A national mission for seamen

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IN 1995 British big-boat racing reached its lowest ebb when the national team finished plumb last in the Champagne Mumm Admiral's Cup at Cowes. Part of the team's problems lay in late selection and inadequate preparation. So, following the successful examples of the Italian team, who are always selected well in advance to allow plenty of time for training, and the success of the 1996 British Olympic team, selected in the year before the Games, Britain, in the shape of the Royal Yachting Association and Royal Ocean Racing Club, picked a team last November for the 1997 event which will be held at Cowes in August.

We were asked to manage and sail the Mumm 36 (the smallest of the three Admiral's Cup boats) and needed little encouragement to take up the challenge. Every sportsman needs a new goal to drive the motivation required to be successful. Up until the Olympics, ours was to win a medal. Having taken the silver we feel strongly that we have some unfinished business in the 470, but we also need a break from full- time 470 sailing and the Mumm 36 is a logical progression because although it is a Grand Prix keelboat it possesses dinghy-like tendencies and, like the 470, it is both a one-design class - all the boats are identical - and fiercely competitive. It is recognised as the most competitive grand prix one-design class in the world.

We hope that by adopting the same methodical approach that we had in the 470, we will be able to learn rapidly and become competitive internationally. Our 470 success was based on self-belief, an analytical approach, attention to detail and teamwork. These will, we hope, also provide the key to success in the Mumm 36.

In addition to the Mumm 36, Bradamante, which we will be sailing, the British team will consist of Graham Walker's Indulgence and Tony Buckingham's Easy Oars. All three are in Key West and will be competing regularly internationally between now and the cup. This is essential for the boats and crew to be optimised in time for the main event. The talent undoubtedly exists in Britain and this new team approach should harness it to best effect. We have lots of knowledge within the three boats and a great willingness to work together.

The team is fortunate to have sufficient financial backing to compete with the best in Cowes, but with the Admiral's Cup offering so much to sponsors it is hoped that we can secure considerable additional team funding in the near future. The 1997 cup will be a high-profile event benefiting from the return of all the world's best sailing nations. For the first time since 1989 the New Zealanders will be there, having decided that the event is a perfect training ground for their America's Cup team. They will start as favourites alongside the defending Italians and the ever- competitive Americans.

We are fortunate that we are sailing a boat that has been campaigned for two years already by its owner Tim Barrett and we are therefore not starting from scratch. He and two of his crew (Nick Bonner and Nick Holroyd) are on board, ensuring a good knowledge of the boat and rig. To them we have added ourselves (John helming and Ian on tactics), the top Kiwi helmsman/ trimmer Kelvin Harrop, the experienced keelboat sailor Jez Fanstone and perhaps most importantly David Howlett. A former Olympian and the present Etchells World Champion, David is a veteran of many Admiral's Cups and an experienced navigator. He will assume a form of on-board coaching role to bridge the gap in keelboat experience and will be indispensible when it comes to the cup and in particular the three offshore races, including the Fastnet.

Key West, our first regatta, will give us an insight into where we stand. Race one tomorrow will be only our fifth day in the boat together and yet we must compete against teams with several seasons' racing under their belts. So how do we hope to do? The honest answer is that we have absolutely no idea until we come off the start line.

We will be focusing less on results than on how we race the boat. If we can mix it with some of the better boats and show a marked improvement as the week goes on, then the regatta will have been a success. As for the Admiral's Cup itself, with a professional campaign - and no shortage of self-belief and hard work - anything is possible.