Plans afoot to boost sailing interest

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The Independent Online

The battle to increase the worldwide fan base for grand prix sailing has kicked off this week in, of all places, the Middle East Sultanate of Oman. The visit at the same time by prime minister David Cameron was in no way related.

Slugging it out are the Extreme Sailing Series, attracting spectators from downtown Muscat, the World Match Racing Tour, which opens for 2011 business in Marseille in May, the America’s Cup World Series, which starts in July but has yet to announce the venues for the series of eight events, and, in its own way, the Volvo round the world race, with as much emphasis on stopover presence as on ocean racing.

The fairground barkers of grand prix sailing are all charged with the same task; roll up, roll up for the most exciting spectacle in sailing – and one of the great thrills in sport generally – is the proposition.

All are putting emphasis on close racing close to the shore, on arresting television coverage, on developing website audiences, and on appealing not just to the fans of sailing but a much wider audience.

Whether any can turn a casual audience into a committed audience remains to be seen. The vendors of adrenalin-fuelled entertainment are many and varied. It is a crowded market.

For the competitors, the competition and skills to win remain paramount and each is quite different, not least in the budgets involved. Where they are the same is in chasing the same host venue and sponsorship dollars, unlike something like the Audi MedCup series, which is geographically more contained and concentrates more on being an attractive hospitality opportunity while servicing the sailing fan audience.

Masterminding the Extreme Sailing Series, raced in 40-foot catamarans, is Isle of Wight-based Mark Turner, with whom Ellen MacArthur was formerly in partnership. Turner bet the ranch on his vision of a circuit which also takes in China and the United States. “We emptied the bank account in 2010 after 10 years of building up the business,” he says, “But I didn’t want to let it go. Now we have more investment, allowing us to move forward with a much greater sense of confidence.”

Turner sees the America’s Cup in an entirely different league, and the event, coming up to 160 years of history, offering something which more recent events cannot. But he also feels that the focus on fewer events and the way in which they are organised, collectively enhance the appeal of a sport which is difficult for many to understand and has often been rather remote.

There was nothing remote about the races on the Arabian Gulf, where the 11 competitors all marked the earthquake tragedy which has cast a shadow over one of their fellow-competitors, Team New Zealand.

In a long programme of eight races, Pierre Pennec maintained the overall lead for Groupe Edmond de Rothshild by being a little more consistent and Terry Hutchinson overcame some poor finishes to hang on to second in Artemis, though he slipped from three points behind to seven.

George David’s 100-foot Rambler was first to cross the line in Antigua and set a new record for the Caribbean 600, organised by the Royal Ocean Racing Club. He had Volvo round the world skipper Kenny Read and some his 2011-12 crew for the race which starts in November at the core of the crew.

Their time of 40 hours, 20 minutes and two seconds was about four hours faster than the previous record, set last year by the man Rambler beat into second place, Mike Slade, in the similarly sized Leopard, who was nearly five hiours`astern. Most of the remaining 32 yachts were expected to finish in the following 24 hours.

The Gotland Runt is changing. The regions biggest offshore race will still take the fleet round Gotland, but will now start from Stockholm, restart at its old home in Sandhamn and be renamed the AF Offshore Race.

Saskia Clark, crew for double gold medallist Sarah Ayton, will now partner new helm Hannah Mills in a bid for the women’s 470 dinghy place at the 2012 Games after Ayton withdrew to concentrate on family responsibilities.