Sailing: Technicians test rules to the limit as elite prepare for hard-fought Whitbread Race

The skipper of Merit Cup in the Whitbread Round-the-World Race, which starts on Sunday, expects the hardest contest of his career. He will be writing regularly for The Independent about his experiences as the race unfolds.
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With just a few days to go to the start of what everyone agrees is going to be the toughest and closest Whitbread Race ever, we have all been called to a fireside chat to say that, if there are problems, they should be dealt with internally, not hung out for inspection in the press.

Which is right, and so far the organisation of this race has operated really well. But the other side of that coin is that the management has to be really strong, to deal with issues quickly and decisively, because if they do not sort things out they will inevitably blow up in public and the race management itself could find itself the target.

This Whitbread is more than ever like an America's Cup, given the intensity of the research and testing, and the calibre of people involved. The eyes of the world will be on us for the next nine months.

They will see a hard race, a very close race, and anyone who thinks he will blitz the others is kidding himself. But, as in any sport where hi- tech equipment is involved in producing better performance, there are issues behind the scenes.

Two things have been concerning us, both technical, but both could have a bearing on the race. The main area which has everyone looking over their shoulders is the sails. Just like all the bits of a racing car, these have to comply with complex measurement rules as they provide both the power and the gearbox for our racing machines.

All sorts of clever thinking has been at work to push the rules to the limit, work which has been carried out in the utmost secrecy. So people will present designs of sails to the scrutineers as late as possible. If there is any doubt, the measurers will have to be very tough.

Even the long sausage bags in which the sails are folded need careful attention. The rules say they must be porous, so they let out any water in the bag. The reason is that, if they are not porous, the water will stay within the bag and, when those bags are stored on deck, the extra weight of the water will give added balance to the boat. I have seen a few bags that are not porous, just one more area where the competitors will want to see a strong response. The organisers cannot afford to try to be Mr Nice Guy.

Almost a contradiction is that you also want to keep the weight down. We have lost several valuable days of testing because we had to make sure that the boat weighed in right on the 13,500kg minimum. But we found that the load cell being used on the crane to weigh the boats was giving different readings on different days, plus or minus 80kg.

That may not seem much, but the computer also tells us that to push an extra 80kg round the course could cost over two hours. The race may be won and lost by less than that and, to put it further in perspective, we spent many thousands of dollars testing keel shapes, deciding that one may save us an hour round the course compared to another, and comparing minute differences in the hull size which at best would give us two hours.

I know the bookmakers are making us second or third favourites, but the result is difficult to call. We came back from winning our class in the Fastnet Race knowing that, even if we had an edge, we had a lot of work to do to improve the performance of the boat.

We think we have improved, but we also know that others have improved proportionately with us, with Lawrie Smith's Silk Cut, Paul Cayard's EF and Gunnar Krantz's Swedish Match really motoring. I still think any one of at least five could win this race, and that is without the unknown quantity of Ross Field's America's Challenge.

The Alan Andrews design is one of only two not put together by the US- based Kiwi, Bruce Farr, and it is very different. It's either going to be a hell of a long race around the world for them, or a hell of a long race for the rest of us.

Another factor will be the ability to keep developing the boats over the nine legs. In the old days, we would not have dared to risk the sort of last-minute changes we are prepared to try this time. It shows how professional the Merit Cup crew is that we have been able to do it.

They are ready, I have confidence in them and the boat, the waiting is nearly over, but I have no illusions. The first leg to Cape Town is likely to be the hardest, not just because it's the longest but because by the time we cross the equator we will know who has done his homework best. Even then I think it will be so tight that protecting any lead will be the most nerve-wracking I have encountered.