Sailing: This time the sea got cruel with us

Gordon Maguire, watch leader on Britain's Silk Cut, reveals the true cost of an ill wind
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The Independent Online
Arriving in Sydney harbour by boat is always a very spectacular and special moment. The city skyline, the lights, the famous landmarks of the Opera House and the huge Harbour Bridge can be breathtaking.

However, sailing over the finish line in front of the Opera House in seventh place in a fleet of nine at the end of third leg in the Whitbread Round The World Race is not something that I, or any of the boys on Silk Cut, would like to remember for very long. What made the experience even more painful was the knowledge that only just over a day before the finish we were lying in third position.

It was just 24 hours before that finish that the fickle hand of fate decided to deal us the final blow. As it turned out, we kicked for home about 24 hours too soon, which left us all very tired and drained just at the point when we needed to be fighting our hardest.

What happened was this. Thirty-six hours out of Sydney we decided to dispense with the regular watch system, and make our final push for the finish line. This meant keeping the entire crew on deck, sitting on the windward rail when they were not working at other tasks - all of us driving the boat as hard as possible. It is hard, tiring work. No one sleeps on the rail, you doze, perhaps for a couple of minutes, then something happens and you are brought back down to earth, often with a loud thump and the boat crashes off yet another wave.

Once again, during the third leg as it has in every other one, the weather turned against us. As we sailed north up the New South Wales coast the breeze filled in from the south, allowing the boats at the back of the fleet to catch up. Immediately all the hard work we had put in getting ourselves into a good position for what we thought would be a procession to the finish, went to waste.

The weather is something that rules our lives when we are sailing so you have to get used to its capricious nature. Steve Hayles, our navigator, is constantly working on collecting weather data. However, almost all the weather information that came on to the boat this leg proved to be incorrect - as you know, sometimes the forecasters just get it wrong.

For example, during one 24-hour period on this leg the breeze was forecast to come from the south-west for at least a day, but in fact it spun and oscillated through a full 420 degrees. This meant almost constant sail changes. I cannot even begin to remember how many we went through. As soon as we hoisted one sail, got it set correctly, the wind direction and strength changed, forcing yet another sail change. Tiring work at any time, but particularly towards the end of a leg. For almost the entire leg the fleet raced neck and neck. Sailing across the Great Australian Bight we were spread, north to south, by about 120 miles across, and 20 miles front to back. As the leg went on the boats got closer and closer. At the finish there was less than half an hour between the first seven boats.

Sailing up the coast of New South Wales we could see EF Language and the other leading boats, but we just could not get on terms with them. Then, less than 12 hours from the finish we had an incident that cost us a couple of places. A squall came through and we found ourselves on the wrong side of the breeze. We had a reaching spinnaker up and had to gybe both to cover Merit Cup and Innovation Kvaerner and also put us in a stronger position on the right side of the breeze. A faultless manoeuvre was required. Unfortunately a snap- shackle on the spinnaker exploded at the crucial moment. The sail was left flapping in the breeze like a flag, caught on the mast and ripped to shreds. It took us about five minutes to set another spinnaker and get fully powered up again. In that time Chessie Racing had sailed past. They had a speed advantage as we now had the wrong spinnaker up and to make matters worse Toshiba sailed past as the guys were repairing the torn sail. From third to sixth in minutes.

This Whitbread fleet is particularly strong. We are sailing against the best offshore yachtsmen in the world. The competition is very intense, all the boats are getting quicker. I am convinced that each of the boats will have a bad result - a bad day in the office. It is unfortunate that ours came so early.

This race is run over nine legs and we have only just completed a third. We have had a minor setback. I still firmly believe Silk Cut has the talent on board to beat the others. We are happy with the set up and our boat speed. We are going to change one or two of our systems and have a couple of new sails that will be ready for the next leg. In general we have to relax a little, sit back, take stock of the situation and go again.

After all that, the distraction of Christmas has been most welcome, although the combination of surfing then turkey on Manly Beach was a little strange. It has given us all a chance to take some time off, to recharge and begin preparations for the next leg, starting a week today. The race is still wide open, we just need a couple of good results to get back in the hunt.