Sailing: Big cats and big bucks as Edwards goes for broke with wacky round world race

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The Independent Online

Showered by legal claims, juggling debts like a one-armed man on a unicycle and regularly sent tumbling by a malicious rumour mill, the British yachtswoman Tracy Edwards yesterday waved $9m (£5.2m) in the face of a sceptical sailing world and said: "I've made loads of mistakes, but I am just trying to do something I think is really good. I think we are there."

"There" is a 23,000-mile non-stop round-the-world race in four giant multihulls - the fastest ocean racing boats ever devised.

If the boats were not so big and powerful, and the course through the Southern Ocean and round the twin capes of Horn and Good Hope so dangerous, it could be labelled one of the wackiest races around.

Leading the colourful cast list for the 60-day dash will be Olivier de Kersauson, an eccentric French aristocrat and a difficult man to sail with, who has been round the world many times, usually in search of records.

Then there is the British sea-dog Tony Bullimore, whose main claim to fame is his astonishing feat of survival when he waited for five days in his upturned yacht for an Australian warship to pluck him out of the Southern Ocean.

Bullimore, now aged 65, will be racing a much-modified 1982-vintage catamaran, which as Enza set a new round the world record, and is being refitted in his home port of Bristol.

His last attempt at blue water racing in The Race 2000 turned into a litany of breakdown and failure. The Race started in Barcelona and Bullimore struggled to get out of the Mediterranean.

Next up is Kersauson's fellow-Frenchman Loick Peyron, a master of multihull sailing, whose brother, Bruno, just happens to be suing Edwards for £14m, alleging theft of intellectual property and "parisitisme".

The fourth entry is Edwards's former yacht, to be named Qatar 2006. The skipper is still to be selected, despite the fact that the start is only 15 weeks away.

The American Cam Lewis looks favourite, even though his own big cat is still supposed to be one of the entries, "Sailing my own boat in this race is pretty gosh-darned unlikely," he said yesterday and that is hardly surprising. The budget for the race, including the 12-man crews, runs at £1m per boat. The yachts cost £1.5m but that will buy you only a reconditioned one. Brand new will set you back £3m plus.

The race starts from this Red Sea port on Saturday 5 February next year. It is backed by $3m of sponsorship funding by HSBC bank, a long-time player in the region, and Edwards hopes she can announce next month a further $6m of Qatar government money. Some of that would go towards helping the budgets of the competitors.

All this for four boats to fly the flag of Qatar and trailblaze the Asian Games, to be hosted by the tiny state, population 750,000, in 2006.

The still-elfin like figure of Edwards made her name in the 1989 Whitbread round-the-world race when, again by the skin of her financial teeth, she crowbarred an all-female entry on to the start line, the first the race had ever had. The crew did her proud and she came home, in the eyes of the public, a winner.

Edwards then tried to set a new round-the-world record with an all-female crew only to see the mast come crashing down more than 1,500 miles from everywhere. Next came the 110-foot catamaran, bought from the legendary yachtsman Grant Dalton after winning a round the world race, and that, in turn, led her to yesterday's piece of theatre.

In the sumptuous surroundings of the Diplomatic Club here there were half a dozen throne-like chairs in the front row of a room packed with the great, and the good, and the media. The British Ambassador, David McLennan, was joined by a phalanx of sheikhs, all dressed in white, very expensive white.

They did not smile, they clapped only politely and at the end they swept out, as one, without a word being said or a question answered. Their presence was all the seal of approval that was required.

It meant that an event named after the antelope which is Qatar's national symbol and called the Oryx Trophy - Asprey-designed, silver gilt and mother of pearl inlaid - could be proudly announced and some of the competitors introduced. If Edwards had the slightest hope that her troubles were over, they are just beginning.

She has been fighting on two fronts. Setting up the race has been one battle, but at home she faces debts of up to £2m after banks and friends lent her the money to buy, for $2.1m, the 110-foot Club Med from Dalton.

These are expensive bits of kit to run and some of her friends as well as crew have had to wait 18 months to be paid.

Edwards is gambling that the race will put her back on the sailing map and help ease her financial problems. One thing is for sure, Qatar will get the publicity it craves. Whether it is the right sort remains to be seen.