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The Start That Almost Wasn't

Bob Fisher Reports

São Sebastião, Brazil — March 14, 1998

Paul Cayard
EF Language leads at the chaotic start of Leg 6.

It could only happen in Brazil — chaos to a samba beat. When the nine boats in the Whitbread fleet manoeuvred for the starting line, it was with extreme difficulty. No one, it seemed, had bothered with crowd control, and the spectator boats thought that they were equally entitled to the starting area. It might not have been too bad had there not been well over 1,500 of them, and the area close to the Brazilian navy frigate Dodsworth, which was the starting vessel, seemed to attract them like flies.

Just before the five-minute gun, the Brazilian police went into action, and were relatively efficient in clearing the line, but immediately the starting gun fired, it was open season for the spectator boats once more and the object of all the skippers was to protect their boats. Happily, in one way at least, the winds were light. Just 5-7 knots from the northwest and big Code 0 masthead reaching sails were universally hoisted. Paul Cayard, picking his way to the start with care, placed EF Language at the windward end of the line.

Skipppers' Strike Averted
The start almost didn't happen at all. A strike by all nine skippers was narrowly averted by some delicate international diplomacy. Ian Bailey-Willmot, the Race Director, was faced with an ultimatum from the skippers, delivered just three hours before the start: They would not cross the line as scheduled at 1800 GMT (1500 local time) unless arrangements were made for the ship that was standing by to take their spares and workshop containers to the next port could be accomodated alongside at São Sebastião.

The skippers were all too well aware of the problems the ship's charterers would face with the Brazilian Customs and the fast turnaround because of the ship's tight schedule. It is a Russian Ro-Ro ferry, chartered by the Wilhelmsen Line, a subsidiary of the Norwegian Kvaerner Group, sponsors of one of the yachts in the race. It had to leave São Sebastião by six o'clock Sunday afternoon, but the berth it needed was to be occupied by the frigate Dodsworth.

The skippers' real concern was that when they reached Ft. Lauderdale, in 16 days time, at the end of the leg, there would be no spares or workshop facilities there for them and they have only two weeks to prepare their boats for the next leg. For them, it was container loading or they would not race, a reasonable enough demand in the circumstances

Bailey-Willmot, a retired Royal Navy Commander, appealed to the Brazilian Navy. There would be no start, he pointed out, unless some compromise could be reached. The Brazilian captain of the frigate agreed and after disembarking his guests, planned to moor elsewhere. The ferry was then allowed to dock, the containers loaded, and all Customs clearance facilitated in time.

The first leg was of 7.7 miles to a Volvo buoy, and in the light winds it was Innovation Kvaerner, with Ed Baird behind the wheel, which was first to round, followed by Swedish Match, Toshiba, Brunel Sunergy and EF Language.

The boats swapped masthead spinnakers for their reaching sails and as the spectator fleet tailed off, ran towards the southern end of Ilha Bela, the island offshore of São Sebastião, and the open ocean. Light winds were shortly to give way to stronger ones and progress into the night promised to be fast.

— Yachting journalist Bob Fisher
lives in Lymington, England

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