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Sailing: Smith finds pace to race

Andrew Preece discovers the British round-the-world team are ready for action
The Fastnet race which, for the Whitbread 60 class, lasted just three days and finished last Tuesday morning, was not just the first test, but also the last real chance for skippers and crews to check in against each other before the Whitbread round-the-world race starts in September. The British entry, Silk Cut, skippered by Lawrie Smith, finished fourth out of the nine Whitbread 60 entrants.

At the time this seemed a massively disappointing result for Smith and his crew. Two of their three principal rivals - Grant Dalton in Merit Cup and Chris Dickson in Toshiba - finished ahead, as did the much less fancied Swedish Match.

But the passage of a few days has engendered a more pragmatic atmosphere and with it the recognition that the final result was utterly irrelevant. The fact is that of the 65 or so hours the Whitbread 60s were racing, Silk Cut led the field for more than 50; the three places they dropped were handed to the opposition on a plate when Silk Cut caught a lobster pot off the Lizard Point less than three hours from the finish.

"At the time we were all pretty down," Smith said at the end of last week. "But what the bigger picture told me is that we are on the pace. Silk Cut is a boat that can win the Whitbread and you never really know that until you line up against the opposition and race them."

As the boat is being worked on in the shed in Hamble, Smith will also have learnt other things from his experiences last week. He is continuing to work on gaps in his sail inventory, which were brought home to him when Merit Cup stormed past Silk Cut on the approach to the Fastnet Rock. "The sail we needed right there was actually sitting on the dock in Plymouth," Smith said. "It had just arrived from the sailmaker.

"But we are going to leave Southampton with gaps in our inventory, everyone is. That's the nature of the rules that govern how many sails we can carry on the Whitbread. What we have to do now is to finesse our sail selection, optimise our gaps and try to suss out how the others are finessing theirs."

Silk Cut will be relaunched next week with a new mast. Smith has decided to follow his main opposition and buy a new mast which he hopes will help his sails to work better with a particular wind angle. This was not a simple decision, as Smith explained. "The new mast is slightly heavier and not as stable sideways as our previous mast and we will have to carry that penalty all around the world. But, most importantly, it is the way our main opposition is going. All I want is an equal boat."

While the mast is being prepared the crew are busy finishing the interior and re-fairing the bottom of their boat. They will be sailing again on Wednesday and plan to combine a couple of bouts of offshore sailing with more sail testing before the boat comes out of the water again for final work before measurement in early September. "At this stage it is vital to get the boat and the rig exactly as you want them," Smith said. "Because once you've measured the boat in you're stuck with it right around the world. You can't change anything. If you're missing a few sails you can build them as you go."

With just over a month to go Team Silk Cut have reached the fine- tuning stage. While there are a few of the probable 10 entries at much earlier stages - Brunel Sunergy needs a new mast and keel, and America's Challenge has yet to leave Fort Lauderdale - Smith's main rivals are all at the stage of grinding out the final few per cent. With the Fastnet race behind him, Smith can relax in the knowledge that he has the hardware. But he is all too aware that so too do at least another six crews.