Sailing: Riders on the wall of death

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The Independent Online
LIVING life on a knife-edge has taken on new meaning this week for the crews of the 14 yachts in the Whitbread Round the World Race as they ride the backs of the big waves and howling winds of the Roaring Forties.

Still hanging on to a slender lead overall is Grant Dalton in the maxi New Zealand Endeavour, but the next three places are filled by the leading Whitbread 60s with Britain's Lawrie Smith driving his new charger, Intrum Justitia, ferociously hard.

With the bit between his usually wide-grinned teeth, Smith has taken the fight to the first-leg class winner, Chris Dickson in Tokio, and the man who played this second leg so fearlessly last time, Spain's Javier de la Gandara.

Then de la Gandara was in the maxi Fortuna, which was modified by Smith and then limped home 24 hours into the race with both masts gone. Now the Spaniard is in another 60, Galicia, which also won the Fastnet race in August.

The intensity of the competition and the speed at which these specially developed water-ballasted boats travel in the icy Southern Ocean, are bringing spectacle and danger.

'Whatever each boat's limit, the crews are pushing them to that limit,' says Rob Humphreys, designer of the British W60 Dolphin & Youth. As if to prove that Murphy's Law is ever present at sea, Matt Humphries, the skipper of Dolphin & Youth, ran into a private patch of calm yesterday having previously enthused about how fast the going was. Indeed, Dickson had already demonstrated the need for lightning reactions when picking up his bowman, Ken Hara, who was swept overboard.

The problem for them all is that making yachts more capable of high speeds means the crews will sail them at high speeds and that when gear breakage, a rogue wave or a lapse in concentration pushes the yacht through the threshold of control then the speed with which a problem can develop into a nightmare is correspondingly high.

Add 40 knots of breeze to the black of night, drenching spray and the possibility of icebergs as the yachts head to 50 degrees south and the scale of the job being done by these riders on the wall of death is put into stark perspective.

WHITBREAD ROUND THE WORLD RACE Second leg (Punta del Este, Urug, to Fremantle, Aus): Positions (with miles to finish): IOR Maxis: 1 New Zealand Endeavour 5,996; 2 Merit Cup 6,038; 3 La Poste 6,114; 4 Uruguay Natural 6,360. Whitbread 60s: 1 Intrum Justitia 6,016; 2 Galicia 93 Pescanova 6,021; 3 Tokio 6,033; 4 Winston 6,071; 5 Yamaha 6,107; 6 Brooksfield 6,132; 7 Dolphin & Youth 6,196; 8 Hetman Sahaidachny 6,259; 9 Women's Challenge 6,266; 10 Odessa 6,479.