Sailing: Whitbread Round The World Race: Aggressive racing in similar boats puts premium on tactical choice

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The Independent Online
After four of the nine legs of the Whitbread the time at home in Auckland has been a good one to sit down quietly and review everything before the second half this weekend.

This has been harder than any of the previous four Whitbread's in which I have sailed. We always say that. Every race seems to be tougher than the one before, though it can be difficult to say why this time. Not higher winds, more on-the-wind sailing, not wetter, colder, or hotter. Anyway, the unpleasant memories fade quickly and only the good parts of the previous race remain in the memory.

However, this race is different. It is tougher, measurably so. I have never sailed in a regatta that has so many Olympic medallists and world champions in the crews.

Another factor that makes this race tougher is that the boats are very similar in speed potential. That puts a premium on tactics. As we have seen, one wrong move and suddenly you're hundreds of miles off the pace. Every boat is having its turn at the back of the fleet and that's largely a result of the extremely aggressive tactics.

On the last two Whitbreads we were able to sail fairly conservatively and do well, but conservative tactics won't get you anywhere in this field. You have to get everything exactly right and go for it.

The yacht is holding up well to the pounding even though we broke a lot of gear on the first leg. In one gust, a shackle on the back stay with a 10,000-kilo breaking strain broke and we almost lost the mast. We changed the fittings in Cape Town and we have not had any problems since.

However, except for the beat into Auckland, we haven't had any big winds either since that first leg. We have blown out a few sails, but that's expected.

There has been speculation that we might have been better off with our second, beamier boat. All our research indicated that a narrower hull with less wetted surface would do better. However, the conditions encountered so far would have probably have better suited the other boat.

If this was an Olympic regatta we would be looking good so I suppose we are happy to be second overall at this point, but the fifth leg is very important.

We believe Merit Cup has still has not achieved its maximum potential in terms of speed. We are continuing our sail development programme, we are sailing more aggressively and the win into Auckland did wonders for morale.

As for the opposition, the position of the all-woman crew in EF Education does not do them justice. They are sailing competitively, but this is a very physical race and the men are at a distinct advantage.

I am at a loss to explain Silk Cut's relatively lacklustre performance, but we have seen some absolutely stunning sustained speeds and only a fool would write off Lawrie Smith.

Toshiba are still suffering from a bad first leg, but on the fourth leg from Sydney, it showed her potential. We can expect to see some more improvement.

Chessie Racing is coming good. She has a lot of potential still to be developed and she is improving fast.

A couple of good legs - a third and a second - then a fifth and a seventh show Innovation Kvaerner is going the wrong way. If I was Knut Frostad I would not be a happy man.

The form boat is definitely EF Language. Probably the fastest in the fleet, Paul Cayard's America's Cup experience is giving us all a few lessons in boat-to-boat racing.