Sailing: Merit Cup steals Cayard's glory

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TO A man, Grant Dalton's Merit Cup was in major party mood in Southampton yesterday as they won the final leg of the last Whitbread Race from La Rochelle and pushed up to second overall for the 32,000-mile marathon.

"Oh boy, are we a happy team, or perhaps we are a relieved team... No, we are a happy team,'' Dalton said. "It couldn't have turned out better for us."

It was the shore crew that was wiping its brow after a nail biting final 18 hours of the final two days, but navigator Mike Quilter was more relaxed. "We didn't do anything other than we normally do, only this time, the cookie crumbled, the dice rolled, and the chips fell and everything went out way," he said as he bows out of big time ocean racing at the end of five Whitbreads.

Merit Cup's victory, to add to their first into Dalton's home port of Auckland, was the centrepiece of a finish with plenty to chew on. A huge spectator fleet turned out to see the nine yachts fight fading breezes and adverse tides up the Solent after they had been sent on an additional 25-mile loop around Christchurch Bay because they arrived too early at the last turning mark of Poole Fairway Buoy.

No fortunes changed because of that, but Dalton, by putting four boats between himself and Gunnar Krantz, who started the last leg second and with a 36-point, four place margin, snatched the more important place in the record books. At the end the sunshine yellow of Merit Cup was equally matched by the dark blue hue of Swedish Match as they saw a 45-point reversal and slipped to third. Krantz kept it simple, " it was a bit of a disappointment," he said.

Even more disappointed were George Collins, the syndicate boss, and John Kostecki, the skipper of Chessie Racing. They were just 10 points behind Dalton and in sight of what would have been a remarkable podium finish Instead they equalled their worst, when they went into their home part of Baltimore, by finishing eighth and slumping two places to sixth overall. Collins was: "Terribly disappointed, out but not down."

Equalling Chessie in the frustration stakes was Lawrie Smith. He, too, was hoping for one last blast to put Britain's Silk Cut in the top three, but his fourth on the leg, just a few minutes behind Knut Frostad in Innovation Kvaerner, meant that the Norwegian even pipped Smith for fourth overall by just three points in 630.

Smith sees the dismasting on leg five from Auckland to Brazil as the breaking point in his campaign and revealed that it has been caused by a topmast backstay attachment breaking.

Everyone, though, including his old America's Cup skipper Dennis Conner, paid tribute again to Paul Cayard, overall winner of the Volvo Trophy with this last leg to spare, and, in second, still fighting for his fourth leg win.

His campaign has raised the heat another notch and none were more happy with that than the ever-smiling Magnus Olsson, who has achieved a winner's medal after four attempts.

Missing that, and after five Round the World races, was Conner's co-skipper, Paul Standbridge. He will not be back for the Volvo Ocean Race in 2001, but said he was looking forward to joining a rival skipper, believed to be Knut Frostad, for The Race, a non-stop affair in giant catamarans scheduled to start 31 December 2000.

EF were both first and last, but their all-woman crew, skippered by Christine Guillou wrote new chapters for women in ocean racing. Theirs was an honourable ninth.

WHITBREAD ROUND THE WORLD RACE (Leg nine, La Rochelle to Southampton) 1 Merit Cup (G Dalton), 2 days 22hr 56min 05sec; 2 EF Language (P Cayard), 1 23 11 37; 3 Innovation Kvaerner (K Frostad), 1 23 21 22; 4 Silk Cut (L Smith), 1 23 31 41; 5 Swedish Match (G Krantz/E Williams), 1 23 51 18; 6 Toshiba (D Conner/P Standbridge), 1 23 56 27; 7 Brunel Sunergy (R Heiner), 1 23 57 35; 8 Chessie Racing (G Collins/J. Kostecki), 2 001 22 44; 9 EF Education (C Guillou), 2 02 22 14. Final standings; 1 EF Language, 836pts; 2 Merit Cup, 698; 3 Swedish Match, 689; 4 Innovation Kvaerner, 633; 5 Silk Cut, 630; 6 Chessie Racing, 613; 7 Toshiba, 528; 8 Brunel Sunergy, 415; 9 EF Education, 275.