Sailing: Maxis still hounded by the swinging 60s: Grant Dalton, the skipper of the leading boat, NZ Endeavour, who is writing for the Independent, recounts the first-leg tactical battle

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The Independent Online
BEING first into Punta del Este was more than just winning the opening, and in some ways most tricky, leg of the 1993-94 Whitbread. It was the definitive shake-out of all the planning we had been doing for three years, and it was the first major opportunity to square up not only against our maxi rivals, but our Whitbread 60 tormentors.

The first crunch came early and had all the hallmarks of a grand prix motor race. Passing Ushant in the north-west of France the wind piped up from behind. It was the perfect opportunity for everyone to test everyone else out.

Could the 60s get away from the maxis? Which of the maxis would be fastest? Would the Lawrie Smith experiment in Fortuna work? It was also like approaching the first bend on a Formula One circuit. Who would leave the braking until last? On yachts this means reducing the power by reducing sail area. Not Lawrie. He was showing some impressive speed, but I think he became over-enthusiastic.

On NZ Endeavour we talked it through, decided we were pushing too hard into the first corner, and braked first by changing the sails and reducing the area. Less than 20 minutes later Lawrie's rig fell down.

Perhaps if he hadn't been in that gaggle of boats, all a little hyped into showing what they could do, he might also have backed off earlier. When we did, our speed hardly went down and Lawrie was certainly showing he was competitive.

But he lost the mast and that was the end of him. I guess, for me at least, Lawrie can't say any more that I have never beaten him in a race. Daniel Malle's La Poste also had to nurse a damaged mizzen and he is so far behind that he has little chance of winning.

The mizzen mast is the one which causes me the most worry. At night when we are pushing hard we have a torch on it most of the time, and we have been pushing hard quite often. When we went through the point at which we lost the mizzen on Fisher & Paykel last time round, I was off watch and supposed to be sleeping in my bunk below.

I had handed over the midnight watch to Kevin Shoebridge and told him not to lose that rig, but then I often leave the running of the boat to the other guys. They know what to do: that's why they're there. Even so, I hardly slept, just gazing at the deckhead above my bunk and worrying, but, of course, nothing happened and we came through smoothly.

In fact, the whole leg has been a smooth one. We have suffered no real damage, including sails, while we know that the 60s have been regularly blowing out their masthead gennakers as they have to take risks the whole time. They only have one weight of cloth, we have sails in heavier cloth for heavier wind.

We have also beaten not only our maxi rivals but all the 60s, though the margin over Chris Dickson, who sailed Tokio superbly, was only just over three hours. That, to say the least, is a little tighter than I would like, especially as we head for the unknown of relentless power-reaching in the Southern Ocean. But the win was psychologically important, particularly as we knew that a loss would produce heaps of humiliating derision. I've heard that the reaction in New Zealand has been terrific.

Now we have an eight-hour cushion over Pierre Fehlmann. His worry about the fixing of the torpedo bulb to the bottom of his keel can be resolved quickly. His lack of a speed edge in the conditions where he expected to shade us is a problem. Our hope is that we now have an edge of our own. Downwind in a breeze, the predominant wind for the next leg, will only increase the pressure on him. But he has dug himself out of some holes in the past.

We sailed this first leg conservatively and it paid off. There were points where we felt we needed to be in front, most importantly the Cape Verde Islands. We had 60 miles there and we took no tactical flyers. But, as navigator, I have Mike Quilter to rely on. His contribution to the success of this first leg cannot be overestimated.