Dream Boat: British yachting hopes sink as sponsors hold off: There could well be no competitive UK entry in next year's Whitbread Round-the-World race. Jim White reports

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The Independent Online
DAVID Alan-Williams' problem is, he reckons, a microcosm of the whole economy's. Just one spark of confidence would trigger everything. Just one company taking an imaginative leap, and he would be off - off round the world.

Mr Alan-Williams is leading a syndicate to make a British challenge in the next Whitbread Round-the-World yacht race, which leaves Southampton on 25 September, 1993. There are already 26 entries in the race, including three from New Zealand and others from Spain, Australia, the US, Italy, France. There is even a boat that will fly the Ukrainian flag. But there is a serious danger, for the first time in the race's 20-year history, that there will be no competitive entry from this country (a yacht crewed by disabled Britons has entered, hoping to create a first by completing the course).

The problem is a familiar one: money.

'We have lots of secondary sponsors, willing to come in once the ball is rolling,' said Mr Alan-Williams. 'We have given ourselves a deadline of the end of October to find a major commercial partner, but at the moment there is no sign of one.'

He was speaking on board Creighton's Naturally, a magnificent 80 ft yacht he designed for the last Whitbread race, in which she won her class. Creighton's Naturally has been tied up in St Katharine's Dock in the City of London all this week, playing host to a number of corporate hospitality events, attracting admiring glances and eliciting the concern of one old lady who invited the crew in for a cup of tea ('you look as though you all need it,' she said.) The boat bears the name of its sponsor, plastered all over the hull and mainsail.

'Our objective in sponsoring was to find a vehicle to establish our name,' explained Gerry Clements, managing director of Creighton's Naturally, the company that supplies Body Shop, among others, with cosmetics. 'It worked. People we speak to now say they know our name because of the boat. And the fact it still has our name two years after the race and acts as a sort of mobile advertising hoarding, costs us not one penny.'

But David Alan-Williams and his team have found that such willing partners are not to be found in the present climate.

'Everyone is retrenching, the promotion budget is the easiest to cut,' Mr Alan-Williams said. 'People make sympathetic noises and say they are interested, but it would be inappropriate for them to be seen sponsoring us at this time. All we need is someone to take an optimistic view.'

It would cost around pounds 2.5m to come on board his boat: a million to build a state-of-the-art yacht, a million to do the race - pay the crew, pay for supplies and spares (a mainsail alone costs pounds 10,000) - and the other half million in shore support and stand-by costs. Secondary sponsors, who would have their names in smaller print on the hull and perhaps on a spinnaker, would account for about a tenth of the total figure. In other countries the sponsorship programme is in place. One New Zealand consortium, sponsored by Yamaha, already has a prototype boat in the water.

Mr Alan-Williams believes any potential sponsor would receive splendid value for money. The cost is the equivalent of taking one 30-second slot on LWT every month for a year, plus a half-page advertisement in a national Sunday newspaper once a fortnight. Sponsoring a boat would open up a three-year programme of media coverage: all entries in the race will carry satellite technology that will enable live filmed reports to be stitched into television news broadcasts. And after the race there is enormous corporate hospitality potential.

'If you've got a boat, you've got the perfect excuse to invite someone over for a chat,' said Mr Alan-Williams. He spent Cowes Week skippering Ocean Leopard, another 80 ft yacht he designed, which had been chartered for hospitality jaunts around the Solent: the sort of meanders where hoisting a gin and tonic was about all the prior sailing knowledge required.

'One day, the man chartering the boat told me he had paid for the day's hire fee three times over in direct business alone.'

And if the Alan-Williams boat wins, any investment is maximised.

'I've done the race four times,' he said. 'I don't need to do this for the good of my health any more. I'm doing it to win.'

But in the meantime, he is on the phone, trying to drum up support. One company he cannot approach is Whitbread's. It is not Whitbread company policy to disclose the amount it costs to sponsor the race, but it is clear the brewer would be very unhappy if there was no serious British entry.

'Of course Whitbread is very keen to have a successful British interest in the race because a lot of what we get out of it is in Britain,' said Commander Ian Bailey-Willmott, the race director. 'We are disappointed in the lack of sponsorship interest in major yachting events in this country. It has a damaging effect on British yacht industry. If we're not up there playing with the big boys, our industry, in which we have many world leaders, will suffer. We weren't in the America's Cup, now it would be a tragedy if our involvement in the Whitbread was diminished.'

Unless somebody contacts Mr Alan-Williams - or one of the four rival consortia trying with equal lack of success to raise money - Britain will be without a competitive entry in a race that was invented and nurtured here. But, he said, there is a precedent for this sort of thing. 'It's called Wimbledon.'

Potential sponsors can contact Mr Alan-Williams on 0590 677903.

(Photographs omitted)