Britain's young Optimists head New Zealand way


A Maori war canoe led them out of the haven that is Napier Sailing Club to their appointed battleground. The training was over. The drenching opening ceremony in a memorial to yet another of the earthquakes on these southern Pacific islands could not dissolve the smiles.

The little blunt nosed, single sail dinghies aptly named the Optimist are staging their world championship in Napier, on Hawke's Bay half way down the east coast of New Zealand's North Island. The haka looks peaceful by comparison.

There are 208 of them, 40 Swallows and 168 (male) Amazons, racing on equal terms to take over a crown held by Noppakao Poonpat of Thailand, absent because she can no longer meet the age restriction of under 16 on 1 January.

She had been second the year before and Britain's best is also a woman. Hannah Mills was fifth in 2003 – she could so easily have been on the podium – and was top woman. This year she is picked to helm the 470 dinghy at the Olympic regatta in Weymouth for Britain. Less than a month ago, with crew Saskia Clark, the silver medal at the world championship in Fremantle was round her neck.

"The best girls are just as good as the best boys," says class president Peter Barclay, whose very English name belies Peruvian nationality. "This is particularly true at 11 and 12, when girls are maturing physically more quickly than the boys, and, in any case, there is a weight limit of 60 kgs."

The most highly fancied nation this time is Singapore, where three of the five-strong team are girls, enjoying considerable government funding in a sport which is given national priority.

The five British representatives have been training together since they arrived on 19 December, celebrated Christmas with a barbecue and New Year with another soaking, and insisted on continuing their programme, rain or shine.

"This is the hardest thing to win, I don't think there is anything harder," says their coach, Alan Williams, a man with a Welsh name, who runs the Plas Menai water centre on the straits between the Welsh mainland and Anglesey, and is English. His wife, Jen, is the team leader.

Williams will be one of the officials on that 470 course for the Olympics and is impressed with the focus of his squad, Joseph Burns, 14, from Ringwood, Jamie Calder, 13, from Edinburgh, Milo Gill-Taylor, 11, from Ringwood, Sarah Norbury, 14, from South Staffordshire, and Matt Whitfield, 14, from Penarth. After four races Whitfield was best placed at 2 3rd .

They won their places in open competition at a selection trial in Pwllheli and have received financial as well as resource support from the Royal Yachting Association. All they had to bring was a mast and sail. The boats, built in China and bubble-wrapped for shipment, are supplied.

At Olympic level, Britain is one of the most feared in the sailing world; in this regatta, Williams expects strong competition from Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Greece, and Spain. The Dutch are already making their presence felt.

This, says Barclay, points to the role which the Optimist plays in developing sailing around the world and why they have between 110 and 120 countries as members of his association at any one time. The boats are handed on as the children grow out of them and a new one, ready to sail away from the dock should be found at under GBP2,000.

"You can't throw money at it," he says. "It is the sailors that make them go faster." And, unlike some games, the parents are banned from the racecourse touchline, with coaches kept well away from the start line. Self-reliance is essential, decision making has constantly to be instantaneous.

On the bay, from the shore it looks as though a cloud of migrating white-winged butterflies are making a strange, fluttering landing. Close up and the noise of battle spikes towards raucous.

Leading after four races was Bart Lambriex of the Netherlands. Ireland's Sophie Browne was sixth.