EF Language waves hello to first-leg win Weather gamble spurs rough Whitbread ride

October 22, 1997|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- A tactical gamble by navigator Mark Rudiger brought the Swedish yacht EF Language across the line here at the head of the fleet yesterday in the first leg of the Whitbread Round the World Race.

The 12-member international crew, led by American skipper Paul Cayard, sailed their 64-foot-long boat, designed by Bruce Farr & Associates of Annapolis, to victory 30 days, 16 hours, 54 minutes and 26 seconds after leaving Southampton, England, on Sept. 21.

They finished more than 100 nautical miles ahead of the second boat Merit Cup, from Monaco, which arrived late last night.

Norway's Innovation Kvaerner finished third early this morning after a tight race against Merit Cup, with the boats frequently within sight of each other throughout the 7,350-mile leg.

It was Rudiger's suggestion to head farther south than the rest of the boats that brought EF Language into a weather system that had them planing waves at up to 30.8 knots in the final stages of the leg, leaving the field in their wake.

"Incredible," recalled Cayard, moments after stepping ashore. "The force of the water felt like we had four fire trucks and five helicopters dumping water on us."

"That was pretty crazy," Rudiger said. "Rather than going up and flying over the wave, you cut right through it, and the wave comes right down the boat."

Rudiger, who spent most of the race below decks poring over charts, weather forecasts and satellite images, said: "I would look up and see guys being washed right along the boat."

The driver and the sail trimmer wore goggles and face masks as the yacht literally sliced through the high seas. "The elements were just too hard to handle," Rudiger said. "I would see these guys coming down [below decks] with their eyes red. It was one of the times I was glad I was a navigator. These guys are tougher than me."

Rudiger, hired as EF Language's navigator just a week before the race, had seen his boat lose an early but brief lead to Innovation Kvaerner off the coast of France. The Norwegian boat then held onto the lead for the next two weeks.

"When you are a tactician on another boat, once someone gets ahead, you hate to go in behind them," Rudiger said. "You start looking for ways somewhere ahead to parallel them and later pass them.

"That's one of the advantages a really experienced ocean racer has -- knowing where to take your knocks, or take your losses. But the ego and the pressure sometimes kind of overwhelm that logical thinking pattern."

Poring over his data as EF Language was approaching the island of Trindade, the second turning point on the leg from Southampton to Cape Town, Rudiger said he noticed a low pressure system coming out of Argentina. As he scrutinized the course to Cape Town he also noticed developing high pressure, which, he decided, could drop down from the north pushing him toward Cape Town if he could link up with the front of it.

In a race where there is little to choose between the speed of the boats -- eight of the 10 were designed by Bruce Farr & Associates -- finding the right weather systems to ride is crucial.

A veteran of Pacific Ocean races, where the key is getting around high pressure systems, Rudiger said he decided to use the low system to sling-shot him into the path of the high.

"I knew exactly where I wanted to be, relative to that high," he said yesterday, still in blue weather gear minutes after docking. "I said, 'Look, we have to go way below the standard routes.' A lot of the other guys were kind of going with the averages. We had to make a decision pretty fast. As we came round Trindade we had to make one jibe or another."

He put the idea of heading south to skipper Cayard, who recalled: "We looked at it together. He explained to me what he thought we should be doing. It looked good to me. It made sense.

"It was a low pressure system, and the guy closer to the center

TC gets more pressure," Cayard said. "You have to be willing to invest in the long term and not look at the short term."

EF Language headed south. "The unexpected bonus was that this low developed into a much deeper low with a bigger cold front," Rudiger said. "These boats can go darn near as fast as the front.

"We got enough of a lead to get on the front of the [high pressure] wave and surf it really. The other guys were always trying to get onto it."

At 5.54.26 GMT yesterday, on a gray drizzly morning that followed a frustrating night of near-calm and slow progress, the orange and yellow hull of EF Language emerged out of the mist to cross the finish line at the entrance to Cape Town harbor.

The crew were strung along its windward rail as it heeled in a gentle breeze. In a final effort to squeeze the last second off his time, Cayard ordered the masthead spinnaker raised for the dash to the line at the foot of Table Mountain, invisible in the early morning fog.

At the mooring, wives and children waited to greet the happy victors of the first leg of a race that will take them to eight more cities in as many months before they finish the 32,000-mile circumnavigation.

After the presentation of the silver platter for winning the leg and the mandatory dousing with champagne, Cayard, an America's Cup veteran racing his first Whitbread, said at a news conference: "The crew you see here is the crew for the whole race. When you have had an experience like we have had, it's pretty amalgamating. It's pretty good bonding.

"For me, for sure, it is an unknown venture. But, having completed the first leg, I think I have some insight into what it is going to take to win the Whitbread."

Pub Date: 10/22/97

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