have sailed past, EF Language would probably have done so too. And fourth place would have meant that instead of enjoying his three-week hometown stopover in second place, he would have been sixth.

Overall, Paul Cayard's EF Language remains comfortably ahead. The size of Cayard's lead, however, may well be under threat from Conner who lodged a protest against EF Language for not displaying navigation lights after dark. A jury flies in today.

WHITBREAD ROUND THE WORLD RACE: Leg 4 (Sydney-Auckland): 1 Merit Cup (Grant Dalton) 4 days 22 hours 16 minutes 8 seconds; 2 Toshiba (Dennis Conner) 4:22:18:44; 3 Chessie Racing (George Collins) 4:22:28:34; 4 EF Language (Paul Cayard) 4:22:40:03; 5 Swedish Match (Gunnar Krantz) 4:22:47:26; 6 Silk Cut (Lawrie Smith) 5:01:17:37; 7 Innovation Kvaerner (Knut Frostad) 5:01:58:58; 8 Brunel Sunergy (Roy Heiner) 5:04:04:52; 9 EF Education (Christine Guillou) 5:06:21:02. Standings: 1 EF Language 372 points, 2 Merit Cup 333, 3 Swedish Match 313, 4 Innovation Kvaerner 307, 5 Toshiba 299, 6 Chessie Racing 294, 7 Silk Cut 258, 8 EF Education 100, 9 Brunel sunergy 96. Leg 5 (6,670 nautical miles) from Auckland to Sao Sebastiao, Brazil, starts 1 February.