Sailing: Smith's crew foresee an upset

By Stuart Alexander in Annapolis, Maryland

THE rain went away, the crowds gathered on land and sea, and Annapolis yesterday gave as rumbustious a farewell to the Whitbread fleet as its bigger brother Baltimore had given a welcome 10 days before.

The eighth, penultimate, 3,400-mile leg across the Atlantic to La Rochelle was changing shape as rapidly as the weather forecasts for the nine yachts which lined up just north of the four-and-a-half-mile long Chesapeake Bay Bridge.

Gazing down from its 184ft span were thousands upon thousands of Marylanders taking part in an annual fun walk, curious to see an event which, on its first visit, has taken the local community by storm.

Ahead lay about 15 tricky hours of picking a path through the threatening shoals and shallows, lobster pots and fishing boats that litter the bay. The light to moderate south-westerly wind promised a smooth enough run to the ocean and the Gulf Stream swinging north and east.

But earlier predictions of fast reaching conditions to take them on a path between the ice inclusion zone from the Grand Banks to Newfoundland and the slow conditions of the North Atlantic high pressure system were becoming more uncertain.

``It is going to be a very hard leg,'' said Adrian Stead, of Silk Cut. Lawrie Smith's crew still see the hope of an upset which, with the final sprint to Southampton, could close the gap between the sixth-placed British entry and Grant Dalton's third-placed Merit Cup.

The overall leader, Paul Cayard, in Ef Language has only to record a half-way decent result to wrap it up with the final leg to spare. But, with sailmaker Paul Murray replacing the injured Marco Constant, Cayard will be looking for his fourth leg win. And Murray knows Constant will be back on board despite his broken left wrist, for the victory ride to the finish if the result is sewn up in the next couple of weeks.

Their counterparts on the all-woman Ef Education have the special incentive of a French skipper, Christine Guillou, being flanked by two top sailors returning home to La Rochelle, Isabelle Autissier and Christine Briand.

For Autissier, who mainly races single-handed, this is her seventh Atlantic crossing and she would be keen to skipper her own entry in the 2001 Volvo, which takes over from the Whitbread.