Sailing: Smith sailing into high-pressure zone

Andrew Preece says it is now or never for Britain's entry in the Round The World Race
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The Independent Online
THE second half of what is becoming a seriously compelling Whitbread Round The World Race opens in a week's time, when the fleet leaves Auckland and heads again towards the Southern Ocean for the second- longest leg of the race. And as they set sail for Cape Horn, the crew feeling under most pressure will be those on the British entry, Silk Cut.

In Sydney, before the start of the last leg, the skipper, Lawrie Smith, went on record saying he needed to do well into Auckland to have a reasonable chance of eventual victory. He finished sixth and dropped to seventh overall. Nothing less than a win will do now on the highest scoring leg of the race: Silk Cut lies 114 points behind the overall leader, EF Language, skippered by Paul Cayard. That deficit means that even if Silk Cut wins the leg and EF finishes last, Cayard and his largely American team would still be ahead of the British entry.

Smith will be bitterly disappointed if he fails to win this leg. Not only will he most certainly be out of contention, but he has a boat that is profiled to excel in the big winds and seas that characterise the Southern Ocean, and he holds the world monohull 24-hour speed record at a shaving under 450 miles. And, he has a new navigator. After failing to trust the judgement of Steve Hayles to the extent that Hayles lost his confidence over the first half of the race, Smith last week recruited his old ally Vincent Geake, who flew into Auckland on Wednesday.

Geake, an electronics guru from Cambridge, navigated for Smith on Rothmans in the 1989-90 race and again on Fortuna for the first week of the 1993- 94 race before the boat dropped out. He and Hayles shared the navigation station overnight last night when Silk Cut headed off to sea on a 36-hour familiarisation sail to enable the new incumbent to learn the idiosyncrasies of the boat's electronic nerve centre. These factors will be enough, asserts Smith, who is quick to remind his critics that even though half the miles have been sailed, 56 per cent of the points still remain. Publicly at least, he is certain he can still win the race.

But if Smith is hoping for something big in the weather department over the next three weeks, Grant Dalton, who will round Cape Horn for the fifth time, is not convinced this next leg will deliver. "I've been round the Horn four times," he said, "and every time there's been hardly any wind at all." Dalton, the skipper of Merit Cup, nominally from Monaco but recently adopted by New Zealand after winning the leg into Auckland, has been making improvements of his own. "We needed that leg win to get morale back on track. People were expecting a lot from our team," he said, just a few days before his co-skipper Guido Maisto left the campaign to fly back to Italy for "an operation on his hand".

Dalton has been twitchy about his crew since before the race started. The departure of Maisto on medical grounds isreminiscent of the way Roger Nilson left the captaincy of Intrum Justitia after the first leg of the 1993 race to be replaced byLawrie Smith. Then the talk was of knee surgery, now it is of the hand, but few around the dockside believe either departure was anything other than tactical.

"We're all trying to catch EF," Dalton said, as his team sent a helicopter out to sea to observe the two Team EF boats sail testing. By virtue of his win he now finds himself in second place, ahead of Swedish Match and Innovation Kvaerner.

While EF Language enjoys a comfortable lead, when the fleet leaves Auckland in front of a huge floating gallery on Sunday afternoon, Cayard will be as anxious as anyone. He knows he has the racing skills to win this race and a points margin at the halfway stage to help him through the dark and stormy nights. However, the crew will be hoping they have taken a few salutary lessons on board from the last Southern Ocean leg, the race's second, when they were humiliated in fifth place after a series of costly breakdowns. "I'm looking forward to getting back out into the Southern Ocean," said Cayard, "to see if we can really put into practice what we think we learned from leg two."