New tactics at the back have fired the entire Shosholoza team further up the results than they'd dared to expect

 How many times can you put a good result down to a lucky break before you have to admit that maybe things have changed? A question that the South African team may be asking themselves after another outstanding day’s racing for the Shosholoza team.

In the first race and in shifty conditions, they scorched around the course on day two of the fleet racing to finish third, just behind Alinghi and BMW Oracle. Clearly a fluke – really?

The team worked the first upwind leg well to round the weather mark fifth, an impressive result by any stretch, but they hadn’t finished with the big boys. By the second lap they had hauled themselves into third, a position they held until the finish.

In the second race of the day and in even trickier conditions, they rounded the weather mark third once again and were only dropped down the rankings after a tantalising cloud street signalling more breeze and a shift drew them over into what became fools corner on the course. Several others fell foul of the same trap.

By the finish Shosholoza was seventh, enough to place the team fourth overall with one race to go. Their closest opponents being the Spanish Desafio Espanol team who trail by four points. Taking these two teams in isolation and looking at the consistency of the results over both Acts, I think the South Africans deserve to hold their place, but fleet racing can provide a rude shock if you get buried. Ask Luna Rossa, Victory Challenge or Alinghi slayers K-Challenge, all of whom have been down into double figures.

So how has the team started to turn its results around? Clearly tactician Dee Smith has been a big influence on the team when it comes to tactics, but according to helmsman Ian Ainslie, the American has had a far greater influence.

“We’re putting up much more sail than we were before, flying a bigger jib than we would normally,” he said. “The crew’s gaining confidence as well, we’re not terrified every time we find ourselves ahead.”

“Dee’s teaching a lot about the attitude of a big boat. Until recently we’ve been sailing like we do in small boats. Some of the areas that are new to us include communication, trimming, how to identify problems with speed, being more decisive with the calls as well as understanding what you can and can’t do with a big boat. He also has a lot of technical knowledge and can help the designers more than we can.”

Have they been surprised by their own performance?

“Every day since we’ve been here we’ve learned a heap,” he continued. “It’s highly motivating to feel that you’re improving. I didn’t really have a result in my head before we went into this event. With each step forward we are gaining more confidence and it’s a lot of fun when you think you’re improving.”

But is there a risk of over confidence in the team?

“I don’t think we have a self-esteem overdose yet, we’re still happy to be mixing it up with the middle of the fleet. We need more confidence, not the reverse. Having said that, if we finish twelfth on the last day we’re not going to freak out. We know that everyone’s good and we are going to try to do our best.”

Their best has certainly been impressive for all who’ve watched them at first hand over the last few days, but perhaps of more significance is the impact that the South African team’s result has had back at home.

Andrew Mlangeni spent 27 years in prison with Nelson Mandela, this week he’s been riding with the team on the way out to the start and watching their performance.

“Man, this was my first experience, and I was very happy and very proud – I wasn’t terrified like many people thought I would be – I was very proud to be part of the Shosholoza team,” he said.

“They are doing us proud here in South Africa because they are putting South Africa on the international map. They know there is a team called Shosholoza, young as they are, but they are already doing extremely well so far.”

Also doing well is Alinghi, well on its way to another Act victory. Aside from a disaster, the Swiss look most likely to win the 2005 season overall. And while the cynics may feel there’s little surprise in this, try looking into the eyes and talking to those who’ve been beaten by them.

All have suffered similar bouts of shock treatment during the season when they’ve seen just how high the bar is already set.


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