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Mixed fortunes for the British in Hyeres

Britain was ruling the waves, floundering in the middle of the waves, and almost trying to sink beneath waves as the second day of the second iShares Cup European circuit produced a sparkling set of races in the Mediterranean resort of Hyeres.

On top again were skipper Pete Cumming and Olympic bronze medallist helmsman Chris Draper, wearing the red colours of Oman Sail. Never out of the top half of the 10-boat fleet, they were often at the front and have improved since being fourth overall in Venice in May via a class win in the Round the Island (of Wight) Race last month in Cowes.

But their sistership in blue was in the wars, losing a rudder when clipped by Mike Golding’s Ecover and double Olympic gold medallist Shirley Robertson was struggling for pace, generally occupying fifth to eighth place.

Seeking their third win of the day, Oman was pipped in the last of seven races for the day by James Spithill and the crew of BMW Oracle but go into the final day with a 13-point lead over the Oracle second.

A major government initiative by the Middle East Sultanate of Oman was paying off in the south of France yesterday in the shape of a 40-foot racing catamaran which was proving the boat to beat in the iShares Cup European circuit.

A British Olympic bronze medallist, Chris Draper, was on the helm, a British skipper, Mike Cumming, was running the show, and another British Olympian, Mark Bulkeley, is in a crew completed by David Carr, son of the retiring executive director of the Royal Yachting Association and British Olympic coach Rod Carr.

Carr is also a consultant to the country, along with Tim Coventry of the International Sailing Federation, and OC Group, founded and run by Mark Turner and Dame Ellen MacArthur, are also consultants. They have sold Ellen’s world record-breaking trimaran to Oman, and have provided the services of Neil Graham and Charlie Carter to oversee the assembling of the Arabian 100, actually a 105-foot trimaran designed by Nigel Irens with the bits built in Australia.

But the racing team represents the high profile face of Oman Sail’s 10 to 15-year initiative by the Omanis to combine sport with leisure industry expertise in a population where half the people are under 20. It is very much a people’s team.

In its race to improve health, education, and diversification from oil revenues, sailing has been chosen as a route into the 21st century and up to €5m year is being invested. There is also, inevitably, considerable emphasis on soccer, and the country will host the Asian Beach Games in December next year.

In the background is the unlikely figure of a British Sapper, a major general in the Royal Engineers, Albert Whitley. The soft-spoken man with a curly pipe is passionate about sailing becoming “part of the fabric of the nation.” Historically, the Omanis sailed and traded everywhere and, though the present Sultan, Qaboos bin Said, is not a sailing man himself, he loves the game and has also backed for over 25 years a sail training ship.

The idea is to train more and more Omanis, who, in turn, can themselves train more young people. But they want that expertise then to grow to the point where they can provide their own crews in major events.

This year Oman has a second boat skippered by Frenchman Loick Peyron, and the team is deciding whether to be back on the European circuit next year with one boat or two. iShares has this year signed a new two-year contract. Oman has decided that, even if it costs them races, there will be Omani names on the crew list.