Sailing: MacArthur leads Britain's new wave of racers

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The Independent Online

A cross-channel invasion sees the strongest contingent ever of British ocean racers, led by Ellen MacArthur, lined up in Le Havre this week. All along the dock there are British boats or British voices, but excitement is mixed with tension. There are some defining moments ahead.

The destination for the three classes of yachts is Bahia Salvador, Brazil, 4,340 miles away. There are just two people per boat, most of which are 60 feet long, and they will be driven hard for every one of the 15 to 17 days it will take. The course is longer than two years ago, when this Jacques Vabre double-handed transatlantic race finished in Cartagena, Colombia.

MacArthur starts on Sunday and sails further – 5,300 miles – because she is in the 60ft trimaran class, partnering Alain Gautier in Foncia. They have to round Ascension Island, so pivotal in the Falklands War, on their route. MacArthur and Gautier have already won the Challenge Mondial Assistance, but will be pushed all the way.

"You can't help but have enormous respect for boats like these," MacArthur said. "They are like thoroughbred racehorses."

Just two places along the dock is another of the 14 60ft trimarans, Pindar, with another example of Britain's new-found prominence in short-handed ocean racing, Emma Richards. At 27 she is completing in her seventh transatlantic race, but says: "Mikaela von Koskull and I start with a mixture of excitement, apprehension and pride. We don't yet feel a part of this line-up – it includes Loick Peyron, Franck Cannas, Michel Desjoyeaux, Giovanni Soldini, Francis Joyon, Yves Parlier, Bernard Stamm, and Thomas Coville. But this is very special."

Many of those names are also well-known single-handers and the 12-strong Open 60 monohull class, which starts tomorrow, and goes direct, sees Roland Jourdain as the man to beat. Mark Turner, a former mini-transat competitor and MacArthur's shore manager, will sail the Englishwoman's Vendée Globe yacht, Kingfisher. He is partnered by the Australian Nick Moloney, who has been invited to join Knut Frostad, on djuce, for legs three and four of the Volvo Ocean Race. The British pairing of Mike Golding and Marcus Hutchinson, in Ecover, also aim to give Jourdain a run for his money.

"We know we are not slow," said Golding. "In Marcus, I have a partner who can helm the boat for hour after hour and not lose concentration."

Back in harness together are Richard Tolkien and Robert Wingate in This Time, though even they know that is optimistic. Richards' former collaborator, Miranda Merron, forms a new pairing with Frédérique Brule. Close by is the 50-footer, one of seven, in which Merron competed with Richards, now being campaigned by Alex Bennett and Paul Larsen.

For MacArthur there is now added suspense. The board of Kingfisher meets today to consider whether to renew a sponsorship deal which ends next May. And Golding needs major financing if he is to move on to running both a big trimaran and do the next Vendée Globe in 2004-05.

The two protests against John Kostecki, the winner of the opening leg of the Volvo Ocean Race, will be heard in Cape Town today.