Sailing: Trousers lowered as Italians are spurred on by warm beer

Independent sailing correspondent Stuart Alexander joins Mascalzone Latino as they strive to overcome GBR Challenge
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The Independent Online

The day begins early at the Mascalzone Latino America's Cup challenge base in Halsey Street, a red cloud of push bikes bringing sailors, shore crews, office staff and caterers to gear up for another day's racing. Arriving less strenuously on a magenta scooter is your correspondent, who will occupy the 17th man position for the race that day against Britain's GBR Challenge.

The day begins early at the Mascalzone Latino America's Cup challenge base in Halsey Street, a red cloud of push bikes bringing sailors, shore crews, office staff and caterers to gear up for another day's racing. Arriving less strenuously on a magenta scooter is your correspondent, who will occupy the 17th man position for the race that day against Britain's GBR Challenge.

The Italians have turned being superstitious into an art form, but there is a widespread belief in yacht racing that anything green on a boat is unlucky. So, the Royal Southern Yacht Club baseball cap had to stay ashore, as did the Louis Vuitton Media Centre pass. The cover of a notebook was ripped off, because it was green and, finally, six $20 bills were handed over.

Yet there on the stern of the yacht is tied an Italian national flag, which is, of course, red, white and green. "Oh, it will be off the boat for the race," was the assurance. It wasn't.

It takes about an hour to tow the yacht out to the race course just past the extinct volcano island of Rangitoto, and that offers a chance for some typical male banter. This is the first time Pier-luigi 'Pigi' De Felice has been picked for the race team and there is a little initiation ceremony which involves having to answer some daft quiz questions with, inevitably, his trousers round his ankles, and having to listen to a song telling him there is no need to be afraid.

"It's like being back at boarding school," says a gentle giant of a man who turns out to be called Shannon Falcone. He should know. His Irish mother had insisted that he go to a prep school in Lymington and then Clayesmore public school in Dorset. He now lives in Antigua, when he is not plying his trade round the world as a professional yachtie. Still only 21, he is tipped for a glittering career.

There is also a constant stream of radio information coming from Alessandro Pezzoli to navigator Silvio Arrivabene on what the wind is doing as Arrivabene tinkers with the specially programmed computer that processes all sorts of data about weather, boat speed and direction, position on the course and timing.

The heavy brigade, owner Vincenzo Onorato, helmsman Flavio Favini and tactician Flavio Grassi, accompanied by coach Eddie Warden Owen and crew boss Tom Weaver, then arrive in a hideously powerful, three diesel-engined inflatable support boat, which also carries spare sails. The news is confirmed that, after the bitter disappointment of losing at the last gasp the day before to arch-rivals Prada, starting helmsman Paolo Cian needs time to straighten himself out.

Onorato's reaction had been to ring his wife, Lara, and ask her to pick an extra bottle of wine. He then called her again and told her to make that two, maybe three. Now there is a new game, to try and beat GBR, so Weaver winds up the crew, stoking some focused aggression. It is not easy. "We cannot hate the English, even if they serve warm beer," says Onorato, though when he takes up position on one of the four winch pedestals, grinding with the best of them, teeth are bared and he adds an occasional loud growl of aggression.

His opposite number, Peter Harrison, is nearly always 17th man, a position from which the rules forbid even talking, never mind making the slightest physical contribution to the progress of the boat. Instead of hanging on between the running rigging at the back, Harrison has a specially constructed dicky seat from which he surveys the scene, his throne being a moulded plastic garden chair with the legs cut off and then suspended securely by rope.

If he spends the £22m budget he has allocated, and Britain at least makes it to the quarter-final repêchage, it will have cost £1m a ride. But his permanently etched grin says it is worth every penny and there is never a point at which the Italians threaten to wipe the smile off his face. It is close-ish until the top of the second uphill leg, when GBR, revelling as the wind clicks up a few knots in strength, pulls clear. The end of the race is peaceful. With about one mile to run there is a big drop in the sound levels on the boat. It is now clear there is no hope of winning, so Onorato decides it is time to ask to drive his own boat. He steps up and stares fixedly ahead, his turn to revel now in the feeling of having such a powerful piece of race-tuned engineering under his feet. The crew responds quietly, too, and, despite being 80 seconds behind through the finish line, no-one is down.

"Bellissima regata (a most beautiful race)", says Onorato.

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