Exiles embark on unique tour

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While the Tour de France has become a thoroughly international affair, the threat of an overseas winner in sailing's equivalent, the Maritime race, which starts from here today, is only just gathering momentum.

Chris Dickson, hero in what seems to be permanently enforced exile from his native New Zealand, is back for his second attempt alongside Philippe Guigne. Paul Cayard joins Vincent Fertin, and Russell Coutts, the Kiwi skipper in self-imposed exile but still the darling of his home supporters, is doing five of the Atlantic stages with Alain Fedensieu.

Like the "pedalloes" last year, the yacht race diverts to Guernsey, a trickier 149 miles opening trip than a flat routing map suggests.

From there, the 23 identical 35ft Jeanneau 1 designs go down the Atlantic coast in daily stages to Arcachon, near Bordeaux. They are then trucked across to the Mediterranean and St Cyprien in French Catalonia, take a dive down to Spanish Catalonia, and make their way to the finish in Nice.

Each of the 15 ports stages an exhibition at the dockside, the shore crews and their trucks race in convoy from stop-over to stop-over. The tourist crowds enjoy it, the shops and restaurants profit from it. Would that Britain, or even just the South Coast of England, had the same, but there is rarely the will even if there is the finance among the local authorities.

"This is the only event where students and amateurs can start on the same line, with the same equipment, as the best in the world," said Bruno Trouble, organiser of this $1.8m (pounds 1.2m) event now in its 19th year.

"In sailing this is a unique concept because the village and venue changes every night. But it helps to make sailing very popular in France for the public, and at the same time sharpens the whole of French offshore sailing. In 18 years, 14,000 have taken part and some, like Bertrand Pace, have gone on to win at world level after being a product of the tour."

For Dickson, now the Whitbread co-skipper of his former America's Cup rival, Dennis Conner, the Tour is a challenging mix of short and long races, concentrated effort, and needle-sharp competition. "It's some of the best fleet racing in the world," he said.

n In the Swedish Match Cup, in Stockholm, Russell Coutts beat Chris Law 3-0 to face Peter Gilmour in one semi-final, with Jesper Bank and Bertrand Pace in the other.

n The Republic of China will line up against both the local Aberdeen Yacht Club and Australia 2000, America's Cup syndicates in the 1996 Corum Cup in Hong Kong this October.