Merricks and Walker prove to be an adaptable double act

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Richard Matthews, the British Admiral's Cup team captain, was a happy man at the Key West Race Week yesterday after watching two of his three charges acquit themselves well in the first race.

Matthews was especially pleased with the performance of the Olympic 470 silver medallists, John Merricks and Ian Walker. The pair have already shown they can make the transition to bigger boats by coming second in the UK Melges 24 Championships and in the Gold Cup in Barcelona.

By moving up from 14ft boats, through 24ft and up to Mumm 36 they are showing an adaptability which could take them all the way to an America's Cup. They underlined this yesterday when posting a third in a classy fleet in their first Mumm 36 start on Tim Barratt's Bradamante. And on the middle boat, Tony Buckingham's 40-foot Easy Oars, Andy Beadsworth, just pipped for an Olympic medal in the Soling last year, steered another young crew to second place in its class.

Only the big boat, Graham Walker's Corel 45 Indulgence, struggled. Matthews, however, was quick to point out that the purpose of this regatta, which has attracted a record 262 entries, is not a matter of individual race results, but the start of a serious six-month drive to ensure top billing in an Admiral's Cup that will be far from easy to win.

And aiming to make it tougher will be the man who must stand out as the top sailor in the world, the New Zealander Russell Coutts. The America's Cup winner swept all before him last year to re-establish himself at the top of the world match race rankings. Yesterday, he was back in the top slot of class one, racing the new 46-footer of the Canadian John Risley.

In the Melges 24 class the European flag is being carried by the Italian Giorgio Zuccoli, the winner of the Glenfiddich European circuit last year, who is sailing one of the new hulls developed by Rob White in Britain.

The home-grown opposition is strong, with Dave Chapin surprising no one by winning the first race, beating Dave Ullman into second place as Zuccoli hung on to finish fourth in the light conditions.