Sailing: Walker's pride of Britain steps into public glare

Unveiling of £22m America's Cup boat in Cowes heralds return to the elite of ocean racing
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Eighty feet of hope, pride and national sporting identity will be unveiled in Cowes on Friday. It is the result of 12 months of flat-out work, is the centrepiece of a budget that has grown to £22m, and it puts Britain back at the top table of a game in which, with some justice, it can claim to be a world force.

"It is a huge day for us," says the skipper and double Olympic medallist Ian Walker. "We have been amazed at just how excited the sailing community is here at home. And we are excited ourselves. It is Britain's first new America's Cup boat since 1986 and it will be ours. You always feel a strong affinity with your own new boat."

Britain is one of nine challenge teams lining up for the right to have a crack at the holders, New Zealand, in February next year. Only one, the winner of the Louis Vuitton Cup elimination series starting 1 October, will race the black boat defender on the Hauraki Gulf for a cup that started life in that same Isle of Wight sailing centre just over 150 years ago where Britain's latest challenge is being planned.

The opposition is formidable, the budgets backing them would make football club chairmen blanche. But big bucks can be wasted and cash does not guarantee being clever. This British challenge has always publicly insisted that its expectations are moderate, though dreams of the unexcitingly, parochially-named Wight Lightning being some sort of rocket ship cannot entirely be stifled. It is surely well placed to tweak a few illustrious tails.

"We have learned to match race a big boat and that we can beat the opposition," says Walker. "Now, when we go back to Auckland, the emphasis will be on making this boat go fast and testing a whole load of new sails." In the year since the organisation came to life, the purchase of the previous Japanese challenge yachts and equipment has proved a shrewd one.

The base established on the Medina River at Cowes is extensive and its sister facility in Auckland's America's Cup alley, Halsey Street, is adequate, if far less grandiose than the acreage commanded by the likes of Switzerland's Alinghi challenge, or the two big American players, OneWorld and Oracle.

The work put in first in the Solent and then during the southern hemisphere summer in New Zealand was focussed, concentrated and valuable. If nothing else, the young sailing team, stuffed with Olympic experience, now has a far sharper perspective on the size and shape of the task ahead.

In a development of the silver and blue livery, the new boat, minus keel and bulb because the ceremony is indoors and minus the mast which is in New Zealand, will, says Jo Richards, a leading member of the design team, look much like any other new generation boat. But there will be subtleties for the educated to ponder on. The boat, says Walker, is like the team; respectful of the knowledge of others but with a fair sprinkling of new ideas.

The goals have been speed, speed and speed and, despite the limited time available, the latest tank tests are said to have been very encouraging.

"Anyway, financial muscle doesn't necessarily generate ideas," says Richards.

The crew go back to New Zealand over the next few weeks and then the hard miles of training are resumed. Walker has some hard decisions ahead; at some point he has to name his first 16. At least he will have no problem choosing the 17th man. The biggest grin on Friday will belong to Peter Harrison, the man who has poured his own money into restoring Britain to sailing's premier league.

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