Tactical sailing, risky business Fleet splits into 2 groups -- 1 stays north, 1 dives south

time will tell who's right

The Whitbread Watch

December 17, 1997|By Peter Baker | Peter Baker,SUN STAFF

Beginning the fifth day on Leg 3 of the Whitbread Round the World Race, the overall leaders are widely separated north to south as the fleet sails across the Great Australian Bight toward Bass Strait - and the question is whether EF Language or Innovation Kvaerner made the right move yesterday.

The answer will be played out over the next several days, as the nine-boat fleet completes a 10-day leg from Fremantle to Sydney, Australia.

Skipper Paul Cayard aboard Sweden's EF Language chose to stay north, playing the top edge of a high pressure system, retook the lead as of today's first position reading just past midnight (GMT), then added to the lead in today's second report at 6 a.m. GMT.

Norway's Innovation Kvaerner, the overall points leader after two legs, chose to sail far south and pass under the same weather system. The initial move dropped the Norwegian boat nearly 50 miles behind the leader. But in the past 24 hours, it has made up about 35 miles and is sailing in sixth position, 16 miles behind the leader.

The difference in conditions between the two extremes, according to skippers in the fleet and race weather forecasters, is that stronger winds can be expected in the north and a better sailing angle can be expected in the south. The gamble is whether the time lost sailing south can be made up over the balance of the leg.

"It is difficult to know where to invest, because the weather pattern can change from when you get a satellite picture or weather fax," Cayard said yesterday. "Subtle changes can make a big difference.

"In all the information you can paint your dream or rationalize why what you are doing will be a winner. In the end, most boats will have shattered dreams and one will be happy. That is the nature of this kind of racing."

Since the leg started in Fremantle on Saturday, the wind has been on the noses of the competitors, forcing crews to tack, or alternate courses diagonally across the face of the wind.

"The tactical considerations are complex, but in general there is likely to be more wind in the north and a better wind angle in the south," said Lawrie Smith of Britain's Silk Cut, which was racing in fifth place early today. "The wild card [is] a massive move south to try to get into the westerlies."

George Carras of Commander's Weather, which supplies forecasts for the race, said the northern boats probably have made the right choice.

"A day ago, I would have categorically said that Cayard made the best decision," Carras said. "Yesterday [Monday] it looked like the guys moving south were going to be in trouble. But it looks less so today."

Innovation Kvaerner's on-board weather expert is Marcel van Triest, acknowledged to be the Whitbread's best. For the next 24 to 36 hours, the boat can expect further gains.

But in the last Whitbread, in 1993-94, the Dennis Conner entry Winston stayed well south and built a huge lead, but by the end of the leg was beaten by the boats that had stayed north.

Winds from the west are better for the Whitbread 60s, which perform best when the wind is from behind the boat, but the nine crews have had a steady diet of tacking, a physically and mentally exhausting process.

Ken Venn reported to race headquarters on "the reality of life" aboard Toshiba as it pounded its way upwind at 10 knots in 25 knots of breeze: "The boat rises and climbs over the swells only to fall banging and crashing into the trough behind. She will then shudder and slam and shake herself free, only for a half ton of water . . . to come sluicing over the decks. . . . Add to all this the usual noise of a boat at sea and you have a real cacophony of sounds that try their damnedest to keep the crew tired and fatigued."

Gunnar Krantz, skipper of Swedish Match, which moved into second position early today, said sailing upwind in the downwind sleds has been tough at times.

"I think we all felt like we were thrown into action in a very rough way," Krantz said, "from walking on a sunny street in Freo to a wild W60 doing everything it can to throw its riders off in this on-the-water rodeo."

Pub Date: 12/17/97

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