Sailing: Swedish Match enjoys big freeze

Andrew Preece says bold decisions in the Whitbread are bringing windy rewards
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The Independent Online
A HIGH pressure system that has swept over the Whitbread fleet in the Southern Ocean in the last two days has almost certainly sealed this second leg of the race with more than a week's sailing still to come.

Swedish Match, which claimed the lead on the first night of the leg last Saturday, after taking a bold flyer away from the pack leaving Cape Town, is now more than 250 miles ahead of the second place Innovation Kvaerner and nearly 400 miles ahead of Toshiba, skippered by the Briton Paul Standbridge in third. Barring disaster - hitting a submerged object or losing a rig - this is a safe enough margin even given the compression of the fleet that is bound to occur during the last couple of days when the boats leave the Southern Ocean for the lighter winds approaching Fremantle, Western Australia.

To add insult to injury, Swedish Match is still opening out on the fleet as they storm along at 16 knots in full Southern Ocean downwind mode pushed along by strong south-easterlies while others behind - closer to the effects of the high pressure system - are plodding along at 9 and 10 knots.

The fleet is now divided into three clear groups, with the three leaders well beyond the pack. Behind them, Merit Cup and EF Language, despite being more than 750 miles back, are just 10 miles apart and locked in combat for fourth place.

Serious trouble, though, for the British Silk Cut. Lawrie Smith and his team are at the tail end of the trailing group in eighth. They will be unhappy to hold the lead of 10 miles from the last place EF Education and yesterday were diving south to avoid the worst of the high pressure and try to hook into some stronger southerlies.

The rich getting richer was the hackneyed phrase of leg one when the fleet split early on and several boats' fates were decided in the first week. Nobody expected the Southern Ocean to deliver the same cliches, but once again several of the world's best navigators have been confounded by the weather as the leaders have extended relentlessly since day one.

The tone of this leg was set within hours of the start when the skipper Gunnar Krantz and navigator Roger Nilson sailed around the fleet becalmed under the lee of Table Mountain and into an almost immediate 40-mile lead. They extended by steadfastly sailing south and refusing to be drawn east too early in a temptation to shorten the distance to Fremantle by sailing nearer to the Great Circle route - the shortest distance between the two ports.

Kvaerner was the first to follow to the south, then Toshiba. The three boats were rewarded by being first into the freezing temperatures and big winds, the rest of the fleet behind being continually punished by light airs. Some were even becalmed where they would have expected 30 knots plus. "You are seeing a weather gate which is unprecedented in my experience of the Whitbread," said Grant Dalton, skipper of Merit Cup, who is sailing his fifth race.

Up at the front, where conditions in blasting icy winds off Antarctica are providing the big speeds and huge gains, discomfort is offset by excitement. "On deck it's like being hosed down by the fire brigade non-stop," said Kvaerner skipper Knut Frostag. "Inside there is cold water everywhere."

Latest positions: 1 Swedish Match (Swe) 2754.7 miles to finish, 2 Innovation Kvaerner (Nor) 236 behind leader, 3 Toshiba (USA) 353, 4 Merit Cup (Mon) 692, 5 EF Language (Swe) 708, 6 BrunelSunergy (Ned) 786, 7 Silk Cut (Gbr) 794, 8 Chessie Racing (USA) 807, 9 EF Education (Swe) 821.