Sailing: Narrow escape to victory

Gordon Maguire, watch leader on Silk Cut, flirts with disaster before triumph
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The Independent Online
AS I took my first faltering steps along the Fort Lauderdale dock, after the champagne had been polished off and the last of the victory photographs had been taken, one American asked me: "Why aren't you jumping up and down and going crazy?"

"We're not American," I replied simply. We had always expected to win legs, so to arrive in front at the end of the sixth leg of the Whitbread Round the World Race was like the end of the working day, a job well done. Now we've got to go out and repeat the exercise three more times. The 4,750 miles from Sao Sebastiao to Florida proved to be a real test, quite different from the predictable trade-wind ride we had expected.

The very first night out is one I will not forget. Within three hours of the start a thunderstorm hit, causing flooding, landslides and widespread death and destruction on land and plain destruction in the Whitbread fleet.

Silk Cut got caught right in the middle of a spinnaker change. We had two of them up as well as a full mainsail, as we were changing from the smaller spinnaker to a larger, more powerful one. We thought we had everything under control then, suddenly, we were hit by an incredibly powerful squall, which ripped the small spinnaker out of control, leaving it flapping like a huge flag at the top of the mast, and laid the boat on its side.

The noise was deafening as three sails flogged in the wind. We had to try to get the small spinnaker in, with a take-down line which led under the boom and back to the mainsheet. Because the load on this line was now so great due to the sudden wind, the two guys grinding on the winches couldn't move it. As I came up out of the main hatch, I stepped over the line, thinking: "that's got a huge load on it - it's going to break".

Within 30 seconds there was a problem in the cockpit so I went to help out. At that moment the block holding the highly tensioned line exploded, sending the rope shooting across the deck. It caught me behind the legs, sending me up in the air and 20 feet into the cockpit.

I don't know how it happened, but I just remember lying on the cockpit floor in total darkness realising that I was physically incapable of moving, with everyone else running around me - with the terrible noise, they didn't even know I was there. I crawled with one arm and one leg across the cockpit and down the hatch, just to get out of the way. I was pretty sure that I'd broken my leg, but it turned out just to be severely bruised, which caused the foot to inflame - the next day it was bright purple and twice its normal size.

I had made plenty of physical contact on my little flight. I hit the winch pedestal and then just somehow managed to get over the top of the primary winches, and underneath thewinch handles, which I would have been impaled on. In fact I broke one of the supposedly "unbreakable" handles with my leg as I came through. How I didn't actually break a bone is beyond me, and I'm confident I'll be back to full fitness in time for the next leg, starting two weeks today.

During that nightmare evening we lost a spinnaker, which we would have wanted to use later on, but I think our skipper Lawrie Smith's biggest concern was that we were already one man down, we could quite easily lose a couple more, and he did absolutely the right thing - look after the crew and to hell with the sail.

Our win was hard fought despite, once again, having technological problems. We were unable to receive any of the information on the satellite dish mounted in the bow. This enables us to take in vital weather information and send video footage to the BBC for their weekly television show. This put enormous pressure on our navigator, Vincent Geake, who had to make all his vital decisions - which in ocean racing can literally be life and death ones - without having the same information as the boats around us. It's similar to flying without instruments - you're not certain what you're getting into. We're lobbying hard to ensure the race office, who supply the equipment - for which each syndicate pays a sizeable fee - instal a completely new system.

I've been amazed by what a popular win this was. I've never been more congratulated in my life by my competitors. It's been extraordinary. People I don't even know buying me drinks, delighted that after all we've been through we've at last got the result we deserve. And also, of course, we beat the overall leaders, EF. The guys individually on EF, I like, but significantly their leader, Paul Cayard, never says "we", it's always "I".

There's nothing to stop us winning the next leg, there's no reason, mechanical or other that would prevent it. The changes we made in the last stopover were perfect. The new rig handled really well, and it was nice to have a leg where boat speed was the priority - it didn't matter which side of the course you went, the fastest boat won. Us.