Sailing: Whitbread Round the World Race: First few days crucial with the Southern Ocean looming: Grant Dalton, the skipper of the leading maxi, NZ Endeavour, who is writing for the Independent, assesses the run to Cape Horn and Uruguay

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The Independent Online
ARRIVING in Auckland was emotional enough, but the leaving tomorrow will be a major wrench, which we will have to put behind us as quickly as possible as we dive down into the Southern Ocean for the second half of our circumnavigation of Antarctica.

It's a sad time in a way, but the first three or four days are critical as we position ourselves for the entry into the Southern Ocean and there are opportunities for making big gains if we get that right. The fourth leg of the Whitbread takes us once again around the Horn, but the weather may be a little milder now that the timing of the race has been put back, further into the southern hemisphere summer.

Many tend to think it could be an easy run to the Horn, but it could blow very hard and the leg has, in the past, seen some of the biggest 24-hour runs.

So there are three stages, the first mixing the need for emotional energy and tactical awareness, then there is the run to the Horn and then the run up to Punta del Este in Uruguay, which can give everything from calms through to the vicious winds which accompany the production line of low-pressure zones.

We, of course, will be praying for high-pressure zones, especially on that second section. Although we will be keeping a specially careful eye on our maxi rival, La Poste, as we are impressed by what the new skipper, Eric Tabarly, and his navigator, Halvard Mabire, did on the last leg, I still expect the major competition to come from the Whitbread 60s.

It has been noticeable that the W60s are performing better and better as they enjoy thousands of miles of close competition. If it blows hard on this leg, then the speed machines will beat us. Less wind will help us.

Not that we can change very much. We have new sails, the machine is fairly well oiled and there are no squeaking parts, no changes in personnel or watches, but we may find a little extra if the pressure is on. Like the 60s, there are always things you can try when the competition is close.

It will be good to go back to sailing. We are leaving the summer behind, but we are also leaving a very hectic schedule of meeting people. The sponsor support programme has been relentless. There has been a steady round of dinner speeches, question-and-answer sessions, and some concentration in a programme which takes in 3,500 schools. That is all part of running a high-profile campaign and if you want public support, then you have to be public property.

(Photograph omitted)