Is Edwards sailing into debt-infested waters?

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The Independent Online

When Tracy Edwards announced a £38m package of global yacht races funded by an Arabian sheikh last year, it was another coup for the single mother from Reading who has made a career out of upsetting the status quo in a sport of billionaire playboys and corporate sponsors.

The 41-year-old yachtswoman had already surprised the sailing fraternity by skippering the first all-female crew in a round-the-world race to second place and seven new sailing records in 1989. For her endeavours, a grateful nation appointed her an MBE.

Last October, at a glittering press launch in London's Waldorf Hotel, she launched an ambitious plan to upgrade from an iron-willed sailor to a yachting impresario.

Overturning decades of ocean-racing convention, Ms Edwards revealed she had secured backing for a programme of round-the-world races beginning in the turquoise waters of the oil-rich Arabian emirate of Qatar, fully backed by its royal family. At stake would be the largest prize in yachting history, $1m (£600,000), put up by the Qatar government.

It was the crowning glory of a rags-to-riches story for a one-time ship's cook who has suddenly become a power broker in one of the world's most expensive sports, complete with her own $2.2m (most of it borrowed) 110ft racing catamaran.

But The Independent has learnt that Ms Edwards has hit choppy waters. While she puts the finishing touches to the first round-the-world race to begin in February from the Qatar capital of Doha, creditors in Britain are pursuing her for claimed debts of at least £325,000, and two of her companies are facing winding-up orders in the High Court.

Ms Edwards, who fiercely contests the legal action, issued a statement insisting that next year's non-stop race around the globe, the Oryx Cup, is still on, with six entries, three of which have "paid up".

By any standards, it is an ambitious enterprise. A design for a winner's trophy has been drawn up by the royal jeweller, Asprey, and HSBC, the world's largest bank, has signed a sponsorship deal, worth an estimated £10m.

If all goes to plan, a fleet of six of the world's largest and most expensive multi-hull vessels will set out into the Arabian Gulf on 6 February for a 60-day circumnavigation with an estimated cost of at least £2m per boat.

But Ms Edwards is facing questions at home. A London-based sports PR and media company, Sports Impact, last week presented petitions to the High Court for the winding up of two companies - Maiden Ocean Racing Ltd and Maiden Ocean Racing Qatar Ltd - for failure to pay a bill of more than £75,000 for work they say they did to help launch Ms Edwards' Qatar project last year. The petitions will be heard on 4 August.

John Taylor, the company's director, said: "We were engaged by Tracy Edwards on PR and media work and invoices were presented. When payment was not forthcoming, we tried to have meetings but she declined. We are having to petition for winding-up orders. We are sad it has come to this."

In the statement, Ms Edwards said she was disputing the claim, and insisted the companies, "two dormant shelf companies with no assets", have never been part of the project to run the Oryx Cup, or the Global Challenge, another circumnavigation in 2006.

She said: "[The companies] do not and have never had any contracts with Sports Impact or any other company for that matter. The two companies have not and have never had a deal with Qatar and are not involved in the events in any way."

But the name of Maiden Ocean Racing Qatar (MORQ) features in Ms Edwards' official website (www.maidenocean racing qatar.co.uk) as the name of the company behind the Oryx Cup. Yesterday, an hour after The Independent approached Ms Edwards with this information, the website was removed.

Ms Edwards is facing a separate claim, understood to be more than £250,000, from a private backer who lent it to her in 2002 to help buy her catamaran, Maiden II, renamed Qatar 2006 as part of a publicity drive for the Asian Games, to be held in the emirate in two years.

Andrew Pindar, the owner of a British-based printing company, made the loan as part of his sponsorship of Emma Richards, the Scottish round-the-world sailing star. The entrepreneur said: "She does things very impetuously ... But at the same time, in these Qatar races she has genuinely got hold of something that could come off. The problem is, it is all moving ponderously slowly." Ms Edwards declined to comment on her alleged debt to Mr Pindar.

In April, Bruno Peyron, the French yachtsman and entrepreneur, began legal action in France accusing Ms Edwards of "stealing" his idea of a non-stop global race. Mr Peyron, who organised The Race in 2001, was forced to cancel a rerun of the competition in 2003 after several competitors, Ms Edwards included, pulled out. The British yachtswoman contests the claim.

Yesterday Ms Edwards, who is now running the Qatar venture through a company called Quest International Sports Events, rejected criticism of her financial management and insisted that the Oryx Cup was on schedule.

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