Sailing: Ocean strategist in hunt for the ultimate prize

New Faces for 2002: Britain is competing for the America's Cup for the first time in 16 years. Adrian Stead will decide the tactics
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The Independent Online

Adrian Stead is hoping for a good night's sleep on 30 September, but he could be forgiven if he were so fired up that it was less than baby-like. The 34-year old from Poole has one of the most pressurised jobs in sailing this year. He is happy to wear the Union flag he has carried so proudly before, but this is a step up from everything before in a distinguished career to date.

Adrian Stead is hoping for a good night's sleep on 30 September, but he could be forgiven if he were so fired up that it was less than baby-like. The 34-year old from Poole has one of the most pressurised jobs in sailing this year. He is happy to wear the Union flag he has carried so proudly before, but this is a step up from everything before in a distinguished career to date.

On 1 October, Hauraki Gulf weather permitting, the opening races of the Louis Vuitton Cup are scheduled to take place. The Cup is a three-and-a-half-month war of attrition to find the ultimate, sole challenger from the 10 syndicates wanting to take the top prize in sailing, the America's Cup, from the holders, Team New Zealand.

Stead's likely job is as tactician to GBR Challenge that puts Britain back into the competition for the first time since Fremantle in 1986. Every time Britain wins it will be a team effort; every time they lose it will be up to the tactician to clear his name first. It is his job to call the shots on how to negotiate a course that can throw all sorts of wild cards at the competitors and to manage a plan of attack against a single rival.

Winning pole position, by gaining some sort of advantage at the start, offers none of the comfort that it does in motor racing. Changes in wind strength and direction during the 20-mile race mean that what was a left-hand bend the first time round the track could have been switched to a right-hander the second.

"You are constantly evaluating and re-evaluating as the race progresses," said Stead. And it is not just a matter of what the weather or currents are doing. In a fleet race the task is constantly to work out the best course; in a one-on-one match race it doesn't matter if you sail less than the optimum course as long as you are controlling your opponent and staying ahead. There are no extra points for faster times, only for winning.

The tactician is not operating on his own. He is a part of an afterguard which includes a navigator, a wind spotter, sometimes working from high up the mast, the helmsman, and anyone who has a significant contribution to make. It is part of Stead's comfort to know he is part of a team in which the spirit is good and which is working well together.

"I have to analyse everything that is being said and the final decision is mine, sometimes a split-second one," he said. And he knows he is up against some of the top people in the world with years of experience behind them.

"There is always plenty to learn, but we will go in knowing that we are as well prepared as possible in the time available. We have a lot to catch up, and we study all the rivals.

"We improved during the time we were first sailing and racing the boats in Cowes and the past two months have been a phenomenal learning experience.

"We have come an awful long way in 10 months and if we added even 50 per cent to that in the next nine that would be a real achievement." Like all the others, Stead is in the gym at 6.30 each morning and he takes part in match race coaching on both little Etchells, three-man boats, as well as the full size pair of 80-foot America's Cup boats bought from the Japanese. The weather synopsis in the morning may prove to be accurate, or things may change. The tacticians have to be tuned in to what is happening on the water and be prepared to adapt previously drawn up strategies. The debriefing sessions for the whole crew at the end of each day are often expanded long into the evening.

When Britain won the Tour de France à la Voile for the first time in 2000, Stead was the man who coordinated the downfall of the French, and he was a central part of the crew on the 36-foot Barlo Plastics, which was the top-scoring boat in the last Admiral's Cup in 1999. He has sailed before with many of those alongside him now, including being with Andy Beadworth when they were fourth in the Soling at the 1996 Olympics.

He has also sailed against many of the big names trying to outwit him on rival boats. "They are good, very good," he says, "but we know they are beatable. You always have to strike a balance between taking a risk and when to play it more passively. But we are growing in confidence and are now prepared to try moves that, a few months ago, we would not even have dreamed of. We don't expect to whack everyone at our first attempt. But for the next Cup, in 2005/6, we should be viewed as a team that can go in and win it."

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