Sailing: Smith steals early march

Andrew Preece on board Silk Cut gives the inside story on the Fastnet Race
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With calms and variable winds forecast for the next two to three days, Britain's Champagne Mumm Admiral's Cup team are hoping luck plays a part in the outcome of the 600-mile Fastnet Race, which started in light winds from Cowes yesterday.

Britain started the race in sixth position out of the seven teams with the Americans leading, just over 15 points ahead of New Zealand. Individually, the British team has enjoyed mixed fortunes with Corum Indulgence lying third in its class and the Mumm 36 Bradamante second. The team have, however, been let down by the poor performance of the ILC 40, Easy Oars, which lay in last place going into the Fastnet Race.

Easy Oars' crew, led by Andy Beadsworth, will relish the prospect of some light weather where their two-year-old boat will be at its best. Whilst not impossible, mathematically, it is unlikely that the British can win. However, with the Fastnet Race counting for quadruple points, a second- or third-place finish is not an hopeless dream.

For the American team, the chances that could bring Britain back into contention will be those which denied them victory in 1995. Going into the Fastnet then, a comfortable American lead was converted into an easy Italian victory when the Americans bombed out in the decider.

Away from the Cup, the 250-boat Fastnet fleet is likely to be led into Plymouth by a group of 60-foot grand prix multihulls and a fleet of nine Whitbread 60s, having their first real test as they prepare for the start of the Whitbread Round The World Race in Southampton on 21 September. The leading British contender is Lawrie Smith, at the helm of Silk Cut, and his main rivals here are Grant Dalton in Merit Cup, Chris Dickson in Toshiba, and Paul Cayard in EF Language. Both Dalton and Dickson have had recent victories in their Witbread boats, while Cayard is one of the world's finest yacht racers.

Aboard Silk Cut we had a good opening to the race. With Gordon Maguire at the wheel and Smith calling tactics, we beat down the Solent at nearly 10 knots in less than 10 knots of breeze. At the first cross we were third behind Swedish Match and Kvaerner but an hour into the race Silk Cut appeared to have an up-wind edge on her rivals and we led the fleet out towards the Needles. Surprisingly Toshiba and Paul Cayard's EF were well back.

Swedish Match took the first psychological victory leading the fleet out past the Needles two hours into the race but they were only half a boat length ahead of us with EF Langauge and Toshiba beginning to make progress.

Sailing the Whitbread 60s in close tactical situations is an interesting process. The boats have the minimum number of winches to save weight and so tacking and manoeuvring is a delicate and complicated process involving swapping a lot of ropes and winches around. There is also a large amount of water balast to be pumped from side-to-side on each tack - the engineer down below has a full-time job in close-quarter racing.

As we left the comfort of the Solent and headed for our first night at sea, the discomfort of the next few days began to become apparent. Even though the wind is light the boat is fully stacked, with sails and gear piled into the windward bunks. Sleep, where it is possible, will be taken on deck on the windward rail or alongside a bag of tools or a wet sail. We took some comfort from the fact that our first-night meal, instead of being freeze dried food as it will be during the Whitbread race, was delivery pizza - cold of course.