With fewer than 500 miles to sail, the boats are due to cross the finish line at the famous Opera House tomorrow afternoon local time but the dying moments of this third, 2,250-mile, leg are promising some of the most fascinating tactical sailing of the race so far. A complex weather pattern is likely to transform the moderate reaching conditions the fleet have been enjoying over the last couple of days into strong headwinds up the eastern seaboard of Australia. These may themselves give way to strong tailwinds for the final approach to Sydney.
With the fleet converging on the approach to the Bass Strait between Tasmania and mainland Australia, the crews of Innovation Kvaerner and Swedish Match will be on tenterhooks and hoping for an easy ride through a stretch of water that is renowned for strong winds and very difficult seas. Both boats have suffered buckling in the lower panels of their masts beneath the deck. Gunnar Krantz, the skipper of Swedish Match, reckons he will be forced to back off in any breeze of over 15 knots, and this at a critical time in a leg which is anything but decided.
The final approach is delicately poised. After a week of constant place- changing EF Language - which led the charge out of Fremantle - has emerged ahead. The British boat Silk Cut led for a while but at the end of last week light airs dogged the fleet and Silk Cut slipped back. Frustrating times, then, for the navigator Steve Hayles who said: "Our lowest point was reached early on Friday morning when we took a 15-mile loss and watched the weatherfax churn out a chart which might as well have had 'You are f***ed' on it instead of all the isobars." Grant Dalton was similarly downhearted having sat becalmed for eight hours in Merit Cup. "We had a terrible sched this morning and are ready for an even worse one shortly," he said. "This was when we had just got ourselves back on the front row again and need a good leg to put the memories of the last leg behind us."
Still, this leg still has much to offer the tailenders: the volatile weather system that will combine calms with strong winds from the north first and then the south will make maintaining a lead a precarious exercise. For Silk Cut, in a group of three close to the land with Chessie Racing and Toshiba, the hope will be that by sailing the shortest distance around the coast they will be first into the new breeze and will cut off EF Language further south and Kvaerner and Swedish Match even deeper south. Dalton's chance may come when the leaders pile into light winds.
Whatever the outcome, the crews have a demanding day or two ahead of them. In the navigation station the challenge will be mental as navigators and skippers struggle to decipher incoming weather data and plot the quickest route around the final meteorological obstacle course. On deck the infantry will be changing sails and trimming inch by inch as leg three of the Whitbread promises to finish in a way every one has been eagerly anticipating - as a yacht race.