Sailing: Richards and Sanderson aim high as British fleet makes show of strength

The threat from without is plain for all to see. There is a lot of English being spoken in this northern French ferry port this week as the Anglo-Saxons have descended on the Bassin Paul Vatine in their shiny racing yachts to challenge the French on what they consider is their own turf, short-handed racing across the Atlantic.

The boat preparation for the 4,500-mile course which takes a fleet of 38 on the Transat Jacques Vabre race to Salvador de Bahia, Brazil, has reached all-time high standards.

Ellen MacArthur rejoins Alain Gautier on the trimaran Foncia on which they finished second last time, gear failure forcing them out of the lead. MacArthur's old boat, Kingfisher, is now in the hands of Nick Moloney and Sam Davies and renamed Team Cowes. New colours and a new identity have released the pair from historical baggage, but they will need all their guile to beat the new boat just astern of them, Mike Golding's Ecover.

Golding has been ploughing a French furrow for some time and has Brian Thompson, soon to take Tracy Edwards' 110-foot catamaran on a round-the-world record attempt, with him.

Of the two dark horses, one is French - Jean-Pierre Dick's Virbac is the first Open 60 from the drawing board of Bruce Farr. The second is British and could be very strong - Emma Richards has her partner Mike Sanderson - skipper of Mari Cha IV's recent record-shattering run across the Atlantic - with her on the new Pindar. Their approach has been at Volvo-race intensity because the boat is not, like its rivals, preparing for next year's Vendée Globe round the world race. Their objective is the 2005 Volvo Ocean race. If Pindar holds up, they have the stamina to drive it and could easily win.

If it comes down to reliability, Alex Thompson has with him on Sill, the 2001 winner, Roland Jourdain. In the 50ft class, Conrad Humphreys and Paul Larsen carry British colours on Hellomoto.

Then there is the threat posed by the weather. The monohulls depart tomorrow in what are expected to be winds of between 15 and 25 knots. But that is forecast to build up to 40 overnight, so a decision will be taken this morning on whether to delay the multihull start on Sunday. The multihull race is longer because it rounds the Ascension Islands, so a delay would protect the boats, but it would also send an unfortunate message about their seaworthiness.

The race organiser, Gérard Petitpas, whose Pen Duick organisation has recently turned down an offer to run the Vendée Globe, has issued a blunt warning about the future of racing for the 60ft trimarans, the class in which MacArthur says she wishes to be.

"The future of the class is in the hands of the skippers," he said yesterday. "If we have another problem like the Route du Rhum last year [where most of the multihulls were scattered by fierce winds and damaged] then there will be no more racing for them. The sponsors, too, will pull out."

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