Shared ammunition hints at war of attrition

Grant Dalton skippered New Zealand Endeavour to victory in the 1993/94 Whitbread Round the World yacht race and wrote regular accounts of his progress in the Independent. This year he will skipper Merit Cup in the seventh Whitbread and will tell the story of his part in the competition in our pages. With the start of the race on 21 September less than three months away, Dalton looks ahead to his fifth round the world venture

This will be my fifth Whitbread and it already feels different from every previous race. Not because there is any lack of intensity: with such big budget, high technology campaigns the pressures and complexities make bigger and bigger demands. Not because it will be any easier to sail: I am four years older, the W60 boats (last time we were in a maxi) are deservedly known for being fast, wet and wild, and the competition out there is of a calibre to make anyone of a timid nature curl up and call for help.

But when I wake up in the morning these days I am more relaxed than either I or my team can remember. The reason is not just that I have a great crew on which I can rely. It is also that, in previous races, the game could be over almost two years before it began, depending on decisions about the design of the yacht.

This time all the top campaigns have enough money, the crews are international, even Lawrie Smith's including New Zealand and Ireland, and everyone has been working hard on developing the new styles of sail to give the best performance. So the ammunition is equally shared and remarkably similar.

It made all the more curious some good, old-fashioned spying. We discovered that a person or persons unknown had been on our boat, photographing everything, even lifting the floorboards. What they expected to learn I do not know. These boat are all very similar.

I have had the advantage of trialling two new boats against each other and it was difficult enough for us to make the call over which one to choose. Throughout the development phase in the waters off New Zealand we held a crew meeting at the end of each week to discuss which to race and there was often a 50/50 split.

There was hardly a difference between them and we have had to consider only what we think the weather will do. Now we have made that choice and the race boat is being shipped to England while the second boat, which may still be raced if a syndicate comes forward wanting to buy it, is on its way to Portugal and then Italy to do some promotional work for the Merit Cup brand of clothes which is my sponsor.

It will also visit Monaco, home of our club the Yacht Club de Monaco. Prince Albert has already shown considerable interest and we expect to see him at some of the stopovers.

The boat we have picked will have its first major outing in the Fastnet Race, as will a lot of our competitors. But beware making any judgments on the outcome of that race. If it goes to form then there will be a lot of upwind work to that bleak bit of rock off the south-west coast of Ireland.

But, in picking the design of the hull and the sails to drive it, we have had to analyse the conditions on the Whitbread track, which are normally far more to do with reaching and running. Times back to Plymouth from the rock rather than from Cowes out to it may be more important, assuming similar weather for all of us.

This is my fifth Whitbread and some people think that might be because I can't find anything else to do. But I'm probably enjoying this one, so far, more than any other. I have a top line crew, solid as a brick, I'm enjoying the 60s much more than I thought, they are really fast, powerful and exciting, and the relationship with the sponsor is very comfortable.

The development period was hindered only by a few lost days of heavy weather and we quickly learned that, if something was going to break on one boat it would quickly go on the other. So we always replaced everything immediately on both.

Now we are more than ready to go.

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