Sailing: Ainslie leads British charge for world glory and Olympic qualification

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Nelson would have been proud. If Britain's favourite admiral were to return to the scene of one of his greatest victories, Trafalgar, over the next two weeks he would see an equally determined bunch of British sailors taking on not just their Spanish hosts but the rest of the world.

Cadiz and the neighbouring Puerto Sherry are hosting the ISAF World Championships, described by Rod Carr, chief executive of the Royal Yachting Association (RYA), as "the biggest collection of talent in sailing the world has ever seen." All 11 Olympic disciplines are holding their 2003 world championships at the same time at the same place. There are more than 1,500 athletes in more than 1,000 boats and the number of countries is still being counted.

And many countries, including Britain, are using the events as part of their selection procedure for next year's Olympics in Athens.

Not only will Carr himself take five days out to reconnect with his roots - he was for years the Olympic coach and manager - there will be a representative of the British Olympic Association, probably its chief executive Simon Clegg, on hand to fast track the confirmation of any recommendations made by the RYA.

With three golds and two silvers, the sailing squad was easily Britain's most successful at the Sydney Games.

Twenty years ago, overseeing the trial for the Los Angeles Olympics on the main town beach at Weymouth, Carr knew there had always been a steady stream of talent, some of it exceptional. Now, instead of looking sideways at sand sculptures, he can look forward to the building, not much more than a mile away, in Portland of a £7.5m centre which would be the first choice venue for sailing if the 2012 London Bid were to be successful.

The "tipping factor", says Carr, has been lottery cash support, not just for the sailors but an evolving and increasingly effective management back-up which is the benchmark for other countries, often equally well-funded. It has not only produced medals, but has a strong youth programme.

Ben Ainslie has a silver and gold under his belt in the Laser and, having moved up the bigger singlehander, the Finn, is current European, World and pre-Olympic champion. Also current world champions are Iain Percy, who also won gold in Sydney, and Steve Mitchell in the Star. They had gear damage in Athens last month, lost their way a bit at the Europeans, but are fired up to tackle a fleet of more than 90 next week.

The third Sydney gold medallist, Shirley Robertson, surprised the US favourites by winning the three-woman Yngling class in Athens.

Despite the imminent birth of his second child, Ian Walker, himself a double silver medallist and skipper of Britain's recent America's Cup challenge, will keep up the momentum.

A fourth medal could be won if Paul Goodison, Ainslie's Laser class successor, has recovered from being tired in Athens to the point of retirement, but the fiercest battle should be in the 49er dinghy. He and Mark Asquith took silver in Athens but have had a season-long ding-dong with Chris Draper and the Sydney silver medallist Simon Hiscocks.