Sailing / Round the World Yacht Race: Nightmare of mixing, matching and mending sails: Grant Dalton, the skipper of the lead boat, NZ Endeavour, who is writing for the Independent, finds the pace starting to pick up

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The Independent Online
WE have arrived in the Southern Ocean winds and they are just as unpleasant as they used to be. It has been blowing bloody hard over the last couple of days and we are seeing about 100 miles click by every six hours. The predictions of 400-mile days are now very real.

We have put in a 370.2-mile 24 hours but Lawrie Smith on Intrum Justitia has done 375.2 miles and Galicia has clocked 372.9 miles. With those two and Chris Dickson's Tokio, which is further to the south, all level- pegging on 6,327 miles to the finish yesterday afternoon, the W60 race is as tight as it could be and our 13-mile advantage could be wiped out any time.

The question of whether we can hold off the Whitbread 60s seems to be split into two answers, one of falling back, the other of catching up. When it blows really hard we expect the 60s to take us, but when it lightens, and it always does, then we should make the distance back.

We are still learning about the best combination of sails for the main and mizzen masts as we have never raced in conditions like this with this boat. After the easy weather of the first leg, when only one sail was blown out, and that because of a rip, not a material failure, the management of the 25 or so sails we are carrying for the second leg comes into its own.

So far we have had the foot rip out of one spinnaker when the corners exploded and that led to Craig Watson taking a ducking. When the spinnaker pole, to which he was attached, dropped he was dragged through the water at about 15 knots but was uninjured.

But the basis for success in the sail programme goes back 18 months. We had built 50 sails before the Whitbread ever started, both to do other tuning races and, as importantly, to test the best shapes and materials and the interaction between the sails on the forward main mast and the aft mizzen mast. By the time we have finished we will have built 118 to 120 sails.

All of them, except the mainsails, have a band of wind strength - say five to 12 knots or 10 to 18 knots - for which they are designed and outside those wind speeds they need to be changed. And quickly.

Delay a change when the wind is piping up and the next thing you know the sail is ripped. That means repairs down below which can not only take eight hours and more, but pulls two people off other duties, one out of the watch on deck, one out of the standby watch, to mend it.

As it takes about one and a half hours to fix the mainsail to the mizzen mast even when we are calmly in port, the nightmare is of a major rip in that sail and having to take it down in a big sea. Also, we use the galley area for repairs, so cooking is badly disrupted.

We have a sewing machine, from which we have stripped the old heavy motor and attached a solar-powered engine that weighs just two kilos. And all the parts possible of the machine itself have been drilled with holes and milled to save more weight. We also use a lot of sticky- back tape to sort out rips and tears.

As I report I have had no sleep for 24 hours, but everything is running as smoothly as it can in 40 knots of breeze. We know that Dickson's Tokio is going faster, but we are going a lot quicker than Merit Cup and La Poste. We've got it cranked up and going as hard as we could be.

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