Sailing: Merit win far from plain sailing

Grant Dalton, skipper of Merit Cup, faces a difficult future after a fairy-tale ending to the Whitbread Race
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The Independent Online
KEVIN SHOEBRIDGE took the helm for the last few miles of the last leg and through the finish line to give us our second Volvo leg trophy and push us up to second overall. This was partly because the watch leaders normally do most of the helming anyway, partly because he is very good at it. Also because I was too nervous to steer. He was doing a far better job than I would have done because my heart was in my mouth and, with boats coming up behind you, I would have been looking all around me all the time.

When you have a tight finish like that and Paul Cayard had been tracking us all morning in EF Language, you wish you could enjoy the moment. But you can't actually stop to enjoy it and it wasn't until we were in the last few hundred yards up the River Itchen and the finish line at Ocean Village, Southampton, that we knew we couldn't be beaten.

I think, coming in to that last leg, if someone had said "we can give you third now or you can roll the dice," then I know I would have taken third. On the way out to the start at La Rochelle we said to each other that the perfect scenario would be for us to win and Swedish Match, at that time second overall, to come fifth. For that to happen nature would have to play a part and we had to look after Chessie Racing, breathing down our necks just 10 points, one place on that leg, behind.

But Chessie dialled themselves out on Saturday afternoon, so we could really hammer for the win and in the smooth water and light conditions that we had in the English Channel Merit Cup is a bullet. We were quicker than anybody, though Cayard refused to go away. No Swedish Match, who played their part in fifth to give us a fairy-tale ending.

This has been a patchy Whitbread for us, we have been too inconsistent, while Cayard has been a cut above everybody.

But what a difference a day makes. We have not only come home with our lives, we dragged second overall out of the fire in a pretty big way. To be second in this fleet is, in some ways, a higher achievement than winning the maxi division last time. This a totally different race, between the best offshore professionals in the world, not just the best round the world yachtsmen.

And the next one, the Volvo Ocean Race, in 2001, will be even more difficult. My next target is The Race, non-stop round the world in no holds barred multihulls starting December 31, 2000. I shall be racing on a catamaran called Fujicolor at La Trinite in France next September.

I have yet to make up my mind about the Volvo. The Race will not take over from Volvo, but by then I will be nearly 44. Four years ago I could have told you I was doing the next Whitbread, the same four years before that. But it hasn't been so enjoyable this time because it has been so bloody hard. I would need to do some serious physical preparation for another, perhaps a year of concentrated fitness programmes.

I have enjoyed sharing the ups and downs with you in The Independent, but the final word should be about a crew that has worked so hard. They were really wound up about this last leg, all motivated, all focused on the same result. They fully deserved their reward.