Kiwis plan straightforward revolution

Stuart Alexander, in San Diego, on a proposed new style of America's Cup
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The Independent Online
Not playing the game is something that has reared its head in every sport and game since time began. Sailboat racing has been riddled with cheating, one of the reasons why there are so many complex rules, so when someone comes along promising to create a new crown more akin to an angelic halo, it can cause reactions from praise through relief to puzzlement.

Peter Blake, who goes into tonight's fifth race of the America's Cup knowing that victory will secure a breathtaking triumph, has been staking out the territorial guidelines for the next Cup if - and it would take an unbelievable comeback from Dennis Conner for it not to be - it is staged in New Zealand. "We are going to clean it up," he said on the eve of the contest against the San Diego Yacht Club and the United States. "We want to make it fair for both sides."

"Why would you want to do that?" asked the head of the defence syndicate, John Marshall. "It's never been fair." But it is contrary to Blake's thinking and upbringing to want a continuation of the ambiguous, three-card trick approach which has so damaged the reputation of the event in 1995.

Blake's role in the whole of the New Zealand Challenge has been unconventional. He is the boss who winds winch handles when on the boat, always acknowledging that this is the area where Russell Coutts is undisputed skipper. No rivalry, just mutual respect.

Blake, now based in Ems-worth, Hampshire, is the boss ashore who runs the whole syndicate like a co-operative. Nothing, especially expenditure, goes through without his knowledge and consent. Everyone can make a case for more budget, and everyone is made to feel a part of the campaign.

He says he feels comfortable with Coutts; they both have the same quiet sense of humour, they have rubbed along well together for two years, yet he also says they rarely have dinner together. Coutts is an engineer, a perfectionist, someone who has driven the sailing programme relentlessly from the moment he decided the challenge would be viable and agreed to be skipper.

Blake, 46, can be both smiling and dour, and insists that discipline should come from within each individual. So the crew do it for him when it comes to their conduct and lifestyle, and for Coutts when it comes to giving 110 per cent of concentration and effort while sailing the boat.

In 1992, when the wheels came off the New Zealand Challenge at the end, Blake was a very unhappy man, disillusioned with the America's Cup. This time he says it has been very enjoyable "so far". Why? "It's different, we do things our own way, we don't have to answer to anybody."

A reference, perhaps, to the way in which Michael - now Sir Michael - Fay ran such a hierarchical ship last time, and to the in-fighting between the crews who were on the boat and the alternates struggling to take their places.

Coutts, 32, is an MBE who is a little shy and definitely not a limelight seeker, and at that time made a conscious decision to make the best of driving the B boat in the tuning and testing. Only for the last two races did he replace Rod Davis as race-boat skipper, as the challenge crumbled to a peaking Paul Cayard and the Italians.

Now Blake, the Whitbread winner and round-the-world record holder, already an OBE, is himself seemingly on the way to a knighthood, and to exercising some of his authority on the future of the cup. He wants the nationality rules tightened up, with bona fide yacht clubs challenging, not commercial entities dreamed up to cash in, and he wants the event to be simple and straightforward.

"Everyone will know three years out what the rules are and that they will be the same for defenders and challengers. It would be absolutely fair," he says.

And if Coutts, to whom Blake has been able to delegate so much with total confidence, has yet to achieve the greatness to which his huge talent points, it is only a matter of time. For the next cup, Blake will be formidable in the committee room, and Coutts will be formidable on his home waters in the City of Sails.

AMERICA'S CUP (San Diego): Team New Zealand (P Blake) bt Stars & Stripes (D Conner), 3min 37sec. (Team New Zealand leads best-of-nine series 4- 0).

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