Yachting: Ultimate race for world's best

Andrew Preece says the Whitbread is now the perfect test for elite of sailing
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Nine legs, 32,000 miles, pounds 100m of investment. The tasty statistics are all there to describe the sailing race that begins today at 2pm from Cowes - first stop Cape Town more than 7,000 miles and four weeks' sailing away.

But what the figures, adjectives and superlatives fail to tell is that today the Whitbread is a grand prix race featuring the world's best sailors racing inch by inch, day after day, grinding their boats inexorably around the world. Relentless pressure is the name of the modern Whitbread game, interspersed with days of excitement, moments of fear and extended periods of extreme boredom."If you take the spectrum of your life and take the most exciting day and the most boring day," says Gordon Maguire, the Silk Cut watch leader "the most exciting day in the Whitbread is way beyond that, just awesome. And the most boring is way, way the other way - excruciating."

This is the seventh Whitbread. It is also the last. Volvo, in as leg sponsors for this race, will take complete control next June. It will probably never be the same again. But then it is already almost unrecognisable from the first adventure back in 1973. Today the course combines long Southern Ocean crossings with short hops and a final leg of just over 400 miles. It is a blend which has attracted the cream of the world's sailing talent, and the fleet is littered with Olympic and America's Cup sailors and others who have previously made the transition; you would not find a more elite group of sailors in a class at the Olympic games.

Ten Whitbread 60 boats make up the fleet that will leave the Royal Yacht Squadron starting line today. All are designed to a rule that keeps the boats within defined limits but allows latitude for experiment. Eight have been designed by Bruce Farr, the American-resident New Zealander who has been at the top of sailing's ladder longer than most of his competition would care to remember. The boats are exciting, fast and sometimes dangerous, they are uncomfortable to live aboard and are made more so by the privations the sailors themselves impose on their lifestyle. "We're lobbying for a bottle of ketchup," said the helmsman, trimmer and Olympic sailor Adrian Stead as the freeze-dried stores were loaded aboard Silk Cut yesterday. He didn't get it. Not surprising really, when crews are cutting their toothbrushes in half to save weight; aboard a racing boat, as in a Formula One car, weight is the enemy of speed.

It is this fine tuning, these very small percentages, that define the level to which the Whitbread has evolved. The challenge of actually sailing around the world - avoiding ensnarement in the calms of the Doldrums, emerging alive from the Southern Ocean after dodging icebergs and monster waves - remains. But few of the sailors in this race would admit to dwelling on it. "What scares you most?" Jez Fanstone, a helmsman and trimmer on Silk Cut was asked recently. "Coming second," he replied without hesitation.

But even coming second will be difficult. Of the ten boats, eight are probably fast enough to win the race and six teams are capable of it. At the top of the pile lie Dennis Conner and Chris Dickson, nominally co-skippers aboard Toshiba. Dickson will drive the boat and crew to distraction, Conner may guest a couple of short legs, but the combination is potent. So too is the alliance of the former Whitbread winner Grant Dalton with the stylish sponsor Merit Cup. Dalton has had the resources to build two boats saying "with our maxi background we needed them to learn about Whitbread 60s". The result has been a package that won the Fastnet Race and that collectively has more Whitbread experience than any other team in the fleet.

And the British are in there too. Lawrie Smith is happy that this time, his third, he has the elements in place. "With Silk Cut I've got the boat I wanted, the crew I wanted and if I don't win I'd think seriously about whether I did it again," he said.

But behind the favourites is a bunch of teams that cannot be written off. Paul Cayard has had crew problems - including the public departure of his navigator Nick White - which unsettled the EF Language team at a critical time. But as a sailor Cayard is a match for Dickson, Conner, Smith and Dalton. And he knows how to develop boatspeed in a craft that certainly has potential.

As have Kvaerner Innovation and Swedish Match. Both are somewhat unknown, but at 30, and running a Whitbread campaign for the first time, Knut Frostad, skipper of Kvaerner, is happy to be ranked as an underdog, while on Swedish Match the skipper Gunnar Krantz and the navigator Roger Nilson have Whitbread experience and money to burn.

But while nine of the ten boats spent all last week fine tuning and loading final stores and spares, aboard America's Challenge deck fittings were still being bolted down and sails checked for fitting. Little has been known of America's Challenge other than that the boat is rumoured to be potentially quick and money and crew nominations have been slow coming. But now, with Ross Field installed as skipper, the favourites are beginning to treat them seriously.

And so, as the Whitbread gets under way, what has been lost in adventure has been replaced by competition. The Whitbread has always been a challenge. But it's a challenge that has changed a great deal over the last 20 years.