Sailing: Wounded by a low blow

Gordon Maguire, watch leader on Britain's Silk Cut, bemoans bad luck with the weather
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The Independent Online
LIMPING into Auckland, the "City of Sails", under just a storm jib and trisail, summed up the second half of leg for Silk Cut - terribly disappointing to finish only sixth after a reasonably good opening few days. Despite our best efforts, this Whitbread Round The World Race is not yet going according to plan.

At the start of the fourth leg in Sydney last Sunday we took up a good position and were well placed as the gun fired. There were a few boats in front of us including Toshiba, who jumped the start and chose to turn and start at the back of the fleet, Swedish Match and EF Language, who must also have been close to jumping the start.

I know the harbour well having raced in many Sydney to Hobart races, and soon we had worked Silk Cut into second place. So as the fleet sailed out of the harbour through the Heads we were looking good. It was looking pretty good for the first three days. We were very happy with our position within the fleet and our general boat speed. The new sails we had brought on line in Sydney were working really well and any time we lined up with another boat we passed them.

We sailed neck and neck for first with EF Language for an entire morning and eventually managed to sail past them and pull out a lead of over three miles.

But then midway across the Tasman Sea a very small secondary low pressure zone spun up on a weather front causing the weather system to become completely unpredictable. Once again the lottery balls were rolling. Should we go north or should we go south, to take best advantage of the system?

The weather patterns were impossible to work out. Steve Hayles, our navigator, astonished us all when he showed us the weather charts and they bore no resemblance to what we were experiencing. Even two days later the charts still had not picked up the system. So the navigators had a difficult decision to make with little information and data to work on.

The result was that the fleet split, some going north and others going south. We decided to stay north. As it turned out, this was not the best call.

EF Language, whom we had just taken three miles out of, went south, lost 20 miles but immediately took them back plus another 20. I believe their decision was probably as much good fortune as good judgement because no one could have predicted the low pressure movement. But once again we got it wrong and were left in the wrong piece of the ocean at the wrong time.

It is the second time in a row that that has happened to us and now it is starting to get irritating. It must be time for a couple of lucky breaks to go our way.

Approaching Auckland was eventful. We were beating across the Huraki Gulf, with the breeze gusting nearly 50 knots, about 20 miles from the finish, when suddenly a fitting blew off the jib, which flew out towards the back of the boat and punctured a hole about the size of a football through the mainsail. We managed to wrestle the jib down, which not too easy in the strong wind, set the smaller storm jib and start sailing again. But while we were sorting out the trisail to put up in place of the damaged main - the storm jib blew out with a huge bang, leaving us with no sails up. The trisail we were getting ready had to be hoisted double quick so we could get moving again.

Once under way, we worked out that there was nine miles to go to the finish and Kvaerner were 10 miles behind, so they would have to go twice as fast as us to beat us. We sailed into Auckland, under jury rig, which pretty much summed up the second half of the leg.

Despite it all we remain pretty confident. Not one of the other boats has sailed past us. If we are sitting in the same piece of water as the other boats we are consistently faster than them. We have a good boat and a good crew. We are still upbeat as there are still five more legs to go and a lot of points on the table. But now we cannot afford to have another bad leg.

The pressure is now on, but to be honest it always has been. It's always been our belief that we would win this race. From day one we gave ourselves the objective of winning and nothing short of that is good enough.

So here we are in Auckland and we are all booked in for a week's R&R. There's is a small note on the notice board in the office here that reads: "Please do not turn up at the boat during your week off. You will not be welcome." I will be taking thatto heart. We all need time to rest and recharge.

The mood on the boat is still very good despite the poor results to date. We know in our heart of hearts that we are good. We also know that we are fast, perhaps the fastest boat in the fleet. It's just a matter of all the ingredients coming together at the right time. When all around us people are losing confidence we are growing in confidence. Every day we go out there and race against another boats we beat them.

I know I keep saying it but it's true - it is only a matter of time until we start winning.