Sailing: Merit Cup and Brooksfield stage breakaway to the east: Northerly air stream makes for an uncomfortable ride as Whitbread Round the World Race heads across Atlantic for home

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THE maxi, Merit Cup, and the Whitbread 60, Brooksfield, staged the first big breakaway from the pack yesterday as the rest of the Whitbread fleet settled into an uncomfortable slog north from here after the start of the sixth and final leg to Southampton.

The benefit of the north-flowing Gulf Stream was counteracted by a northerly air stream trying to push it the other way, kicking the sea into a bouncy chop and intensifying the need for caution against any hull or gear damage.

The overall leaders, Grant Dalton in New Zealand Endeavour in the maxis, and his fellow Kiwi, Ross Field, in Yamaha in the W60s, along with Britain's Lawrie Smith in Intrum Justitia could afford not to worry too much about the tactical dilemma of seeing their rivals escape from watchful control. But yesterday the Spanish W60, Galicia, joined the pair splitting east and right.

Javier de la Gandara is 27 hours behind Field, compared with Smith's 10 and a half, and so needs to take a flyer if he is to stand any chance of pulling back the deficit over the last 3,800 miles of the 32,000-mile race.

The spectator fleet had been given a bit of a surprise at the start as the yachts tacked their way up a three-mile corridor to a turning mark gate. Having been told by the coastguard where they should be and where the race track was supposed to be, they suddenly were obliged to scatter in all directions as the yachts chose to sail through them.

There were some close calls and on the start line the all-woman 60 Heineken was not only on kissing terms with Smith's Intrum Justitia, they were also over the line early by three seconds. They did not turn back, so are penalised a total of 13 minutes, 10 for the basic offence and another minute for each second.

Smith made the best of a difficult start which forced all the yachts to cross the line on port rather than the right-of-way starboard tack. He looked sharp and was one minute ahead of everyone else at the end of the opening three miles.

In contrast Dalton was looking jaded, slow to cross the line, labouring in the wakes of the thousands of boats streaming around the fleet, and misjudging his approach to the three-mile buoy.

Stopovers a month long can dull the reflexes, but the first 48 hours seemed set to bring back all the intensity necessary for a finale that should be over in 17 days.

WHITBREAD ROUND THE WORLD RACE Sixth leg (Fort Lauderdale to Southampton) Positions (with miles to finish): Maxi: 1 Merit Cup 3,597; 2 La Poste 3,657; 3 New Zealand Endeavour 3,664; 4 Uruguay Natural 3,710. Whitbread 60s: 1 Brooksfield 3,607; 2 Tokio 3,640; 3 Galicia '93 Pescanova 3,643; 4 Yamaha 3,650; 5 Intrum Justitia 3,652; 6= Winston, Reebok 3,658; 8 Heineken 3,664; 9 Hetman Sahaidachny 3,667; 10 Odessa, 3,691. Positions supplied by BT