Going with flow, Swedish Match wins Leg 2 Tactical move at start inspires 200-mile breeze in windy Whitbread stretch

November 24, 1997|By Bruce Stannard | Bruce Stannard,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

FREMANTLE, Australia -- After two weeks of breakneck sailing in the towering seas and gale-force winds of the Southern Ocean, the royal blue-hulled Swedish Match was slowed to a snail's pace in fickle, frustrating conditions before the boat finished in Fremantle last night, a decisive winner of the 4,600-nautical-mile Leg 2 of the Whitbread Round the World Race.

Skipper Gunnar Krantz ordered a spinnaker hoisted as Swedish Match approached the line, ghosting silently over a black and glassy sea. The yacht took the gun at 11: 15 p.m., and immediately the crew erupted in wild whoops and shouts, punching the air with triumphant clenched-fist salutes.

Crewmen stood on deck holding burning flares aloft as the boat sailed into a hero's welcome from thousands of spectators.

Swedish Match finished 200 miles clear of its nearest rival, Norway's Innovation Kvaerner. BrunelSunergy, the tail-ender, is still more than 1,100 miles away in the icy waters of the Southern Ocean.

The Swedish Match crew, five Swedes, five New Zealanders, a German and an Englishman, came ashore jubilant but exhausted after a grueling and mentally testing 15 days, 3 hours and 45 minutes at sea.

Krantz conceded that the race had been won shortly after the start off Cape Town, South Africa, when, in a move that was completely at odds with their stay-with-the-fleet plan, they took the boat west-northwest while the fleet headed south. Despite all the high-tech electronic gadgetry on board, it was the sight of smoke from a ship's funnel that told them their move would pay off.

"It was a courageous decision to take the boat out early into unknown winds," Krantz told a post-race news conference, "but before we knew it we were committed, and then one by one we saw the other boats crash. In by the land they were completely becalmed whereas our breeze just kept building. Tactically, it was a gutsy move. But it worked. It's was fantastic, exhilarating. It's what sportsmen call the flow. We went with the flow."

Co-skipper Erle Williams of New Zealand told of the yacht surfing down 40-foot waves at 32.3 knots in a snowstorm.

"It was blowing 30-35 knots, gusting 40," he said. "We had a No. 3 jib up and three reefs in the main, and she was flying. The distance between wave peaks was about 300 feet. We would fly down one and bounce on to the next. It was very much on the edge. Very dangerous.

"At one time, the nose dug into the wave ahead, and a huge wall of water washed aft about chest high," Williams said. "I was steering from the starboard wheel, and when the water went by, I found the wheel had come off in my hands. Thank God we had another just like it on the port side."

Williams confirmed that Swedish Match struck a whale in the Southern Ocean, damaging the rudder. "We saw two whales in the bottom of a trough," he said, "and I avoided one, but struck the other. I looked back and saw it lift its tail and shake it vigorously. The tail was at least nine feet across."

Apart from the rudder, the only breakage aboard came with the explosion of a spinnaker sheet that was meant to have a breaking strain of 4 tons.

Swedish Match's victory earned the boat 125 points, moving it up to fourth place, a marked improvement on the boat's disappointing eighth place on Leg 1.

Toshiba is third behind Innovation Kvaerner, followed by EF Language, Chessie Racing, Merit Cup, EF Education and BrunelSunergy.

Chessie Racing's watch captain, Grant Spanhake, reported the Maryland boat making 16 knots in 25 knots of wind.

"There's no other feeling in the world," he said, "like hurtling along at 20-25 knots of boat speed into inky blackness with the only light we can see being the five instrument readouts that are like alien eyes glowing red, hanging from the back of the mast below the gooseneck. The readouts are our lifeline to reality when we are sailing with no horizon on these pitch-black nights.

"The whole crew are silent as we enjoy this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be down here in the Southern Ocean sailing at high speed for days on end."

Pub Date: 11/24/97

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