Leg 4: Take lead and keep it Conner offers advice on how to beat Tasman Sea, from Sydney to Auckland

The Whitbread Watch

December 31, 1997|By BRUCE STANNARD | BRUCE STANNARD,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

SYDNEY, Australia - The Pond is what Australians and New Zealanders call the Tasman Sea, the narrow stretch of water that separates the two countries. But it is a pond in name only.

Far from placid, the indigo waters of the Tasman can - and often do - offer some of the world's most turbulent sailing conditions. Right now, however, weather data suggest that Leg 4 of the Whitbread Round the World Race, 1,270 nautical miles from Sydney to Auckland, will be a relatively quiet affair with generally light air and smooth seas, at least for the start in Sydney Harbour on Sunday.

When asked what tactical advice he would offer competitors, Toshiba syndicate leader Dennis Conner grinned and said, "Get your nose in front and stay there."

Conner says getting out of Sydney Harbour should present no great tactical problem.

"If the sea breeze is in, as we expect," he said, "it will be a northeaster, so I'd expect the boats to sail along the harbor's northern shore and get out into clear air as soon as they can.

"The Sydney sea breeze comes in at around 70 degrees in the late morning and then backs to around 40 degrees in the afternoon," Conner said. "I'd expect that to be the case for about 100 miles out into the Pacific. After that it will all be front-driven. There is a high [pressure system] coming across the Great Australian Bight, and it is expected to be over Sydney in the next few days, so it looks to me like it's going to be fairly light winds. I see a fairly straight-forward race, right now."

Conner says that at this time of the year the fronts seem to come through about every three days.

"It can blow about 25 or 30 knots up front, stay nasty for 12 or 15 hours, go away and then comes back to normal," he said.

Conner says he sees no particular difficulties in the approach to Auckland.

"If you've got a northwest wind," he said, "it's like a donkey's race down the coast. Not a lot to it. At least, that's the way it was last time [1993-94]. You can't pass on the right. You've got land. And you don't want to go too far to the left because you don't want to go round the islands near the entrance to Auckland's Waitemata Bay. It's a little like going round the bottom of Australia.

"So I think," Conner said, "whoever gets around the northwest corner ahead is going to be pretty hard to catch. The crews' adrenalin will be running, and they will be thinking about that wonderful entrance into Auckland Harbour, which will be crammed with tens of thousands of sailing fanatics."

Conner's only piece of advice for the United States' Toshiba applied equally to all the Whitbread boats.

"They had better be fast," he said, "because there's not going to be a lot of passing lanes. This is going to be a good boat-speed race, maybe more so than any of the other legs.

"Looks to me like the L-keels [on Chessie Racing, Innovation Kvaerner and Swedish Match] are faster upwind, and the T-keels [on BrunelSunergy, EF Education, EF Language, Merit Cup, Silk Cut and Toshiba] are pretty good all-round boats. So to a large XTC extent the weather is going to dictate who's in front. It looks like Swedish Match is fast upwind, while [EF Language skipper Paul] Cayard is the fastest of the T-keel skippers upwind."

Conner remains convinced that Toshiba is a good all-round boat.

"She has certainly proved she can go with the best of them," he said. "She led for four days when they were all together on Leg 3 at the bottom of Australia. But then going through Bass Strait the guys got a little myopic. They focused on just one boat, and while they did that four boats sailed by. That was the race.

"But she had a good placing all the way across. She looked fast enough to do the job, and on the brisk run up the eastern Australian coast, she was so quick she passed four boats. So she's still in the hunt. Trouble is, someone's got to beat Cayard to win at this point. The rest of them look pretty even to me."

Conner said he was not suggesting that Cayard [with a 35-point lead in the standings] had a stranglehold on the race.

"They've still got to get through the Southern Ocean," he said. "That's going to be tough on boats and crews. Anything could happen down there. There is a lot of racing to go, and they're not even halfway round the world yet. Remember, this is a nine-race series, and so far we've only had three races.

Conner confirmed that he will not sail aboard Toshiba on Leg 4.

"The guys are going a great job," he said. "They've settled into a strong combination. I don't see any need to step aboard and upset that at this point."

Standings after Leg 3

Boat (Country), Pts.

EF Language (Sweden), 302

Innovation Kvaerner (Norway), 267

Swedish Match (Sweden), 253

Merit Cup (Monaco), 228

Chessie Racing (U.S.), 213

Silk Cut (United Kingdom), 208

Toshiba (U.S.), 207

EF Education (Sweden), 80

BrunelSunergy (Netherlands), 66

America's Challenge (U.S.)**, 48

**Withdrew from race

Pub Date: 12/31/97

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