Sailing: The sheer terror of the iceberg rush

Gordon Maguire, watch leader on Silk Cut, prepares to risk all in the Whitbread
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The Independent Online
WE have had a three-week stopover here in Auckland, but the action on Silk Cut has still been relentless. Although we have all had some time away from the boat to rest and mentally prepare ourselves for the challenge that lies ahead in the second half of the Whitbread Round The World Race, a great deal has happened.

Despite our disappointing position - we are seventh of the nine boats - we still believe we have the ability to win the race. The way we sail the boat is good enough to win, it is just a matter of getting the strategy correct. That is why we have changed two of our 12-man crew for the fifth leg to Sao Sebastaio in Brazil, which starts today.

Vincent Geake, with whom I have sailed many times, has replaced our navigator Steve Hayles, who decided at the end of leg four to step down, and Gerard Mitchell, a helmsman, replaces Neil Graham, a trimmer. The main reason for Gerry joining is that the tendinitis in my shoulder, which has plagued me for most of the race, could flare up in the cold, wet and wild conditions of the Southern Ocean, where there is a massive premium on driving in heavy weather. Gerry was a watch leader on Dolphin & Youth, in the last Whitbread, and knows what conditions can be like down south.

This leg is the most punishing in terms of fitness and stress. We sail 4,500 miles from Auckland to Cape Horn, mostly deep in the Southern Ocean, mixing it up with icebergs and the other hazards that go with that part of the world - freezing water and air temperatures many degrees colder, coupled with the worst storms imaginable.

Once again there are two distinct halves to the leg. First there is the race to Cape Horn, a typical Whitbread, Southern Ocean leg; you batten down the hatches and go looking for the strong breeze to push you across the bottom of the world. Then on reaching Cape Horn it is a 2,500-mile race north through shifty tropical conditions.

The key players will be the navigators, and the one who can predict the weather the best will win. Although we all receive regular forecasts they are far from reliable in this part of the world. There is no weather monitoring equipment and the only people who dare to go the great circle (shortest) route between New Zealand and Cape Horn are racing yachtsmen so the fleet will be all alone, several thousand miles from land.

We expect to push well into iceberg country, where having a good radar and a constantly vigilant crew is crucial. The biggest danger is not a mile-long 200ft high iceberg, because they are picked up very easily on the radar. More worrying are the small bits that break off the larger bergs. They can weigh several hundred tons and lie just below the surface. If we hit one at 20 knots it would simply rip the boat apart. It is something none of us want to even think about.

After 10 days sailing through some of the wildest waters on earth we should reach perhaps the most famous nautical landmark, Cape Horn. The ocean and weather systems which flow for thousands of miles unhindered around the bottom of the world are funnelled into a tiny 400-mile gap between South America and Antarctica, making it one of the most volatile places on earth.

Rounding Cape Horn, which is always a big occasion, marks the end of the first half. We will all be relieved to be heading north, into warmer weather. Within days off come the gloves, hats and thermals and we're into tropical sailing, and the area where the leg will be won or lost. There will be many holes in the breeze as we sail up the coast, and anyone unlucky enough to fall into one could be trapped while the others sail by.

We intend to sail the first half steadily and keep our powder dry for the second half. Gear breakage in the Southern Ocean can cost a huge amount of time. So far we have very little damage, mainly thanks to our attention to detail, checking and re-checking equipment almost on an hourly basis.

I have been asked several times if I'm looking forward to all this. The only people who look forward to going into the Southern Ocean have very bad memories or have never done it before. I, unfortunately, have all my faculties and can recall exactly what it is like.

The only reason I'm excited about the prospect of heavy air sailing is because I know we're good at it. We have a good strong crew, with good morale and a burning desire to do well. That will help; when the going gets tough we will show everyone that we can sail and are capable of winning.