FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Before the Whitbread Round the World Race began last September, bookmakers were giving EF Language 20 to 1 odds. That's rather harsh, considering EF's performance since then.
Simply put, the boat would have to get splintered by lightning - or suffer some other terrible fate - to not place first when the boats finish the race in May in Southampton, England.
But the skepticism surrounding EF Language at the start of the 31,600-mile global race is hardly surprising. At that time, common wisdom had it that only the Whitbread veterans got the glory.
Few believed that a Whitbread rookie like Paul Cayard, the skipper on Swedish boat EF Language, could finesse a first-place finish. Sure, he had competed in four America's Cup challenges, but the old school wondered if his limited offshore racing and minimal experience with long periods in treacherous seas would sink his team.
Cayard has watched as the Whitbread's identity crisis unfolded in this race. Would the competition remain dominated by long-time sailing marathoners, or would it inherit the short-distance sprinters?
"These two worlds are colliding," says Cayard, 38, a San Francisco native whose dark hair and bushy mustache set him apart from this sleek, blond sailing set. "You've got the Whitbread cult of the past mixing with the high-strung more intense sailors."
Cayard's sailors may indeed be the racers of the Whitbread's future. After all, the Whitbread survivors who specialize in racing big boats for long distances are not exactly thriving here.
Lawrie Smith, a four-time Whitbread racer, has performed a disappointing race on British boat Silk Cut. Grant Dalton, a veteran of five Whitbreads, is sitting in third with Monaco's Merit Cup. EF Language is so far in front that, barring disaster, these two teams and the four others skippered by Whitbread veterans are only battling for second.
Cayard, meanwhile, has mastered some of the toughest legs of the race, placing first in Leg 1, from Southampton to Cape Town, South Africa, Leg 3, from Fremantle, Australia, to Sydney, Australia, and in Leg 5 - the most punishing of the two Southern Ocean legs - from Auckland, New Zealand, to Sao Sebastiao, Brazil.
Even so, not everyone is ready to crown Cayard.
The skipper came to EF Language at the last minute, after Lawrie Smith quit the team for Silk Cut. At EF, Smith helped develop the Code 0 sail, known as "the Whomper," a revolutionary design that gave EF Language an early lead. After that, the rest of the fleet couldn't catch up.
"Cayard inherited a winning campaign - remember that," says Dalton, 40, a rakish New Zealander with plenty of Whitbread battle scars. "Don't forget that Lawrie Smith chose the boat. Would Cayard have chosen that same design? Stuffed if I know."
Dalton says too little is being made of experience in this race, a contest so brutal it has literally driven some men crazy. In 1990, an inexperienced skipper from a Russian boat was so stressed after only a month of sailing, he hanged himself during a stopover in Uruguay.
"It takes experience to pace yourself," Dalton says. "These are very, very long campaigns, and you have to know how to pace yourself - you don't want to risk losing your marbles and blowing apart."
Cayard, who steered Stars & Stripes in the 1995 America's Cup, admits that sometimes his hard-driving, all-out style - the kind of ambition essential to a day race - can wear on his crew.
"I'm right on the edge of making people mad," Cayard said just after finishing second in the last leg from Brazil. "I'm pushing hard. I'm never happy. And that makes people crazy."
On the docks, Cayard's team is known for being studious, hard-working - even boring. While other crews celebrate their arrival with 24 hours of drinking and another 24 of nursing hangovers, Cayard's crew is on the docks early the next morning.
"We're all at the workout at 6:30, and we all come to work at 8:30," Cayard says of his 12-man crew, which includes just three Whitbread veterans. "It's daunting to see someone always working on their program, always serious. This is a very mental race, and you have an image to your competitors."
Cayard says other skippers' differing philosophies are easy to spot. "Silk Cut, they're kind of the hooligans - a motley crew that parties a lot," he says. "They have a lot of talent. They should've done a lot better than they were doing."
As for Silk Cut's sailors, they say their fun-loving team has been misunderstood. "People think we're a bunch of spoiled brats going around the world," says trimmer Jez Fanstone, 31. "It's hard to get people to understand - this is not the party people think it is."
The culture clash between these two sailing worlds is glaring.