Sailing: Irish glimpse Commodores' glory

With one race to go, Colm Barrington's team are poised to win Ireland's first-ever major big-boat title, reports <i>Stuart Alexander </i>from Cowes
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The Independent Online

There is something wrong. Radio 3 is playing in the background, a cursor is jumping around a computer flat screen sorting e-mail, and, on the telephone, a quiet but authoritative voice is cutting a call short by saying: "Just tell them we need those documents early." This is supposed to be the nerve centre of a marine assault on English supremacy by the Emerald Isle, akin to horses at Cheltenham, not a pin-striped workstation.

There is something wrong. Radio 3 is playing in the background, a cursor is jumping around a computer flat screen sorting e-mail, and, on the telephone, a quiet but authoritative voice is cutting a call short by saying: "Just tell them we need those documents early." This is supposed to be the nerve centre of a marine assault on English supremacy by the Emerald Isle, akin to horses at Cheltenham, not a pin-striped workstation.

The scene is the corner of an elegant dining room in a large, waterfront house in Cowes. It is home to the crew of one of the three boats in the Irish team competing for the biennial Rolex Commodores' Cup and the voice is that of the owner and Ireland team captain Colm Barrington. The radio programme is a repeat of Private Passions and Barrington's passion is yacht racing.

As in his business life, where the economist out of University College, Dublin is now a partner in the Irish division of financiers Babcock and Brown, he is also a winner on the water. Barrington knows that Ireland has never won a major international big-boat team championship, though they came close in the 1979 Admiral's Cup before the storm of the Fastnet Race intervened. This year, however, after a stop-start week of races in the Solent, the prospect of grabbing a major trophy is tantalisingly close.

Having done everything they could to eliminate the luck factor, the Irish raiders were in the lead, despite their big boat being disqualified from yesterday's race, before heading out into the English Channel for the final race last night, hoping that their carefully-planned assault would not be turned on its head by the sort of lottery which Britain's fickle summer winds have produced this week. When his crew, mainly long-standing friends and acknowledged expert exponents of the craic agree a self-imposed curfew for the week, you know this is serious.

Nevertheless, Barrington expects that the favourite watering hole of the racers and their chasers, the Pier View pub, will be "hopping" if they win when they get back tonight. "After all, we don't fly home until Sunday night," he says.

But why the Commodores' Cup, the pro-am, junior version of the professional Admiral's Cup, which is its biennial counterpart? For all the wrong reasons, the organising Royal Ocean Racing Club, has got it right, retaining some of the essential ingredients which give the event added integrity. There are still three boats per team, instead of the compromise two for the much more costly Admiral's Cup. And the teams represent nations, not clubs, to which the public can more easily relate.

The only problem for Barrington is the historic insistence of including the offshore race - "I don't want to be out there for 30 hours and nor do many other people" he says - epecially as it counts for a third of the points in the whole event. Too much rests on one result.

The Irish have carefully assembled the kit to do the job. Barrington's own boat, Flying Glove, named after one of the characters in the Beatles cartoon Yellow Submarine, and both of the other boats, Chris Brown's 46-footer and Eamon Crosbie's 32-footer, are designed to best exploit a quite relaxed handicap system called International Rating Club (IRC).

The world governing body, the International Sailing Federation, refuses to impose proper control of the present mess and a transatlantic attempt to unify things was scuppered when the Americans threw their toys out of the playpen. IRC works.

With Welshman Eddie Warden Owen, tactician or coach to three America's Cup challengers and the King of Spain's Admiral's Cup team, on board, the Irish should be well placed to hold off several strong challenges. These come mainly from the French holders and two of the four British teams, where the Black trio has been upsetting the hopes of the self-styled favourites, the Red group.

Barrington is not just a chequebook owner, buying success; he started sailing dinghies 44 years ago and, says Warden Owen, is one of the best owner drivers he has sailed with. A past winner of the Britannia Cup and the New York Yacht Club Trophy, it isn't the sponsor's watch he covets. It is Irish glory.

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