Sailing: Admiral's Cup focuses on basics to find old status

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The Independent Online

The road to recovery may be long and at times unpredictable, but the Admiral's Cup is back on the racing calendar after an absence of four years. It is an animal of very different hue from the one which, in its heyday, could rightly claim to be the world championship of big boat team sailing. But, as the marketing men would say, it has a strong "brand heritage" and it may again regain the status it once had.

An event staged every two years from 1957 to 1999, it had to be cancelled in 2001 because of a lack of entries. The game had lost its way and the organising Royal Ocean Racing Club had been pushed and pulled by a small, but ultimately unrepresentative, group of yacht owners. The tail wagged the dog so hard that it fell off.

So it is back to basics with a new format which reduces the teams from three to two boats and, instead of those teams representing their countries, they represent individual clubs.

Of the eight teams which line up for the first pair of inshore races in the Solent today, half are from English clubs and two are from Spain, including the Real Club Nautico de Sangenio, whose big boat, Bribon Telefonica Movistar, will be skippered by King Juan Carlos. Even kings, it seems, have to rely on sponsorship these days. The other two clubs are one each from France and Australia. No one knows what to expect, except that there is a significant sprinkling of professionals, not least on the Spanish king's boat which has a lot of well-known Anglo-Saxon names, plus Australians, Welsh and Dutch.

The Royal Southern team has the Volvo Ocean Race skippers, Neal McDonald, on the big boat and his wife, Lisa, among a particularly gnarly looking bunch on the small boat. The GBR America's Cup challenge boss, Peter Harrison, has a liberal sprinkling of his Auckland squad not just on his own big boat but also on the small boat, where Ian Walker is joined by Ben Ainslie. The Paralympics gold medallist Andy Cassell is in charge of the Sailability big boat and the GBR America's Cup starting helmsman, Andy Green, will be lining up on their small boat against a man who also did that job in Auckland, Andy Beadsworth for the Royal Southern.

The RORC's new commodore, Chris Little, is disarmingly frank about the job ahead. "The new format was born out of need," he says. But he sees his three-year job as pushing the event back towards the top-of-the-bill status it used to enjoy, and also restructuring the RORC so that it can meet both the domestic needs of its members and act as an international event organiser.

The forces of inertia will be out against him, but he will be helped if a new grand prix formula for building what is a relatively small number of racing yachts can emerge from a joint working party of RORC; their French equivalent, UNCL; the sport's world governing body, the Offshore Racing Council; and the United States Sailing Association.

There is no single, internationally accepted formula at the moment and two, not including the one developed for out-and- out racing boats by the RORC, are in operation at this regatta: a club formula for the big boats, and a racing formula for the very clubby looking smaller boats.

Time is not on Little's side. There is a doubt whether an acceptable rule could be published within the next 18 months, so it would be too late for 2005. There are other organisational problems surrounding the format of the America's Cup being staged in Europe in 2007. Nor is Cowes assured of its continued role as host.

A move to Dublin may not have succeeded this time but, like the America's Cup, a RORC which is unashamedly opportunistic when it comes to money will be open to bids from other potential host cities. Watch out for the Coupe Amirale.