Sailing: This time we'll get cruel with the sea

Gordon Maguire, the watch leader on Silk Cut, says his crew are hotting up the pace
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The Independent Online
The Fremantle stopover more than lived up to expectations. After the perils and exertions of the Southern Ocean, Western Australia provided the perfect tonic as we prepared for the third leg of the Whitbread Round The World race. The surf culture appears to run throughout the whole society, making for an enjoyable interlude.

In stark contrast to the British winter chill, Fremantle has been basking in early summer sunshine. While the hot weather was pleasant it provided less than ideal working conditions. Temperatures were soaring into the mid-30s, so when we were working inside the containers that travel the world with us, carrying equipment of every description, the temperature very quickly topped 40C. It was actually extremely unpleasant, and a full 12-hour working day could seem very, very long. It was certainly not a holiday.

However, in the two-and-a- half week break we all managed to take some time off. This gave everyone an opportunity to get away from the frenetic activity of the container park and the madding crowd that surrounds the Whitbread. Most headed south to Margaret River, one of the top surfing areas.

But the hard work went on regardless. Shortly after our arrival Silk Cut was lifted out of the water. Both the hull and the mast were given a thorough inspection and anything that appeared even slightly suspect was replaced. We gave the boat a hard workout in the Southern Ocean and thankfully sustained very little damage. However, we still checked everything for cracks, flaws or any sign of weakness. Unfortunately it is a very time-consuming process - but a vital part of the preparation programme. After many hours of work we only found a couple of minor things that needed to be repaired. It is this type of attention to detail that wins races.

For the leg to Sydney, which started yesterday, we are using a couple of revolutionary new sails. They are huge, up-wind gennakers, which we have been testing here in Australia. We are very pleased with them and cannot wait to hoist them in anger. Many of the other boats are now using similar sails but we still feel we have an advantage as Silk Cut was designed and built specifically with them in mind. The others have had to make significant alterations to enable them to use the new technology.

There is a risk, though, as this new breed of sails puts huge stresses on the boat and the mast. The sails can be up to 170 square metres instead of the more normal 83 and this puts an enormous side loading on the mast. Time will tell if the sails are just too powerful for the boats.

The leg looks like it is going to shape up a bit like the first week out of Cape Town. Once again we are at the bottom of a large continent and we have the same high pressure system developing out to the west of us which we will have to break through to get into the Roaring Forty westerlies beneath. These winds will speed us on our way across the Great Australian Bight to the famous Bass Strait, between mainland Australia and Tasmania. The fleet will then turn the corner and head for Sydney and the finish line opposite the Opera House.

The leg is expected to last about nine days, but to save weight we will only be taking food for eight - so if the winds are light we could be quite hungry by the time we finish.

So far as tactics are concerned, there will be a huge emphasis on getting south as soon after leaving Fremantle as possible. We intend to race this leg more aggressively than we have done so far, so the whole crew will be sat out on the rail of the boat for at least the first two days. Afterbeating on the wind out of Fremantle yesterday against the Fremantle Doctor, a local sea breeze which regularly blows in excess of 20 knots, were expecting it to die off in the late evening, before we find ourselves in light southerly breezes.

The first two days and the race to get south will dictate the remainder of the leg. We will therefore be going flat out for the first few days until we get into the westerly breeze, when everything should become a little easier. The crew will be able to spend a little time below deck getting some sleep and preparing for the last flat-out third through the Bass Strait and north to Sydney.

The passage across the Australian Bight should be almost a procession. I do not expect places to be won or lost while the fleet sails east. It is about 1,200 miles of relatively easy downwind sailing in 15-20 knots of breeze. In contrast, the dash up through the Bass Strait could be very interesting. It is only about 400 miles and the current will be against us, unless we decide to hug the coastline, in which case a favourable current will be pushing us north.

We see the leg as a three-stage sprint. We have to come out of the blocks fast, back off a little bit, catch our breath and then go in hard at the finish. It could be horrible, hard work. We expect to be more exhausted at the end than we were at the end of leg two.

As we are in third place overall, it is absolutely vital that we beat EF Language and Innovation Kvaerner, almost irrespective of where we finish in the fleet. We cannot, at this early stage, afford to be overly concerned with any individuals, although we still have to consider the overall picture. We are very comfortable with our boat speed. When we get the breaks we are confident we will convert them into leg wins. They will come; it is only a matter of time.

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