It was a cliffhanger no-one had expected, the victor decided in a last inshore skirmish in 60-knot winds. In a snapshot of Southern Ocean conditions, the two race leaders in the BT Global Challenge beat up the Cook Strait, shouldering through ‘phenomenal’ waves to finish in Wellington just eight miles apart after 38 days and 6,000 miles of racing.

Less than 24 hours ago, Olympic Group, skippered by Manley Hopkinson, looked safe in 1st place. They had been at the front of the fleet for the last 500 miles, clinging on to a small but decisive-looking lead over Conrad Humphreys and crew on LG FLATRON. But FLATRON’s crew had been gnawing relentlessly at the gap, and when Olympic Group’s No 3 yankee tore in the heavy weather beat through in the Cook Strait, the misfortune was FLATRON’s opportunity.

Thus the final act was effectively decided on sail combinations. Having been knocked flat in a 68-knot gust, Humphreys had decided to take down the mainsail, whereas Olympic Group persevered with theirs. “We’d seen Compaq go round Cape Horn with just a storm staysail and No 3, so we learned that it was a fast combination. We had a lot less sail up [than Olympic], and they were being blown over. They were overpowered.”

“We could not get [the yankee] down,” explained Manley Hopkinson. “It was like having an enormous flag driving us sideways at three knots. There was nothing we could do as FLATRON crept closer. Eventually, we had to heave-to . . . in that time, FLATRON passed us.”

FLATRON also had nervous moments. As they drew parallel to Olympic, about a quarter of a mile away, their own yankee halyard parted “with a bang that shook the rig to its roots,” according to Humphreys. “With just the storm staysail up it’s like a wallowing pig,” he adds. “There’s no drive, so we were getting the wrong way across the waves. But it was the quickest halyard change ever and when we released the sail it just blew straight up to the top of the mast. We thought for a minute we’d lost another halyard!”

The Cook Strait, which separates New Zealand’s North and South Islands, gave the crews their worst weather yet. “[It] has proved to be tougher than anything we met in the Southern Ocean,” commented Manley Hopkinson. “The waves are phenomenal; very short, steep breaking rollers that slam into the boat. Even the storm off Cape Horn pales into insignificance compared to this. It is the closest we have been to a number of knockdowns.”

Humphreys agrees: “I’ve never seen anything like it. The visibility was next to nothing and we were being blinded by spray. And there’s a different intensity, a different focus. You’re much more nervous when you’re close to land.”

But despite the fierce conditions, Humphreys adds: “The boats are very, very good upwind; they’re so reassuring. You really feel like you’re in a safe environment and like you’re completely safe. It can be blowing 50 knots on deck and down below you think it’s about 25. I’m very, very happy with it. We were doing 7.5 knots with just a No 3 and a storm staysail in 70 knots of wind.”

Having their yearned for 1st place wrestled from them in the final day of such a long leg is a huge disappointment for the crew of Olympic Group, but they put a brave face on it. Their reputation is for being fun-loving and determined to getting as much out of the race as possible. Despite finishing last on leg one, they never lost their good humour, so a win for them would have been enormously popular.

Sentiment aside, though, LG FLATRON’s victory, their second in three legs, confirms the consistent superiority of Conrad Humphreys’s crew and underlines why they remain clear leaders overall. They led nearly a third of the way from Cape Horn and at other times were never far from the front.

But it has been a long leg, and a hard slog. Liz Hurst, one of FLATRON’s crew, says the effort demanded by the Southern Ocean was hugely compounded by the closeness of the racing – the top half of th