Sailing: The ultimate team event

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The Independent Online
One week today the world's finest sailors will set off on the Whitbread Round The World Race - a fearsome 31,600-mile, eight-month journey. Britain's Silk Cut, skippered by Lawrie Smith, is one of the favourites, and Smith's right-hand man, Gordon Maguire (left), will be providing a unique insight into life on board throughout the race. Maguire is one of the world's leading professional racers. He made his name as the fastest man in Ireland on a windsurfer before moving to England 10 years ago. This is his third Whitbread, having held senior positions with both Smith and the great American Dennis Conner. He was one of Smith's first signings for the race, in which he is the starting helmsman and one of two watch leaders.

Britain could actually win the 1997-98 Whitbread Round The World yacht Race. That is a bold statement, and certainly it is somewhat biased as I am sailing on the British entry, but in Silk Cut this country at last has a truly world-class boat and crew.

In the 24 years since the race began no British boat has ever won this 31,600-mile, eight-month battle against the most extreme conditions to be found anywhere on the globe. With seven days to the start, I, and the rest of the crew, feel confident that we can make sailing history in June next year by being the fastest boat to complete the circumnavigation.

This will be my third Whitbread so I know what I am letting myself in for. The four years since the start of the last race have not diminished my memories of enduring endless hours of being battered by huge waves and praying that the mast would not break; of snatching sleep in wet clothes that I had been wearing for weeks; of sailing through snow while trying to dodge lumps of ice the size of a house that would sink us in seconds. But the greatest torture of all is not winning.

Since Silk Cut arrived in Britain four months ago the crew have been working seven days a week to get her ready. We also train in the gym every second morning so it has been a punishing schedule.

We have been through two different mast designs and 35 different sails in around 100 combinations to try to find the fastest set-ups for the various conditions that will confront us. On the first leg - the 7,350 nautical miles from Southampton down to Cape Town which will take the best part of a month to complete - we will need super-lightweight sails to enable us to pick up any wisps of breeze in the searing heat of the Doldrums.

On the second leg, when we cover 4,600 nautical miles from Cape Town to Fremantle in Western Australia, we need bulletproof storm sails to survive in the 40-50 mile an hour winds of the Southern Ocean.

Attention to detail will be the key to our success, we feel. Despite the distances, we will need only to be a few seconds faster than the opposition to win, and those few seconds could be gained by something as simple as reducing the weight of the boat by just 10 kilos.

The computer predicts this will amount to a two and a half minute gain over the whole race. I kept telling myself this during the hours I spent crawling around the cramped interior to file the one-centimetre ends off all 250 bolts that attach the deck fittings.

The crew are better prepared, both physically and mentally, than any other I have ever sailed with. We are a tight-knit bunch and most of us knew each other before this campaign. Not only do we train and work together 12 hours a day but we can be seen having a post-work beer together most evenings. This work, rest and play routine has engendered a deep feeling of mutual trust and respect.

The Whitbread is the toughest ocean race in the world. To get round with body, soul and mind intact you have to rely on your team-mates. When you are exhausted and frozen and you need to push once more to make another exhausting sail change the ability of your fellow crew to motivate you is what keeps you going. This makes the Whitbread the ultimate team event.