Sailing: Raucous send-off for fleet

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The Independent Online
THE Sao Sebastiao Whitbread stopover ended as it began, with thousands of excited Brazilian supporters shouting, whistling and cheering on the dockside to send the crews away. Out on the water it was mayhem as an unruly fleet of around 1,000 boats - from yachts to 100mph Cigarette boats to jetskis to small inflatables - careered around the course in a festival of overexcited chaos brandishing beers, whistles, horns and loud voices.

With the spectator fleet carving up the water and the light north and south sea breezes fighting and cancelling each other out in the sound between Ilhabela and mainland Brazil, it was slow progress out into open ocean. Several times the fleet turned inside out as unpredictable patches of wind made tacticians look gifted one moment and clueless the next.

Brunel had their moment in front, so too did Swedish Match and Toshiba. An hour into the race and Kvaerner's new helmsman, Ed Baird, was looking good as he led out into open water. But minutes later the wind was gone and a group of boats that included EF Language, Toshiba and Silk Cut slipped past inside him as the fleet prepared for a night of light and difficult conditions in the lee of Ilhabela.

The next few days will be slow and painful progress as the crews coax their boats away from the mainland and into stronger trade wind breezes offshore.

If no one can catch EF Language during the next three weeks on Leg Six as they head up the coast of Brazil, through the Doldrums and up through the Caribbean to Fort Lauderdale, it may be too late. Paul Cayard and his largely American crew have a 96-point advantage, a margin that would not be entirely eroded even if Cayard breaks his mast during the next 4,758 miles and fails to finish.

But hopes are running high. As the boats arrived two weeks ago, their crews drained by a Southern Ocean battering followed by a week of light- air frustration, many confessed to being beaten. Now there is a steadier resolve. While Innovation Kvaerner's skipper, Knut Frostad, has admitted defeat - saying "we will try to finish in the top three" having led the race after two legs - others in the frame are warning Cayard not to expect an easy ride. "If he thinks he's got it in the bag, it had better be a pretty strong bag," Gunnar Krantz, the skipper of Swedish Match, said.

Likewise John Kostecki, who came aboard Chessie Racing in Fremantle and got them on to the podium with a third into Sydney, said: "This race is not over by any means. There have been a lot of weird things happening in previous legs. Boats have won legs and then finished down the pack in others. A lot can still happen."

Cayard, however, remains confident. "We've got the best-built boat in the fleet and we're doing the right thing. We're still in the mood to try to win legs. I've seen a lot of people get into trouble trying to sit on a lead."

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