Conner takes Toshiba helm for Leg 4 Chairman of 7th-place boat surprises Whitbread fleet

January 03, 1998|By Bruce Stannard | Bruce Stannard,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

SYDNEY, Australia -- Four-time America's Cup winner Dennis Conner will take the helm of U.S. entry Toshiba for Leg 4 of the Whitbread Round the World Race, which resumes today.

Conner's decision took the Whitbread fleet by surprise on the eve of the 1,270-nautical-mile passage across the Tasman Sea from Sydney to Auckland, New Zealand.

Conner, the Toshiba syndicate chairman, had been booked on a flight to Los Angeles and did not appear at the skippers' pre-race media briefing. His change of plans may have been prompted by discussions with syndicate backers who are no doubt disappointed at the boat's relatively poor performance.

Toshiba sits in seventh place in the overall standings, six points behind Maryland entry Chessie Racing, which is fifth with 213 points.

But even if Conner's legendary sailing skills can be successfully brought to bear on one of the shortest of the nine Whitbread legs, it is unlikely to signal a long-term change in Toshiba's sagging fortunes. It also begs the question: Who is to drive the boat on the longer and more arduous legs?

As the nine Whitbread boats prepare for the six-day passage to Auckland, all eyes will be on American Paul Cayard at the helm of the boat emerging as the clear favorite, Sweden's EF Language.

Cayard is by no means cocky. Even if he believes he has the drop on the rest of the Whitbread hotshots, he maintains a nice line in poker-faced modesty.

"While we are in a good spot at this stage, there's still an awful lot of the race left to run, and two thirds of the points are still on the table waiting to be won," Cayard said. "I'd be naive to think that people like Lawrie Smith [on Britain's Silk Cut] and Grant Dalton [on Monaco's Merit Cup] aren't going to have some sort of resurgence.

"We have to be prepared for some tough challenges and maybe even some frustration and disappointment. We have to be able to deal with that as a team and continue on so that we can live for a better day and hopefully an ultimate victory."

When asked to name the essential ingredient in his success, atop the overall standings with 302 points, Cayard immediately pointed to his boat's "pretty darn good all-round ability."

"We have a middle-of-the-road design," he said. "The length of all the Whitbread boats is the same. What varies is the beam waterline. With less beam waterline like Merit Cup, you get a low-resistance boat that goes fast downwind in light air, but is slow upwind in any kind of breeze. With a wider boat like Swedish Match, you get good upwind performance but suffer a little downwind. Our boat looks to be in the middle somewhere.

"But added to that, I think we have the best-built hull. It's light, and that means we have one of the heavier [keel] bulbs, and that allows us to get a bit of the stability back to make us competitive with Swedish Match upwind, and yet we don't have their beam to drag downwind."

Cayard says another of his essential ingredients is the quality of his sail inventory.

"Having done our homework, we've come up with exceptionally fast sail shapes. Our masthead reacher, which is technically a spinnaker, is very fast. And we also have a good fractional spinnaker, which we used to get past Swedish Match at the finish of Leg 3. All our sails are good, but those are specialty sails, and they're real gems.

"The rest of the fleet is now busy trying to copy a few of those sails. They're getting closer, no doubt, so our advantage there is being whittled away. That's why we are working on some new sails, which we hope will allow us to maintain the little bit of advantage we've enjoyed so far."

Cayard regards the trans-Tasman leg as being extremely important.

"The points will be almost exactly the same as they were on Leg 1, from Southampton to Cape Town," he said. "And the boats will stay close together so, just as on Leg 3, where 20 minutes meant a difference of 70 points, 70 points could be 10 percent of all the points the winner gets to take the Whitbread. So I'd say it's extremely important to be racing hard all the way. The difference will be a few feet here, a few yards there."

Knut Frostad, skipper of Norway's Innovation Kvaerner, is among a group of second-tier boats that remain within striking distance of Cayard. Frostad, whose boat is second in the standings (267 points), says he expects this leg to be similar to the last.

"We won't have the long shoreline," he said, "but we expect it will be mostly reaching conditions and not too many opportunities to do anything. I think it is going to be a speed leg more than anything, and we are going to have to work hard for this leg. The race could be decided on the north of New Zealand to the finish. We want our Kiwis [New Zealanders] to help us at the finish. We don't want to mess up this time."

Gunnar Krantz, skipper of third-place Swedish Match (253 points), sees a "very tight, very tiring" race ahead.

"The few hours of sleep we get will be gold," he said. "We could start out match-racing at first, but I believe whoever gets a break at first will be caught back by the group."

Grant Dalton, the New Zealander in charge of fourth-place Merit Cup (228 points), also expects a tight race across the Tasman.

"In front of us are 1,270 nautical miles of ocean racing, which will be as intense as any I have ever been in before."

Speaking on behalf of Chessie Racing syndicate chairman George Collins, tactician John Kostecki said: "We hope to win. That's our goal. We've been mediocre the first couple of legs and then a little bit better this last leg. We are going to keep pushing hard and hope to be one of the contenders when we get into Auckland.

"I think going across, the boats will get spread out like the boats did in the [Great Australian] Bight on the last leg, but I hope they will all be real close coming down into Auckland where you can see everybody."

Pub Date: 1/03/98

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