Sailing: Smith's high rollers will avoid the big gamble: Britain's Whitbread Round the World Race skipper is shipshape. Stuart Alexander reports from Fremantle

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The Independent Online
LAWRIE SMITH is playing down the pole position he has seized in the Whitbread Round the World Race before Sunday's start of the third leg, from Fremantle to Auckland.

'Chris Dickson's lead should be pretty secure again when he arrives in New Zealand,' Smith said. The British yachtsman prefers the pressure to remain on the man who leads the race overall and is nearly 14 hours ahead of him at the head of the Whitbread 60 class.

Dickson is one of four Kiwi skippers all desperate to be first into their home port, but Smith said: 'The Kiwi problem is their problem. All we want to do is win the leg, not win by a long way. We won't be taking any big gambles, but we will again go our own way if we think we can gain.'

'This is more of a boat speed leg, with less option to play the angles, so we have been working on straight-line speed,' Smith said. 'We still worry about Dickson, he's strong, but not that strong.'

Smith sees the reappearance of Dennis Conner on Winston as positively helpful to him. 'I'll be cheering a bit as they now have, with Brad Butterworth, two skippers. But I don't see DC as any threat in this race. I think he's too old and not fit enough.'

Smith cannot disguise that he is still on a high. After the low point of his exit from Fortuna, the Spanish maxi dismasted soon after the start of the Whitbread Race, he sailed to a second-leg victory in Fremantle. He had taken over Intrum Justitia, a good boat with a talented crew, and turned them into winners, having sailed on the new breed of Whitbread 60s for only a few hours. 'I just learned as I went along,' he says, 'and the guys knew the boat pretty well. But, we've improved a lot of things for the next leg.'

Smith is quick to learn. He has an instinct for what makes a boat go faster, and what a breeze and a sea are doing. He has a talent for what is called keeping a boat in the groove, that narrow channel of optimum speed and most desirable direction. It is made more difficult through having to drive over a ploughed field called waves. Smith is good at smoothing out the ride, and so reducing the braking effect of bashing into a wall of water.

On Intrum, he is not alone. One of the by-products of the coup which saw the former skipper and project originator, Roger Nilson, retire hurt to Sweden was that one of Smith's long-time associates, Paul Standbridge, had already been recruited as 12th man. The fearless Standbridge is a very good downwind helmsman.

So is Smith and, in addition, he already had the talents of the Frenchman Pierre Mas, the skipper of Corum in France's 1993 Admiral's Cup team, and Magnus Olsen, a former world champion in the Finn class.

Gunnar Krantz was Sweden's America's Cup skipper in 1992 and the Swiss, Dominique Wavre, also fancies himself on the wheel. So the depth of talent on which Smith could draw was considerable, and vitally important when every inch of advantage was being fought over by the top five 60s.

His natural propensity to ignore budget constraints has been partly countered, because race rules only allow the Whitbread 60s a total of 42 new sails for the whole race. However, he soon decided that the bottom needed a completely new, smoother finish and that the whole boat would be repainted in Auckland.

The other unfinished business to deal with in Auckland will be the reopening of the hearing to assess the time compensation given to Winston, when she diverted her course following the distress signal from Italy's Brooksfield in the second leg. The 21 hr 28 min 30 sec pushed Winston to second overall, ahead of Intrum, for the two legs.

'Instead of being over four hours behind overall, they are three hours ahead,' Smith fumed. 'It is preposterous.'

As well as blowing away doubts about fulfilling his promise to do the third leg on Winston, Conner sprang another surprise yesterday by revealing a wish to represent the United States in the Olympics again, in the three-man Soling in 1996.

(Photograph omitted)