Yachting: Fright times ahead for the power generation

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When the nine remaining yachts line up on the grid for the start of the second leg of the Whitbread Round the World Race tomorrow, the nerves of the 108 crew members will be as taut as any on a Formula One track.

However, as Stuart Alexander reports from Cape Town, the difference will be that, instead of knowing it will all be over in under two hours, these competitors will be lucky if they can relax at any time over the next two weeks.

The 4,600 miles through the roller coaster waves of the Southern Ocean to Fremantle have always been punishing ones. This time the horsepower the boats can generate is greater, the stakes in terms of commercial sponsors and what they expect are higher, the level of competition is tougher, and the reputations of some high-profile skippers more exposed.

Risk management will be high on the agenda as predictions of new distance records are tempered by a need to avoid going too far. The first leg from Southampton has already shown that these 60ft thoroughbreds can be even more of a handful than had been forecast.

The power generated by a new generation of hulls and the sails which drive them means the boats are on the edge for more of the time. But the name of the game is also pushing things to the limit and this run to Australia is one of the two legs that can produce big gains or big losses.

One of the striking features of the pre-leg build-up here has been the amount of time spent by the crews on their masts. Many were repairing damage, though none came as close to major failure as Toshiba. Paul Standbridge, who took over as skipper following the dramatic departure of Chris Dickson, found a four-inch crack about half-way up. "There was only 24 hours left in it," he said, "less in the wrong conditions."

The first-leg winner, EF Language, has fixed a bend further down, while Merit Cup had to correct a badly chewed top section.

All the yachts will carry the maximum 12 crew, whereas half went with only 11 on the first leg. They all know how draining the physical demands can be, but this leg has the addition problem of the cold. Extra rations will be carried and much food eaten before the off.

Toshiba's Standbridge has a lot to prove in the role he has always coveted as a Whitbread skipper. When he arrived in Fremantle on the previous Whitbread, he was asked if at any time on a very hairy leg he had been truly frightened. "No," came the classic reply, "it was much worse than that." Once again there will be frayed nerves as well as frayed kit.

WHITBREAD ROUND THE WORLD RACE Standings after first leg: 1 EF Language 125pts; 2 Merit Cup 110; 3 Innovation Kvaerner 97; 4 Silk Cut 84; 5 Chessie Racing 72; 6 Toshiba 60; *7 America's Challenge 48; 8 Swedish Match 36; 9 EF Education 24; 10 Brunel Sunergy 12.

*Withdrew after first leg.