Sailing: Wind of change brings respite for my wet and weary crew

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The Independent Online
Hard work and little sleep made for a tough start to the third leg of the Whitbread Race for Merit Cup. However, as her skipper reports, things are looking up.

Soon we will know what Santa has brought us for Christmas. At the moment it feels more like a lucky dip than a promise to deliver our wish list. This game certainly frays the nerves and I am not sure how well we are going to be able to celebrate with our families when they join us in Australia for the break through the New Year.

When we were halfway to Sydney there was still nothing in it. It has been close racing since the start of the third leg from Fremantle and having everyone so close is a real incentive to keep levels of concentration high.

I can't recall a Whitbread leg where the leaderboard has changed so often and it's going to change again before it is all over.

Almost from the start last Saturday, we have been on the wind. A pounding beat south to Cape Leeuwin and then across the Great Australian Bight. The conditions have not been to our liking and they have been very tiring for the crew.

The weather has not been that bone-crunching, boat-breaking stuff that we have had on other legs, but it has certainly sapped the crew's strength. We had five days on the rail - uncomfortable, wet and wearying. I got my first real sleep on Tuesday night, our fourth night at sea.

It always takes the boys a day or two to settle in after a restart and meal times are not a high priority when it's a beat into the wind from the word go. We did not enjoy the first five days - not only because it's been uncomfortable, but also because our position in the fleet has been none too flash.

However, as Mike Quilter, our on-board philosopher and navigator, says: "We have to live with out weaknesses."

Merit Cup's weakness, plain for anyone to see, is her ability, or lack of it, upwind compared with some of the other yachts. That was our trade- off for downwind performance. We are really happy with that, especially in a light to moderate breeze.

The upwind work was not unexpected, but it is completely different weather from the three previous Whitbread starts from Fremantle when the fleet went south in search of the westerly breeze.

This time, with Sydney the objective instead of Auckland, we took a more easterly route, dictated by the high-pressure system pushing into the area, and had to beat into the south-easterly breeze coming off the top of it.

By yesterday the wind had come around a little and we were able to start reaching. We have also been able to take the sails off the rail on deck (where they had been stacked for five days to help stability) The wind shift is more to our liking, although it was predicted to be light for the next 24 to 36 hours. It could also be patchy.

As I write this we are doing only six knots and it has been like that for a few hours. However, we have started pushing south a little in the expectation of the breeze being a little stronger there. If we get a good breeze we have an excellent chance of showing some of our potential in light to moderate air.

The weather over the next few days should give us the opportunity to catch up if the wind evens out right over the fleet. From then on, we think the breeze will kick in and we will run into Bass Strait. Once we turn the corner, the whole fleet could be bunched again for the final push up to Sydney.

Everyone wants to win, but everyone also knows that we are finally seeing just how well these boats are matched and the difference between walking tall in Sydney and stamping on the dockside waiting for the fourth leg to Auckland is hairline thin.

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