Sailing: Toshiba wins but Cayard celebrates

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The Independent Online
IT WAS Smith versus Standbridge, British skipper versus British skipper, each desperate to beat the other and neither with very much to lose. The eighth leg of the Whitbread Round the World Race, which came alight in the middle of last week when the early leaders piled into light airs and Silk Cut came from nearly 200 miles behind to take the lead, stayed nip and tuck to the finish, when Paul Standbridge on Toshiba just held off Lawrie Smith's Silk Cut to win.

Smith had sniffed a final chance of victory when Silk Cut followed Toshiba in towards the land on the final approach to La Rochelle. He and his friend and former crewman Standbridge had been sailing in sight of each other for the last three days, trading the lead as minute differences in wind strength and angle showed up strengths and weaknesses in their respective sail inventories. "I thought we were going to get them," said Smith after a dying breeze had given him a last tactical option 20 minutes from the finish. "But he deserves it and Toshiba deserve it. They've had some pretty bad luck."

As much Standbridge was pleased to have beaten his former mentor he was quick to praise his team and his new navigator Murray Ross. "People want to hear about me versus Lawrie," said Standbridge afterwards, "but team Toshiba v Team Silk Cut is the way I see it."

The private duel will hardly have troubled Paul Cayard, who, as skipper of EF Language was due to arrive early this morning in sixth place. His lowest finish of the race was due to the fact that for much of the leg he was looking over his shoulder at Gunnar Krantz's Swedish Match, covering the Swedes move for move.

Cayard has been saying for months that he was keen to tie his first Whitbread, up before the final leg to avoid the potential pitfalls of the 400-mile dash to Southampton this week. With Swedish Match behind, Cayard will have arrived safe in the knowledge that the race is his. Although the shore crew were not planning any great celebrations, out on the water the crew were already looking back over a race that could hardly have gone any better for the "bunch of Whitbread rookies" they called themselves at the outset.

A day before the finish, navigator Mark Rudiger informed the crew that they had "tied the knot", and closed the loop around the planet they started in September. It focused their minds. But if EF Language's arrival to victory marked the end of any hopes Krantz and the other seven skippers secretly harboured of winning, across the fleet the order into La Rochelle offered elation and disappointment.

Up at the front, the two British sailors will be happy to head towards Southampton on a high note after a disappointing race. Smith has been plagued by poor results early on and the loss of his mast in the Southern Ocean, while Toshiba has fallen foul of the international jury losing points on two legs. Behind, the crew of Chessie Racing, liberally scattered with sailing's stellar order were happy to settle for third place, coming from the back of the fleet. With Merit Cup and Innoivation Kavaerner behind them, Chessie's chances of an overall podium finish improved further.

For the women of EF Education, a fourth place was something they will have dreamed about for the entire race, knowing that they have a boat the equal of Cayard's. And while Grant Dalton, who said he would stab himself with the dividers from his chart table if he ever got beaten by the women's team, may take a day or two to recover from his wounds, he will realise he has closed the gap on Swedish Match in second.

But while four skippers, including Smith, will spend the week poring over the permutations that could see them on the podium alongside Cayard on Sunday, this week belongs to the EF Language crew who sealed the race last night. Cayard said he did not think he could win the Whitbread last September. And even as he found he had a fast boat, a smart navigator and a hungry crew, he would never have expected to have won three legs and made the Whitbread veterans, the Olympic sailors and the other America's Cup sailors look so ordinary with the final 440-mile leg to spare.