Matthew HUMPHRIES (Team Elanders) from the UK goes head to head with Thomas BLIXT (Sony Ericsson) from Sweden. If Team Elanders scoop the Gant Round Gotland Race, they will win the Volvo Baltic Race.
But, if Thomas Blixt can pull it off, then the competition will not be decided until the final day's racing in Sandhamn on Wednesday.
At 1300 local time yesterday, on a bright and breezy day in the Stockholm archipelago, Sony Ericsson and Team Elanders powered across the start line, neck and neck, with Kiwi, Cameron APPLETON, placing Team Elanders three boat lengths to windward. Stig WESTERGAARD (DEN) was at the helm of Sony Ericsson, handing over to Jeff SCOTT ten minutes after the start. Jeff then settled the boat down and began squeezing Sony Ericsson closer and closer to Team Elanders, in the way that he is famous for.
The whole fleet opted for the committee boat end of the line, crossing on starboard tack, and were closely bunched as the gun fired. Mikael LUNDH (Swe) positioned Avant in clear air as the most windward boat of the fleet, flanked by AV-Teknik (O KARLSSON/SWE M MURTIC/CRO), to leeward, looking very competitive. JMS Next Generation (KI HEIBERG/NOR) was two boat lengths behind, also to leeward. This order was maintained as the fleet beat out into the open sea.
The 364 nautical-mile Gant Round Gotland Race, which forms race seven of the eight-leg Volvo Baltic Race series, promises to be match racing all the way for the top two pairs of boats, and it will be an exhausted bunch of people arriving back in Sandhamn on Tuesday. Living for 48 hours on adrenaline and little else, with virtually no rest, the crews will push, cajole and bully their boats every inch of the way round the race-track, looking for opportunities and advantages.
I>"If we're ahead, then we'll be defending, but if Sony Ericsson is ahead, then we'll be attacking and we have different strategies for each of those scenarios," said Humphries on the dockside earlier today. "Sony Ericsson will put the pressure on us,"
he added and continued, "but we've been in that position before, so we know what their strategy will be."
Blixt on the other hands says, "We just have to keep between Team Elanders and the finish. It's rather easy. We will match race them round the whole course. We want the Volvo Baltic Race to be decided by Wednesday's windward/leeward races."
It's even tighter between JMS Next Generation in third and Avant in fourth. Just half a point separates these two. "We feel really good,"
said Avant's skipper Mikael LUNDH this morning. "We've done what we can to the boat and it's up to our sailing skills now to prove that we should be ahead of JMS."
AV-Teknik has had some radical crew changes. Sweden's Oskar KARLSSON, who sailed on Swedish Match in the 1997-98 Whitbread, has been drafted in to beef up the afterguard. He will co-skipper the boat with owner, Marko MURTIC.
"We have to inject energy into this team,"
Karlsson explained. "We want to beat Avant and JMS Next Generation and my job is to lift the game. We will do everything we can with what we've got, to beat them."
In addition to the original three Croatian and two Swedish crewmembers, Karlsson brings onboard Johan Petersen as principal helmsman and Andreas Theorell who, with his detailed local knowledge of the area, will help boost their performance."
"Our original crew just wasn't up to this level of racing,"
said co-skipper and owner Marko MURTIC. "I think Oskar is very good. He knows how to educate people and the spirit onboard is much higher. That's very important for us."
Positions overall after leg 6 (now including race 4)
1 Team Elanders 23.0 points
2 Sony Ericsson 22 points
3 JMS Next Generation 12 points
4 Avant 11.5 points
5 AV Teknik 5.5 points