Yachting: Fleet in fear of the Doldrums

Andrew Preece says the next few days could be critical for the Whitbread leaders
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By Late tonight or tomorrow, this first leg of the Whitbread Round the World Race for the Volvo Trophy will have reached its most critical stage. The leading boats are approaching the calms of the Doldrums. Getting quickly through the parking lot where the North-east and South-east trade winds meet and cancel each other out is crucial to success in the first leg. Boats can burst through in under 24 hours or spend days becalmed in the searing equatorial heat.

Innovation Kvaerner is likely to be first there. Knut Frostad's Norwegian boat has led the fleet for the best part of the two weeks that they have been at sea. His boat has proved to be quick and his young crew motivated. What is more his navigator, Marcel van Trieste, has so far not put a foot wrong, pushing out to the west in the early stages, passing the leaders and maintaining a lead of between 20 and 40 miles for the last few days. Morale on the boat is high. "The fact that we've left all of our soap, shampoo, shaving foam and razors behind doesn't seem so bad because we're leading," said Nick Willetts a few days ago.

Behind Kvaerner the fleet has fallen into line as they push out to the west to cross towards Brazil and the gate set by the race committee off the island of Fernando. Merit Cup and EF Language hold fairly solid second and third places while the British Silk Cut and Chessie Racing have been within a few miles of each other for several days now. "We've had some bad luck sitting under clouds with no wind and watching boats either side of us sail away," Lawrie Smith, the skipper of Silk Cut, said on Friday. His boat became detached from the leading group early last week and has not been able to make an impression since.

Over this weekend though, the real racing has been in the middle order where Toshiba, America's Challenge and Swedish Match have been trading places. America's Challenge caught and passed the beleaguered Toshiba on Friday and the two have been within a few miles of each other since. But just yesterday Swedish Match sailed into the equation arriving faster from the west of the fleet. However, Chris Dickson has given up hope of this group - in which he unexpectedly finds himself - catching the leaders on this leg. "I think it would take a couple of miracles to see us catch the leaders now," he lamented.

At the back Brunel Sunergy and EF Education are now around 500 miles behind the leaders with the news that the Doldrums area is growing. The leaders are expected to push through relatively quickly but the lower order, arriving in two or three days time, are likely to be held up for longer.

Positions: 1 Innovation Kvaerner 4324.6 miles to finish; 2 Merit Cup 4344.3, 19.7 miles behind leader; 3 EF Language 4371.6, 47.0; 4 Chessie Racing 4415.3, 90.7; 5 Silk Cut 4422.2, 97.6; 6 Toshiba 4534.0, 209.4; 7 Swedish Match 4534.6, 210.0; 8 America's Challenge 4545.9, 221.3; 9 Brunel Sunergy 4825.1, 500.5; 10 EF Education 4902.2, 577.6.