Sailing: Percy the breezy face of a new age

"The barbarians are at the gates," says the larger-than-life Luca Devoti with a huge grin. A bright, effervescent Italian, Devoti is leading the most unlikely bunch of America's Cup marauders ever assembled, and running the show on the water is the man he chose as skipper, the British Olympic gold-medallist Iain Percy.

Devoti and his crew missed the opening regatta in this America's Cup cycle, in Marseilles last month - they were still jumping hurdles to buy a training yacht. But last week they and their fellow Italian challengers, Luna Rossa, joined six other squads as the America's Cup village settled into its new long-term home and started the build-up to the 2007 Cup.

The nearly two weeks of racing here may be froth and hugely expensive nonsense on the surface, but there is an underlying serious sharpening of minds and attitudes. And at the centre of that lurks a quartet of young bucks.

Everything about Devoti's new team, which Percy joined to the chagrin of the absent and struggling GBR Challenge, is a bit offbeat. It is called +39, after the inter-national dialling code for Italy, and Devoti assembled his crew in a particular way, trawling the worldwide pool of Olympic sailors from the class that requires the most muscular self-sufficiency, the Finn. Their joint IQ could outgun any University Challenge team, but being part of a team has not been their route to success; the Finn is a single-hander class.

Percy's sometimes growling, sometimes humorous, but always articulate style separates him from the more wooden media performers on the self-important America's Cup scene, and he is part of the new cast poised to occupy the main stage.

Only yards away along the row of open-to-public-view team compounds in the harbour - secrecy and paranoia will set in later - is his friend with a silver and two successive Olympic gold medals, Ben Ainslie, who has joined Team New Zealand. On one side of them, Luna Rossa's Francesco de Angelis has handed the helm to the Australian James Spithill, 25, and next door the other way Gavin Brady has taken the same job from Chris Dickson on BMW Oracle. At Luna Rossa, the autocratic boss of the fashion house Prada, Patrizio Bertelli, has handed day-to-day management to the 28-year-old Antony Romano; the Oracle billionaire Larry Ellison, still a regular fixture on the crew list, has made Dickson CEO. A new era is in the making.

For Percy, this has been a less than glorious year, with a disappointing sixth in the Star class in Athens. Ainslie is on a high, but both have been thrown headfirst into a quite different pool here. They have to serve an apprenticeship not just in much bigger boats but in large teams, with all the communication problems that brings when afloat and all the political manoeuvring when ashore. Ainslie hated being the windsniffer, up the mast watching the wind's behaviour, during his last, brief, America's Cup foray with the Seattle-based OneWorld in 2002. Now he is doing the job again.

His boss, Grant Dalton, has dangled the bait of a fast-track opportunity to the helm in front of Ainslie, and the incum-bent Dean Barker's tenure is far from 100 per cent secure.

But at least Barker, eclipsed by Ainslie in Athens, is an experienced match-racer. Percy had just six days on the boat before making his match-race debut. Three days later he scored his first win. As he observed, given the time, sometimes up to 18 months, that it has taken other teams to learn how to handle these overpowered machines, just driving the boat round the course was a major achievement.

"This is a huge management exercise," Percy says. "Even with so many egos involved, it can be easy to lead the team. It just depends on the people in it but, yes, you could say the lunatics are definitely in charge of the asylum. We are also seeing an Olympic generation coming to the fore, one that has only ever sailed. I have never done any formal work."

The focus is back on sailors and, if you believe them, with a more relaxed approach. "We could easily have dinner together," says Brady. "I would like to think we could have a laugh at the right times," says Ainslie. "I'm not going to take life too seriously," says Percy. "There is a changing of the guard and personalities," says Spithill.

In the meantime, Percy is trying to learn Italian. He knows that strambare means gybe but had not yet added virare, the word for tack. In contrast, Luna Rossa has adopted English as the on-board language. Another sign of the new times.

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