Sailing / Whitbread Round the World Race: Keeping watch on the rhythm of the race: Grant Dalton, skipper of maxi leader, NZ Endeavour, continues his Independent series on the Whitbread Round the World Race

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The Independent Online
AFTER a week of high-speed racing we are now seeing major changes in fortune as the weather turns fickle. We were in the lead only to find that, having concentrated on beating the 60s, we had to win back our place as the top maxi. Briefly, for the first time in a long time, Pierre Fehlmann's Merit Cup had been ahead of us.

We may have been a little slow to settle down after a month with families and friends in the sunshine of Auckland, but the watchleaders, Kevin Shoebridge and Glen Sowry, have been cranking up the crew.

The watchleaders have a mental checklist of all that should happen when making the change from the outgoing watch to the oncoming quartet, but the first thing we have tried to ensure is that a new watch do not come on deck cold, not just in terms of temperature, but in terms of mental preparedness. For this reason we run three watches of four people.

The primary aim is to make the change so smooth that the computer which constantly monitors the performance of the boat will not sense that there has been any change. But there is also an important communication job to be done. For instance, the new bowman will be told by his opposite number not only which sail is up, but on which of the two grooves on the forestay it has been hoisted, which halyard has been used to hoist it, and therefore what would need to be done if a sail change were necessary.

The sail trimmer, who constantly adjusts the angle of the sail to the wind, will describe what has been going on, and the new helmsman will discuss what the boat has been doing, the wave and wind patterns, and the sort of performance that is being achieved.

The new watch will already have been dressed and ready to go, because of being on stand- by, but some of them will have been able to catnap below. The change of watch is also the time when food is served, to the new watch before they come on, and to the old watch as they come off. The cardinal sin on any boat is to be late on watch.

It is also important at night to be very careful about lights. Below, red rather than white light is used, but even then the hatch is kept shut so that the night sight of those on deck, particularly that of the helmsman, is not spoiled by escaping light. It is equally important to be very careful when using a torch at night to check the sails.

It is all part of driving the boat very, very hard. That made it all the more frustrating when we had to stop the boat to put Sean Clarkson over the side to clear a plastic bag caught around the rudder. It causes not just a loss of time and distance, it upsets the rhythm of the boat.

The other maxis have been a little more difficult to shake off on this leg; perhaps they are still improving as the race develops, while we have to work hard to squeeze any more out of a hull we are already pushing to the maximum.

It was good to make contact with Peter Blake and Robin Knox-Johnston on the catamaran, Enza, as they attempt to crack the record for sailing round the world. It was a time for Kiwi camaraderie.

(Photograph omitted)