After five weeks of racing in the Global Challenge, Spirit of Sark's crew wrest 1st place in the final hours

After 7,000 miles of Southern Ocean pounding on the leg from Sydney to Cape Town, it was not a dramatic flourish or a bold risk that earned Duggie Gillespie and his crew on Spirit of Sark their second win in the Global Challenge. It was, appropriately enough, an endgame of relentless persistence and calculated wiliness that allowed them to creep past the leader off the Cape of Good Hope. Rewarded finally, the crew literally jumped for joy as they crossed the finish line at close to midnight.

This one-design race has always produced some intensely close racing – every leg has ended with yachts in sight of one another after thousands of miles at sea. But this is surely the closest finish in the race’s history. All day yesterday, four yachts – Imagine it. Done, Spirit of Sark, BP Explorer and Team Stelmar – crept round the Cape of Good Hope in near calm, barely a couple of miles between all of them.

“Imagine it. Done came into the Cape and we went slightly wider. Suddenly we saw them on the inside, flapping about, and we just sneaked past,” says Spirit of Sark’s quietly spoken and understated skipper, Duggie Gillespie. “From then on it was endless work for hours and hours and hours. You can’t imagine it.”

Then it was Spirit of Sark’s turn to park up as the three boats behind closed in. Throughout the day they covered, fretted and ceaselessly laboured to coax fractions of boatspeed in frustratingly variable conditions. Gillespie admits he helmed for nearly half the day.

“The wind was changing all the time. We had spinnakers first. We were waiting for south-westerlies and they came through for a few hours, then it turned round 180° and we had headsails for half an hour and 23 knots, then it died down to 10 knots and shifted again and when we went round the last waypoint we had spinnakers and light patches. We had a lot of sail changes. It was a lot of work.”

No-one here needs to take Duggie Gillespie’s word that his crew has worked incredibly hard on this arduous leg – one look at his gaunt crew says it all. “We’ve all lost loads of weight,” admits crewmember Jason McLeod. “I’ve really noticed in the last three of four days how much my hip bones are sticking out. I’ve really faded away to nothing. It’s good food but it tastes the same all the time and your appetite just goes and you survive on snacks.”

“This is the second time I’ve been in the Southern Ocean and this was way, way harder,” says McLeod. “Every time you got up it was 30 or 40 knots and the waves were just blowing, blowing, blowing all the time. It was freezing cold; your feet would be like blocks of ice and you could only stay on deck for half an hour. And there were so many sail changes. You were up on the bow all the time. But I can’t say I was ever bored. A bit miserable maybe, but never bored.”

The conclusion to this leg has not been so happy for Dee Caffari and her crew on Imagine it. Done. After a medical emergency and subsequent retirement from the last Southern Ocean leg they were ravenous for victory and led for over 6,000 miles of this leg. To see their longed-for 1st place vanish so close to the end and, worse still, to finish in 4th place will have made today by far the most painful of 37 gruelling days at sea.