First leg going to Swedes Whitbread leader due in Cape Town today

October 21, 1997|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- The Swedish yacht EF Language, skippered by Paul Cayard, was headed for victory in the first leg of the Whitbread Round the World Race early today.

With a 165-nautical-mile lead over its nearest rival, Merit Cup, and closing steadily on this historic port at the foot of Table

Mountain, it was assured of taking the prize for the opening, 7,350-mile stretch of the 31,600-mile circumnavigation.

But what Cayard called his "re-entry into the real world" was slowed frustratingly as a calm halved the boat's speed from 13 knots to six knots, delaying the crew's hopes of its first night's sleep in a comfortable bed since the departure Sept. 21 from Southampton, England.

But the anticipation of enjoying a brief spell on dry land after more than four weeks at sea was still irrepressible.

"I can't figure out what I am going to eat first," Cayard messaged race headquarters here while still 90 miles offshore. "I think some fresh fruit would be the best, then maybe something really basic like a giant cheeseburger and fries, or if it is morning, a three-egg omelet with a pound of bacon. Whatever it is, I am sure we will make pigs of ourselves on it."

Merit Cup, from Monaco, was battling to keep second place ahead of Norway's Innovation Kvaerner, which was clearly visible a couple of miles astern. Merit's progress was slowed when its spinnaker dropped into the water after its second-to-last halyard snapped.

But Kvaerner was having its own problems, with a broken steering cable and a ripped spinnaker.

"Things like that can happen with these boats when you power them up, reaching in 30 knots with another boat just a few miles to weather," said Kvaerner's skipper, Knut Frostad.

Both boats also had been slowed by ocean garbage wrapping round their keels. Each had to put a man overboard into cold Southern Atlantic waters to clear the problem. At daylight yesterday, the crew of Merit Cup could still see Innovation Kvaerner.

"The race is going to be very close for second, and our case is not strengthened by the fact that most of our spins [spinnakers] have blown out," said Merit Cup's daily report, which ended with a word of praise for EF Language.

"They have sailed well and deserve their win," it said. "We have learned a lot this leg and have much planned in Cape Town to improve the boat."

Chessie Racing, the Maryland entry, was still battling in fifth position, more than 700 miles behind the leader, but was closing marginally on the three other boats ahead of it, despite problems. It is expected to arrive at this mariners' stopover of waterfront cafes and bars sometime on Thursday.

Watch captain Grant "Fuzz" Spanhake yesterday reported that the constant pressure and violent movement of the boat during three days in heavy conditions was taking its toll on the crew.

"I have never slept deeper in my off watches in two [previous] Whitbreads, which shows how tired we all are," he said.

On his watch, he said, the topmast backstay shackle, a key link in keeping the mast upright and intact, broke, putting the strain of the masthead spinnaker in 25 knots of wind on a single safety strop rigged across the shackle.

"Then the safety strop started letting go," Spanhake said. "We turned the boat downwind [to ease the pressure], unloaded the rig and proceeded to fix the problem, literally finishing as there was only one thin strand of vectran left on the safety [strop]. This wasn't good for the nerves, to say the least."

The "very fast finish" to the leg, Spanhake added, should enable the crew to make it to Cape Town without rationing food or fuel. Other boats were not so lucky.

"Have no coffee, milk powder left," America's Challenge reported. "And the minute breakfast cereal has to be covered in orange drink."

"The galley is empty, and the boys are looking forward to a quick arrival," said skipper Frostad on board Innovation Kvaerner.

As Cayard savored sailing EF Language to victory, his crew placed bets on the precise time of crossing the Cape Town finishing line this morning.

Awaiting the winning crew at dockside were family members, a prize presentation and a champagne reception -- then almost three weeks of rest and preparation for the next leg, the 4,600 miles from Cape Town to Fremantle, Australia, through some of the wildest seas in the world.

Standings

% Status: Day 30, Leg 1

Boat .......... Nautical miles to finish

(as of 6: 07 p.m. GMT)

1. EF Language 90.0

2. Merit Cup 255.2

3. Innovation Kvaerner 260.2

4. Silk Cut 548.4

5. Chessie Racing 807.0

6. Toshiba 916.4

7. America's Challenge 960.7

8. Swedish Match 1,067.1

9. EF Education 1,277.2 1

10. BrunelSunergy 1,402.5

Pub Date: 10/21/97

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