Conner claws back into race After big miscue at start, America's Cup veteran has Toshiba in contention


SYDNEY, Australia - Swedish Match and U.S. entry Toshiba are racing neck and neck toward the rocky coast of New Zealand's North Island, clear leaders in the closing stages of the dramatic Leg 4 of the Whitbread Round the World Race.

The Swedes have their royal blue bow in front, but just barely. Toshiba skipper Dennis Conner has demonstrated again that he remains, at 55, one of the world's great sailors. Having fluffed the start by three seconds, Conner had to endure the agony of a recall and watch his rivals sail away under spinnaker down Sydney Harbour.

But Conner, with the skill of a four-time America's Cup winner, is fighting back. Conner has the rarest of all gifts in a sailor, the

uncanny ability to smell or sense a wind shift. In this leg where the breeze has often swung violently through 100 degrees and caused violent jibes and knockdowns, Conner has kept Toshiba tracking, relentlessly passing one boat after another until he is now level with the Swedes and certainly in a position to win.

Leg 4, however, is far from over, and once the boats reach the turning point at Cape Reinga, they can expect the unexpected. In the past, the waters north of Auckland have seen much more substantial leads dissipated in light and variable air around the coast as back-markers move up with the stronger sea breeze off the Tasman.

Although Merit Cup is about 21 miles behind the leaders, the boat from Monaco will be a threat to them. Skipper Grant Dalton is a New Zealander with huge experience in his home waters. More than half of his crew members are New Zealanders and all are Whitbread veterans.

Maryland entry Chessie Racing is also within striking distance in fourth place. Although some 33 miles astern of Swedish Match, Chessie has shown throughout this leg that it is an exceptionally fast boat. The presence of a savvy hard driver like John Kostecki will add immeasurably to its prospects in the run down the coast and into Auckland's Waitemata Bay.

Britain's Silk Cut is hard on Chessie's heels, but much further back is Norway's Innovation Kvaerner, the Netherlands' BrunelSunergy and the two Swedish boats, EF Language and EF Education.

Having led the fleet out of Sydney and for much of the early stages of this leg, EF Language, with American skipper Paul Cayard aboard, set out as the pre-race favorite at odds of 4-7. But along the way, predicted southerly breezes ended up as northerlies or westerlies. Cayard paid the price for being too far -- to the south when a front came through unexpectedly and brought with it strong winds, high seas, heavy rain and lightning. Cayard was about 51 miles behind the leader at today's second report at 6 a.m. (GMT).

The wild conditions, in which many boats reported "awesome spinnaker rides," have generated several near disasters. Swedish Match skipper Gunnar Krantz reported a crash jibe when the wind suddenly went through 100 degrees.

"Suddenly the spinnaker and mainsail were blown over to the other side," he said. "It is very scary in the middle of the night when the main comes crashing into the rig."

Merit Cup was knocked down at night when the wind suddenly swung 45 degrees and rolled the boat into a 20-knot broach. The crew had to cut its spinnaker halyard while the boat lay on its side for 10 to 15 minutes. The crew dragged the spinnaker back over the stern, and the boat righted itself.

An unnamed crewman aboard Toshiba was nearly swept overboard. Conner reported he was washed through the lifelines, but held fast by his safety harness.

Meanwhile, the all-woman crew aboard EF Education has been coping with the kind of disaster that could have brought their entire rig down. Skipper Christine Guillou reported the tack pad-eye fitting pulled out of the bow, exposing a large hole.

"Daylight and water poured in," she said. "We quickly got the headsail down and ran off to leeward to prevent too much water getting in. We effected emergency repairs using a piece of board, some closed-cell foam, bolts, screws and sikaflex [a caulking compound]. We then devised a new system to secure the tack of the headsail to the bow and got back on course to make the most of the good breeze."

Pub Date: 1/07/98

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