Sailing: Staying on top of the charts

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The Independent Online
JOHN CHITTENDEN is one of the old school in the class of 1992- 93 skippers in the British Steel Challenge. But Chittenden, 52, has seen off the young turks on what was expected to be the hardest leg of the round-the-world venture, has taken over the lead with the shortest combined time at the half-way stage, and has had the satisfaction of making an old sea dog's approach pay dividends.

'I have been more tetchy on this leg than on any race before, but my crew are a bloody good bunch and I shall be sorry to see some of them go,' he said.

Not that he is any way indulging in displays of exuberance. That is not his way. He was still able to maintain a stream of invective about a crew who had left him to scrub the decks of his yacht, Nuclear Electric, and to ascribe to lady luck the good fortune to reach Hobart first.

Was the southern ocean as terrible as it was expected to be. 'The conditions were kind,' he said. 'I hit more bad weather in a week last winter in the North Sea than in the whole of this leg.' He was full of praise for the boat and its designer, David Thomas, he thought it as good to windward as anything he had found.

Jim Kinneir-Wilson, the navigator on the second-placed boat, Commercial Union, agreed. 'The times of high wind and stress were few and far between,' he said. 'Apart from a maximum of 36 hours, we experienced nothing greater than you would find in the North Sea. Except for the icebergs, that is. They are beautiful, alarming and awesome.'

Some of Chittenden's rivals, however, do think he has been lucky, Kinneir-Wilson among them. 'We pushed them really hard,' he says, 'and we covered an extra 85 miles, which just about accounts for the 11 hours difference at the finish.'

But, while Chittenden is guarded about revealing how he planned the 9,000 miles from Rio to Hobart, he is adamant that the break to the east in the first part of the leg, when the other nine went west, was carefully calculated. 'There were four options available and three of them took you east. If anyone was taking a flyer it was the other nine going more westerly.'

He also had charts of the weather systems in the southern ocean for the past four years. The pattern he encountered was remarkably similar.

Going round Cape Horn, Nuclear Electric was the best part of a day ahead of the fleet, a cushion which Chittenden used to ease his crew into heavy weather boat handling. 'We lost perhaps six hours by sailing conservatively and the watch leaders were under some pressure from the rest of the crew to urge me to push the boat harder,' he admitted.

But he knew which way he wanted things done, even if he had to tear off a few strips when orders were ignored, and he now thinks 'they are coming on very well. They started to believe in themselves a week out of Rio, there was a change in attitude. They became attuned to what I was thinking.'

After a slight shuffle of the composition of the watches any friction disappeared and there was hardly a cross word 'except from me'. No risks were taken, any and every measure was implemented to avoid damage.

For both boats the second leg has involved a turn-around. Nuclear Electric was an undistinguished seventh in the first leg, Commercial Union was a dismal last, with the skipper, Will Sutherland, carrying the can and his replacement, Richard Merriweather, waiting on the dockside.

'We all had a lot to prove,' Kinneir-Wilson, a solicitor, said. 'Because of that we pulled out the stops, put ourselves back into contention. Compared with the first leg it is chalk and cheese. We're a much happier boat now.'

Early this morning, local time, the third boat, Hofbrau, was making slow progress over the final 40 miles to the finish. Pete Goss and the crew were nevertheless far enough ahead of their rivals to protect their second place overall.

BRITISH STEEL CHALLENGE ROUND-THE- WORLD RACE: Second leg (Rio de Janeiro to Hobart): Positions (with miles to the finish): 1 Nuclear Electric finished; 2 Commercial Union finished; 3 Hofbrau 40; 4 Coopers and Lybrand 92; 5 Group 4 173; 6 Pride of Teesside 180; 7 Heath Insured 253; 8 Interspray 362; 9 Rhone- Poulenc 845. Dismasted: British Steel II. (Information supplied by BT).