Sailing: Smith waylaid by lobsters

America's lead in the Admiral's Cup was under intense pressure from Italy in the Fastnet Race finale last night as Grant Dalton, skipper of Merit Cup, was celebrating victory in what was the first major test of the Whitbread fleet.

The lead between the new crop of nine Whitbread 60s changed seven times over the last few miles as the British skipper, Lawrie Smith, had to send crewman Jez Fanstone over the side to free lobster pot lines caught round the keel when they were leading.

He eventually finished fourth admitting that, even without the hold-up of three minutes, he would not have been able to hold the flying New Zealander on the run-in. And rival Kiwi Chris Dickson, co-skipper with Dennis Conner of the American entry Toshiba, had to be content with second place after dumping both spinnakers in the water while making a change.

With Gunnar Krantz's Swedish Match third, the first four boats were separated by only 10 minutes into Queen Anne's Battery, Plymouth, and the more Corinthian American entry, George Collins' Chessie Racing, was a surprise 23 minutes ahead of annoyed America's Cup skipper, Paul Cayard, on EF Language.

"Obviously you like to win, but it's not the main event, it's just the pre-season warm-up," Dalton said. "We learned quite a bit, mainly where we are quick and where we are not. But we know what to do," he added before taking the boat back first to Hamble and then on to Belgium.

"We're quite happy," said Smith, blaming gaps in the sail mix they were carrying. "We have been very frustrated," Cayard said.

A grandstand finish was building for the Admiral's Cup as the defending Italians continued to threaten a repeat of 1995 by snatching the trophy from the United States in the Fastnet decider.

With the first clutch of big boats due in last night, a softening breeze also meant some overnight nailbiting before the result is known today. A late rush by the Australian 40-footer G-Net pushed them into a provisional second place, the Americans were third, Germany fourth and Britain fifth as the much fancied New Zealanders had slumped from second at the start to provisional sixth on the water.

Records had seemed unlikely after the slow start to the 610-mile race from Cowes on Saturday, but even with that, and the addition of five miles to the original course (which makes all previous records redundant) the first boat home, Ross Field's Ericsson 80-footer Banque Internationale a Luxembourg, completed the course in 61hr 57min 41sec, 76 minutes and 26 seconds outside the time set by Nirvana in 1985.

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