Britain's transoceanic hopes under threat

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Just yards away from the optimistic departure point of the Pilgrim Fathers and under the vantage point of one of their greatest maritime forefathers, Sir Francis Drake, Britain's current squadron of transoceanic maritime heroes is in trouble.

The threat comes not from the Spanish but from the far more persistent enemy across the Channel in France and it is not just immediate but long term.

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When the fleet of singlehanders sets off on Sunday for the four-yearly race across the Atlantic to the United States, three of what should be leading members of the British assault team will be spectators because their 60-foot boats are in the sick bay.

These include Mike Golding, the defending champion of the race. His boat, Ecover, is in France replacing a cracked keel. The redoubtable Brian Thompson's Pindar is in another Royal Navy watering hole, Portsmouth, replacing a broken mast and, in Southampton, is Jonny Malbon's Artemis, beaten by the clock in the build of a new boat.

Not that all the luck has gone against the British. Kito de Pavant has broken his left leg and Roland Jourdain has been held up waiting for a new mast. And there is an Anglo-French contender in the shape of Seb Josse at the helm of Ellen MacArthur's team BT boat. MacArthur is responsible for organising the event with business partner Mark Turne.

The French, who have turned singlehanded ocean racing into something of a cult, first decided that something needed to be done when Eric Tabarly came and won fours years later in 1964. He was given a legion d'honneur and fathered a national passion.

This year the tricolores have the force in the shape of Michel Desjoyeaux, Vincent Riou, Loick Peyron and Marc Guillemot in a fleet of 11 60s in which Dee Caffari has a new Aviva, Samantha Davies is almost Anglo-French in Roxy and Steve White has forced his way into the reckoning with Spirit of Weymouth.

They all go to Boston, 12 to 14 days away, while the other 11, in the 40-foot class, head for nearby Marblehead with just two Brits carrying the flag, Alex Bennett, who takes over the mantle of Mike Birch in Fujifilm, and Miranda Merron, who has fought both physical illness and financial threat in her determination to complete the course. A multihull division in transition has been dropped.

In the background, other trans-Channel debate centres on the rules for entering the Vendée Globe non-stop solo round the world race which starts from Les Sables d'Olonne in November. Because both Thompson and Malbon have not completed a race in their new boats they will have to ask for dispensation if they are to take part.

It has been bad enough for Malbon who, asked how sick was the parrot, replied "very and constantly regurgitating feathers." Missing the race that his sponsor also backs has been compounded by having his team working flat out to catch up after a three-month delay in building the new boat. The big objective was always the Vendée, so any added uncertainty is adding considerably to the stress. Thompson is calm and optimistic, though the decision to reject a third British entry, from Richard Tolkien, can only add unease.

The class is also considering an adjustment to the rules by which the boats are designed and built. As these changes are directed mainly against making the boats ever more powerful, and as both Thompson's and Malbon's boats are at the powerful end of the spectrum, the prospect of seeing new boats declared ineligible has been an added strain.

The Vendee decision is expected before the end of the month and there will be a formal vote on new class rules later in the summer.

To read Stuart Alexander's blog, click here