Sailing: Swedes lead the celebrations

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THERE were plenty of reasons for celebration here yesterday at the finish of the penultimate leg of the Whitbread Round the World race. Paul Cayard's EF Language wrapped up overall victory in what is the last Whitbread race, Paul Standbridge's Toshiba recorded their first leg victory, and the all- woman crew of EF Education put up one of the best performances ever seen by women racing on equal terms against men.

After eight of the nine legs Cayard has such a big points lead over second-placed Gunnar Krantz's Swedish Match that the boat could sink on the last leg to Southampton, starting on Friday, and he would still be given the Volvo Trophy as overall winner on Sunday.

Cayard made it clear that his Swedish boat, which finished sixth in this leg, would go all out to win the last stage. "I feel really good about winning the Whitbread and I know how lucky I am to win this first time out," he said. "I have a great crew and a great boat. We know how to sail, even though we are novices at ocean racing. We will try to finish as we started. First out, first in."

Asked what had been the turning point which had made the difference in the campaign, a crew member, Magnus Olsson, jumped in to say: "The day we sold Lawrie Smith." He referred to the compensation which the syndicate extracted for releasing Smith to skipper instead the Silk Cut syndicate.

However, the lingering distaste was quickly overtaken by the sweetness of success, which came on the anniversary of the christening of the two EF boats by Queen Sylvia of Sweden a year ago. The Swedes also had good reason to feel proud of their women crew, skippered by Christine Guillou, who finished fourth in the 3,400-mile transatlantic run.

It was no coincidence that the women of EF Education had been joined by Isabelle Autissier, whose first leg win of the last BOC single-handed race is another of the best performances by a woman ocean-racing against men. She would clearly like a campaign of her own in 2001, though preferring a mixed crew.

Cayard, however, was hedging his bets about another race. "You have to know when enough is enough," he said. "You have to feel you can walk away from something as a winner. Whether I will do the race again is a question I can't answer right now."

In no doubt is Standbridge, the Englishman appointed by Dennis Conner to take over when Chris Dickson quit Toshiba at the first stopover in Cape Town. He has competed in five races and is sure this is his last. The leg win means he can walk away a winner, even though Toshiba is lying seventh overall. His is the sixth boat to win one of the eight legs, victory coming after a week-long battle with Merit Cup and then a 500-mile toe- to-toe struggle against his old skipper, Smith.

The second place for Silk Cut gives a British entry that has had difficulty finding pace and rhythm an opportunity to finish in the top three and makes her the top-scoring boat over the last three legs.

Even second is up for grabs, while Dalton's third place is threatened by George Collins' Chessie Racing after John Kostecki brought her home third. Dalton stays alive because his vow to stab himself through the heart with a pair of dividers if beaten by the women applied, he says, to the whole race, not a single leg.

Innovation Kvaerner, meanwhile, drops out of the running, finishing eighth yesterday, just one minute ahead of Brunel Synergy.