Next in Whitbread: taste of terror Icebergs, 30-foot seas await off Cape Horn

January 31, 1998|By Bruce Stannard | Bruce Stannard,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

AUCKLAND, New Zealand -- Just before noon here tomorrow, the nine yachts in the Whitbread Round the World Race fleet will leave the tranquillity of their moorings, slip out of Auckland's Waitemata Harbour and assemble under the brooding bulk of Rangitoto, the ancient volcano that squats like a malevolent green gnome, guarding this gateway to the Pacific Ocean.

There, in a traditional Auckland ceremony, a priest, the Rev. Richard Beck, will take up a Bible and ask the almighty for a time-honored blessing upon those that go to the sea in ships.

The crews aboard the nine boats may want to pay attention, because on this leg they are going to need all the help they can get.

They will embark upon one of the most hazardous voyages any sailor can undertake -- 6,670 nautical miles from New Zealand to Sao Sebastiao, Brazil, via the notorious graveyard of ships, Cape Horn, at the southern tip of South America.

Leg 5 will take the fleet deep into the violent winds and waves of the Southern Ocean. On their approach to the snow-capped Horn, they likely will encounter icebergs. Even a brush with one of those blue-green undersea islands could be enough to put an end to boat and crew.

Contemplating all this, American Paul Cayard, skipper of race leader EF Language of Sweden, concluded, "Pretty scary stuff, huh?"

Cayard, the Mr. Cool of this Whitbread race, is by no means fazed by the prospect of 60-knot winds and 30-foot seas. He saw all of that before on Leg 2 from Cape Town, South Africa, to Fremantle, Australia. Even so, he was more than a little chastened by the experience.

"Rounding Cape Horn is certainly going to be one of the highlights in this race around the planet," he said. "The second leg taught us a lot about the wisdom of being prudent and respectful of the conditions. We intend to draw on that experience. Hopefully, we will be experienced and smart enough to make the right decisions, keep the boat, the crew and the sails intact and yet still push hard enough to win.

"I have learned not to demand too much from the crew. A week out of Auckland on a dark, stormy night when there's snow on the deck, they just cannot be expected to perform at the same level as on the first day out in warm and balmy conditions."

Tactics would be very much influenced by prudence, he said.

HTC "We want to arrive intact," Cayard said. "You may have to accept that you have to give up a little ground in order to live for the next day or maybe even the next leg. We do have a 39-point lead [in the overall standings], so the most important thing for us, tactically, is to get to Brazil with the key elements of our program -- the boat, the sails and the crew -- all intact and able to perform at 100 percent on the remaining four legs.

"If we do that, and we are still near the front, then we have a good chance to win because, as demonstrated so far, we have a pretty good program."

Cayard declined to describe his lead as comfortable or significant.

"It's three places on this upcoming leg," he said. "So if someone else was first and we were fourth, we'd still be tied with them. I'd say the significance of our lead is that it shows that we do have a good boat.

"All things being equal going forward, if we do the things we know best, we should be able to win."

Leaving Auckland, the fleet will bear south-southeast. The question is, how far south will it go?

"We will be following our meteorological advice," Cayard said, "and the southbound component in our course will be determined by where we think the next low pressures are coming from. Basically, we will be leaving a zone of high pressure and less wind and heading toward a train that has a lot more wind speed on it somewhere down around 45 or 50 degrees [latitude] south.

"If you have good breeze when you leave Auckland, you don't need to descend so quickly. If you're fighting rather light breezes, then you want to descend at rather a steep angle. That will all depend on what materializes [today and tomorrow] as we take our final look at the weather. Tactically, you are always tempering every decision you make with where the fleet is."

Cayard said that although the start is bound to be spectacular, it will not be all that important.

"It's an emotional thing," he said, "and the crew is all charged up, so if you start out on the right foot by winning the start, it's a whole lot easier for the guys to just roll right on into a winning performance from there. We've been fortunate that way."

Would he be going for another aggressive start?

"Maybe not," he said. "I'm told the spectator fleet in Auckland is more than a little exuberant. Maybe it's going to be more prudent to take it easy and make sure we get out of here with our whole boat and not lose the whole rig the way The Card did [in the 1993-1994 race when it collided with a spectator boat and was dismasted]. It doesn't matter if the collision is your fault or the spectators'. If you lose your rig, you're out of the race."

The boats are expected to take about 23 days to reach Sao Sebastiao.

Pub Date: 1/31/98

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