Sailing: Smith makes crisp start

Andrew Preece looks at the perils for the fleet down south as Leg Two begins
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The Independent Online
Lawrie Smith and the crew of Silk Cut gave themselves the best possible psychological boost when they led the Whitbread fleet around the three-mark inshore course that preceded their dive south past Cape Point en route for the Southern Ocean.

The British team span into the prestart manoeuvres like they were starting a race at the Olympics, crossed the line spinnaker set ahead of the rest of the fleet and reached the first mark, three miles distant, with a 30- second lead, with the Leg One winner EF Language buried and Merit Cup and the other favourites in the cheap seats.

The American boat Toshiba, with the Briton Paul Standbridge in charge, started slowly. But smart thinking from helmsman Ross McDonald and tactician Steve Cotton brought Toshiba up into second behind Silk Cut less than an hour into the leg.

The fleet will spend the next couple of days heading south to latitude 40 before the strong Westerlies will jet them around Antarctica towards Fremantle.

They say it's howling down south right now. And if they're saying that about the Southern Ocean - the Sea of Certain Death as Lawrie Smith likes to call it - it must be howling. Because it snows on 96 days out of a 100 where the Whitbread fleet is headed. And the winds there are regularly Force Seven and above, the seas five storeys high.

But the Southern Ocean is what the Whitbread is all about: unspeakably exciting but miserably cold, dangerous sailing. The telltale signs of what lies ahead were crews' kit bags topped off with industrial gloves, sea boots with gaiters attached to stop solid water blasting up the leg and full-face masks.

The Leg One winner and Whitbread newcomer, Paul Cayard, knows nothing of the Southern Ocean, only what he has been told. But he got a 36-hour taste of it at the end of Leg One: "Sometimes you come off watch and you're bruised all down your front from the force of the water," he said last week. "We tasted the Southern Ocean on the way here, but without the cold water. Leg Two will be quite different."

In contrast Grant Dalton, who is racing his fifth Whitbread, is almost dismissive. "It's not actually a traditional Southern Ocean leg," he said. For the last two races Leg Two has started from Uruguay. The boats were at sea for four weeks plus and dipped very much further south as they shortened the route around Antarctica to Australia.

By the end of this week the nine Whitbread boats will be well into the worst of it. This is a leg of three stages: leaving Cape Town and heading to the Southern Ocean, choosing a latitude and jetting along it before deciding when to come up to approach Fremantle. Tactically, the last part is where the race will be won and lost. "For me this leg is nothing like as demanding as Leg One or one of the Atlantic legs," says the Merit Cup navigator and two-time winner Mike Quilter. "If it all goes right I'll be sitting downstairs and letting the boys on deck have their fun."

But that is assuming they can judge it right. Several boats arrived in Cape Town with damaged masts. Keeping the rig in the boat, pushing to the limit but not beyond, will be the key.