Sailing: Storming run from Smith cuts back Conner's lead: Chasing pack go on the attack as America's Winston struggles to stay ahead in the Whitbread Round the World race

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LAWRIE SMITH was closing in on Dennis Conner last night as the American's advantage in the third leg of the Whitbread Round the World Race from Fremantle to Auckland shrank to just 14 miles.

Smith put in a storming run of 401 miles in 24 hours to push Intrum Justitia into second place behind Winston, four miles ahead of Ross Field's Yamaha and six miles ahead of Chris Dickson in Tokio. Smith and Field are taking a slightly more southern route into the Tasman Sea than Conner and Dickson.

Still leading the maxi class is Grant Dalton's New Zealand Endeavour, but his chase after the four Whitbread 60 yachts looks a forlorn one in the conditions. With blustery winds in the Roaring Forties south of Tasmania, the old maxi, Uruguay Natural, was running for cover into Storm Bay, near Hobart, to investigate rudder damage. Her skipper, Gustavo Vanzini Pons, said: 'We felt a crash in the rudder section and the boat is now suffering vibration.'

Wind speeds of 50 knots were blamed for a rip in the mainsail of the British entry, Dolphin & Youth. The tear cost her skipper, Matt Humphries, about three hours in repair time, but he was holding on to eighth place.

'We managed to keep the loss of ground to a minimum,' Humphries said, 'but we were left with a difficult decision - do we keep pushing the yacht in these strong winds with the chance of splitting the main again, or do we sail conservatively? We are fighters and having had disappointment on leg two, we want a good result on this one.'

Brooksfield had an unhappy day, having had to cut away a new pounds 10,000 spinnaker wrapped around the forestay.

In Auckland, Jim Bolger, the New Zealand Prime Minister, tackled the recurring fear that the next race may not stop there. Opening the pounds 4m race village, he warned Martin Findlay, the chairman of the Whitbread race board, that: 'If we were to be removed, we certainly would not get over it and you would know about it.'

Auckland is by far the best organised and enthusiastically supported stop-over, and has consistently entered competitive boats and produced leading skippers and crews. The problem is that New Zealand is a small market (population 3.4 million) for international sponsors. 'We are keeping a very open mind about the different cities pitching for places,' Findlay said.

WHITBREAD ROUND THE WORLD RACE (Third leg, Fremantle, Aus, to Auckland, NZ) Positions with nautical miles to finish: 1 Winston (US) 1,178; 2 Intrum Justitia (NZ) 1,192; 3 Yamaha (Japan) 1,196; 4 Tokio (Japan) 1,198; 5 *New Zealand Endeavour (NZ) 1,207; 6 Galicia 93 Pescanova (Sp) 1,218; 7 *La Poste (Fr) 1,241; 8 Dolphin and Youth (GB) 1,275; 9 *Merit Cup (Swit) 1,297; 10 Brooksfield (It) 1,364; 11 Heineken (US) 1,396; 12 Hetman Sahaidachny (Ukr) 1,466; 13 *Uruguay Natural (Urug) 1,539; 14 Odessa (Ukr) 1,600 * Maxis BT Results Service