Dalton thinks big as supercat faces global challenge

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The Independent Online

Will it work or won't it? Pete Goss suffered catastrophic problems with the radical design of his 120ft British super yacht Team Philips when the first 45 feet of the catamaran's port hull broke off in less than demanding conditions on her first sea trial off Guernsey. The boat, launched with royal fanfares, is now back in Totnes undergoing major surgery.

Grant Dalton, one of the world's leading yachtsmen, hoped yesterday that the more conventional approach by the French designer Gilles Ollier would be a safer answer as Club Med, his 110ft monster - complete with a 136ft mast - was launched here in Brittany.

It is one of a batch of three yachts being built to take part in The Race, a no-holds-barred, non-stop round-the-world marathon which is due to start on New Year's Eve in Barcelona. The third boat is being sailed by the American Cam Lewis and the second is still available. Others, including a Polish entry, have brought their individual solutions to a problem that is taxing the sail-racing world: how do you build such giant machines - with all the so far unknown power and loading strains they generate - to be fast and yet survive every sea condition that can be thrown at them?

"This is the most frightening race I have ever done," said Dalton, who won the 1993-94 Whitbread Round The World Race and finished second in '97-'98, "and after Steve Fossett gave himself the fright of his life in Playstation and then Pete [Goss] hit a brick wall he didn't even know was there. So we are starting with an additional millstone around our necks.

"I think everyone's watching us because we are the next boat down the chute to see if we have got it right. People think it's all a bit too big, a bit too impossible, a bit too scary."

Dalton's yacht at least looks conventional, which Goss's did not. The bows are very fine but, after that, it appears to be a beefed-up version of other racing catamarans. "We think we have got it right. We hope we have got it right, but we don't know. I haven't got a clue," Dalton says. "All we can do at this point is put our trust in the engineers and the builders."

Even so, he does not think these gargantuan boats inhabit yachting's Twilight Zone. "All you have seen is two boats that did not quite work," he says. "Have we moved forward? That we will only find out in the Atlantic. Then we will learn if we have a package that will hold together."

Dalton has opted for a much bigger crew than Goss, 13 sailors from nine countries, including two from Hamble in Hampshire - Ed Danby and Neal McDonald. "This is a big boat and it will take a lot of guys, including some big ones, to handle it. We have tried to bring the cultures of multi-hull sailing together, including Mitch Booth [Australia's double Olympic medal-winner in the Tornado-class catamaran].

"We know that no one has any real experience in sailing this type of boat, but the best guys are still the best guys and they are the ones who can bridge the gap," he says. "I also think that the weather men will play a crucial role."

The sea trials begin in La Trinité in 10 days' time, and include crossing the Atlantic to San Salvador in June with two opportunities to sail west-east back across, taking in the all-important northern route in October. They also plan to visit Britain in early August. "But we will change that in a heartbeat if we must."

Any boat which can finish The Race stands a chance of winning and a cautious approach may prove to be the most profitable. "Racing driver Juan Fangio said that the objective was to come first going as slowly, not as fast, as possible," says Dalton. "That does not mean there will not be some fast runs. I think one of these boats will turn in a 700-mile day. But, in a Volvo Ocean Race boat, you put your foot down and never take it off. In these boats we will have to be prepared to take our foot off the throttle a lot and often. This is a race where you would never, ever, ever give up."