FIRST NIGHT IAN WALKER AND MARK COVELL: Partners in grief and gold relief

The new odd couple preserve the memory of old friends. By Alan Hubbard
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IAN WALKER and Mark Covell are a new team with an old inspiration. When they set sail together in September's World Championships theirs will be a partnership unique in British sport - one bonded by poignancy and born out of tragedy.

Two of Britain's outstanding sailors have come together as unlikely shipmates through the experience of shared loss, both their former partners meeting violent deaths. Two years ago Walker's closest friend and co-Olympic silver medallist John Merricks died when the vehicle in which they were both passengers overturned on an Italian hill. Last December Glyn Charles, Covell's helmsman, was swept away by a freak wave in the Tasman Sea in the Sydney-Hobart race. His body has never been recovered.

Now the survivors of those longstanding pairings have forged a new objective - gold in the Sydney Olympics as Britain's representatives in the two- man Star class, competing in one of the oldest and most technically demanding of all Olympic sailing disciplines. The prospect has given them both fresh focus and firm friendship. But there was a time at the beginning of the year when their individual careers seemed all at sea.

"January was a pretty shitty month," Covell recalls. "Everything was up in the air. Glyn's friends and family were still trying to comfort each other after his death and sailing and the future were furthest from my mind. Then Ian called from Key West in Florida. It was one of the nicest calls I've had. We spoke for about an hour. He'd been in Australia passing by the port where the boats came in after Glyn's accident.

"He'd been through the same sort of thing when Johnny died and was able to help calm things down and lend support. It was comforting to talk to someone who had been there himself. We spoke a couple of more times and at that point Glyn's family, after the initial shock, had told me: `Mark you must keep things going. You must keep Glyn's boat sailing. It isn't right to keep it in the barn.' I talked with Ian about all the people I'd spoken to about sailing with me but none was really suitable. Then he said quietly: `I'd love to come and sail the boat. Let's do a couple of regattas and see how it goes.' After that everything just fell into place."

Yet they had never sailed together before; indeed they had competed in different classes. Charles was an established Star expert whereas Walker had never been at the helm of one. With Merricks, Walker had won a silver medal in the 1996 Olympics in their two-man 470 dinghy. So keen were they to get their medal that they made up a couple from beer cans while awaiting the ceremony in Savannah.

After the Olympics the pair moved into the Melges 24 keel-boat and they were leading after seven races in the European championships at Punta Ala, Italy when tragedy claimed the life of 26-year-old Merricks. He and Walker were travelling to a celebration dinner organised by the sponsors with other team members in a 12-seater Land Rover when it spun out of control on a hilly road. Several received minor injuries but Merricks, a front-seat passenger, died instantly.

"After that I suppose I was at a bit of a loose end," said Walker. "But I'd always sailed two-man boats and with the Olympics approaching I didn't think the 49er class was my best option. I'd never really considered the Star but after talking to Mark and a few others I thought why not give it a go?" They took part in a handful of regattas, including the Bacardi Cup in Miami when they finished a creditable 17th out of 95. This was to be a dress-rehearsal for this month's European championship, but fate intervened in the form of a serious knee injury to the big crew man from Emsworth, Hampshire.

This occurred when Covell was adopting the usual position of hiking his bulky torso over the side of the 26ft boat, his feet tucked into a restraining strap while he ships facefuls of water. "It was a race in which we were within one point of the world champion and I knew the sails needed a bit more horse power. But when I strained my legs, my right knee suddenly went pop. At the time I thought it was a disaster because I could hardly walk. But actually it's not that bad. I've had some physio treatment and I'm cycling over the South Downs. It should be OK in a couple of weeks."

Alas, not in time for the European championships but looking good for the worlds in September which, eerily, will be raced at the same pretty resort where Merricks lost his life two years ago. "It will be a little difficult," Walker admits. "But we'll lay a few flowers, say a few prayers and hopefully John will keep us in the race. I have no doubt there will be three of us in the boat. Even now John is still an inspiration. He's still here in many ways. So many of the things I learned in sailing I learned from him." Now the learning is about the new togetherness and blending mind with muscle, with Covell as they race towards the Olympics. They know they need to finish in the top 10 in Punta Ala to earn one of the 15 places in the Sydney Games, which makes it a race against time, too. But they are resolute in their determination to make it, not only for themselves but to honour the memory of their lost partners.

While the 31-year-old Covell's knee is mending Walker, 29, will take time out to compete with the British team in the Admiral's Cup - and to get married. In these past five months, since they paired up, he and Covell have almost been as inseparable as any newlyweds. They make an oddish couple, both engagingly earnest. But, according to Bryn Vail, who with Mike McIntyre won a gold medal in the Star class in the 1988 Olympics, they could be a formidable team. "Sailing lost two talents in John and Glyn," says Vail. "Ian and Mark getting together is a brave move and a fascinating one. Between them they have the talent to do very well. What we don't know is whether they can do it in time."

The Star is a class in which size matters. The heavier the crew the lighter the helmsman has to be under racing rules and Covell, four times a world champion and three times a European champion in various classes, has the stature of a super heavyweight boxer, a towering giant of 6ft 7in and 128 kg. He needs the bulk to be the willing shire horse of the team, his leverage giving the vital power boost to the mainsail. As helmsman, Walker is literally the guiding light, the tactician in what is now considered the most technical sailing class of all, producing many America's Cup luminaries, not least Dennis Conner. "If you were a betting man you wouldn't put money on us" grins Walker, "but we have two things going for us - the first is Mark's experience and the second is that when we get to the Olympics this is an event where the form book very often is turned upside down."

Both have been sailing all their lives. Walker, a Cambridge graduate in geography, learned his skills from the age of eight on a Kent gravel pit. Covell's father ran the Hayling Island Sailing Club. They are full- time sailors, existing on grants from the Lottery's World Class Performance programme and sponsorship from United Airlines, who bought them one of their two boats.

Walker says he looks on sailing as a sophisticated form of gambling. "You have to load the book in your favour by calling on research and experience. But one gust of wind can be the difference between winning and losing."

Fifteen months after Merricks's death, Portsmouth Cathedral was packed for Charles' Memorial Service, as Leicester Cathedral had been for Merricks. The surviving duo have committed themselves to carrying on as their respective former partners would have wished, and part of Walker's way of preserving Merricks's memory is through a charitable trust, which so far has raised pounds 350,000 to encourage the development of the sailing skills of youngsters.

Now success in Sydney is becoming an all-consuming passion for two men in a boat - a heart-warming tale which demands a happy ending.