Sailing: Watching hawks poised to soar on high winds

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It is not the forecast of big winds that is worrying us on Merit Cup in the Whitbread Round the World race at the moment, but the prospect of a steady 20 to 30 knots to give fast running conditions as we turn left towards Cape Horn. If anything I am more fearful of 30-knot winds than I am of 50.

With 30 knots we are right on the margin when carrying our big spinnakers and when you are on the margin you can suffer some pretty scary wipeouts. In 50 knots the mainsail is well reefed down and there is very little else up.

On the plus side, these are the conditions in which there can be some big runs and after the relatively easy start the whole fleet will want to get on with the job of tackling this southern ocean leg.

At least we can all feel a little relief that no one has stolen a march during the tramp south. The only worry was seeing Chessie Racing and Toshiba heading east. That sort of thing makes a skipper wonder about his own tactics.

However, we had Silk Cut and Swedish Match with us, so obviously some others thought we were doing the right thing. As it happens Chessie and Toshiba came back. The strategy of striking hard south has been established and the opportunity for breaks nullified.

It has been tricky first five days. We were watching each other like hawks and you could be sure that if you made what looked like a decisive change in direction then two or three boats would immediately follow. And for some reason it has seemed to take longer than normal to get back into sleeping and eating patterns. Perhaps it was because we New Zealanders had such a busy time at home in Auckland.

If there is a niggle at all it has been seeing Lawrie Smith in Silk Cut showing better than expected speed in the light to moderate conditions which should have given us an advantage. And we know what he can do in the heavier stuff.

On the other hand Swedish Match has not enjoyed the conditions, but she has survived in them long enough to be in with the bunch as the new pattern emerges.

The distances between the top seven boats can be discounted, as they can be made up quickly in the conditions we should have for the remaining 5,700 miles. The only damage has been a bent stanchion and the crew are in good shape.

A New Zealand Air Force plane passed overhead just before we altered course to head more east. That is something we only expect when approaching home, a sort of welcoming signal. This time it was to say goodbye and the next land we expect to see is the notorious Cape Horn at the tip of South America. That, too, will be a welcome sight.