Merit Cup brings home Leg 4 win to Auckland Toshiba 2nd, Chessie 3rd in drag race to the finish


January 09, 1998|By Bruce Stannard | Bruce Stannard,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

AUCKLAND, New Zealand -- New Zealand came to a wild and jubilant halt today with the tiny South Pacific nation exulting in the triumph of its sailors after Merit Cup came home a 2-minute, 36-second winner of Leg 4 of the Whitbread Round the World Race.

Ten of Merit's Cup's 12-man crew are New Zealanders, and a huge crowd, tens of thousands strong, crammed every vantage point around Auckland's Waitemata Harbour to welcome them home from the 1,270-nautical-mile leg from Sydney, Australia.

Despite a 30-knot white-water southwesterly, an armada of 500 spectator boats formed an unruly escort flotilla that fell in around Merit Cup from the moment it entered Hauraki Gulf for the final approach to Auckland.

Skipper Grant Dalton and his Kiwi crew, all wearing yellow slickers on the windward rail, looked confident despite U.S. entry Toshiba, with skipper Dennis Conner aboard, being hard on their heels.

They tucked a reef into the main as the wind gusted to 35 knots, but shook it out as they got closer to the line. Conner kept a reef in his main to the finish. Chessie Racing came home a creditable third, 9 minutes, 50 seconds behind Merit Cup.

Sweden's EF Language, with American skipper Paul Cayard aboard, was fourth, 11 minutes, 32 seconds behind the winner, and the unluckiest boat, Swedish Match, finished fifth, 17 minutes, 23 seconds after the winner.

Toshiba crossed the finish line flying a red protest flag, and in an interview with New Zealand Radio, Conner said that it involved the running lights aboard EF Language. Conner declined to elaborate until the matter has been laid before the international jury.

A crowd of more than 5,000 jammed every vantage spot around Viaduct Basin, where the boats and their crews were given a traditional Maori welcome from bare-chested warriors brandishing spears and Maori women in grass skirts singing and twirling poi.

It underscores just how seriously New Zealand takes its sporting triumphs.

It was an even better result for the Whitbread race organizers. Merit Cup's win ahead of EF Language means the event no longer will be seen as a romp for Cayard that some have been predicting.

The performance of Toshiba and Chessie raises hopes for a closer contest and will help maintain interest as the fleet prepares for the next and second-longest leg, 6,670 nautical miles across the Southern Ocean and around Cape Horn to Sao Sebastiao, Brazil. The adage that luck's a fortune is nowhere more deeply appreciated than by the men who crewed Swedish Match. The Swedish boat had this leg truly won as it approached the northern tip of New Zealand. But at Cape Reinga, the boat fell into a blind spot in the breeze, a windless hole that stopped them dead in the water.

While the Swedes foundered and actually turned 180 degrees to face the way they'd come, Dalton, in his familiar home waters, took Merit on a bold gamble in which he sailed inshore almost to the line of breakers. There he found the pressure to sail right around the dumbfounded Swedes.

Toshiba and Chessie, with skipper George Collins aboard, followed the Kiwis inshore. Sailors will appreciate just how dangerous this was. These boats are 60 feet overall, and beneath their hulls are narrow, 12-foot-deep fin keels. Taking the boats so close to the surf was courting disaster.

As luck would have it, the breeze held and Dalton, Conner and Collins skated past the white water, rounded the Cape and headed south for Auckland in the building breeze. That was the race right there.

Pub Date: 1/09/98

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