A choppy day in Portsmouth Harbour, and an eventful day too. Overhead, the Red Arrows carve their spectacular, multicoloured path through the sky, in celebration of HMS Ark Royal's imminent return, following a £12m refit, as flagship of the fleet. On the deck of the great warship, the Royal Marines band plays to the families of the crew. And, just beyond, rise the proud masts of an even more celebrated flagship, HMS Victory. It is small wonder that hardly anyone has eyes for a small Star boat tacking into a 13-knot wind, its two-man crew dealing as expertly with the conditions as you would expect of a pair of Olympic champions, the modern incarnation, if you like, of Britain's glorious seafaring tradition.
Still, Iain Percy and Andrew Simpson are happy that hardly anyone is watching; indeed, that is why they are here. Sixty miles along the coast in Weymouth, many of their keenest rivals are on the water in the Skandia Sail For Gold Regatta, the inauguration of the 2012 Olympic sailing course, which concludes tomorrow. But sailing is like Formula One; tiny advantages are relentlessly sought and jealously guarded, and Percy and Simpson are trying out a sail that they want to keep to themselves until the time comes to hoist it in competition. So they have holed up at the Joint Services Sailing Centre in Gosport, with an entourage including several top-notch Argentine designers. Simpson nods towards HMS Alliance, the main exhibit at Gosport's adjacent Royal Navy Submarine Museum. "Just as a joke we told them that one sunk the Belgrano," he says. "Fortunately, they laughed," Percy adds.
He and Simpson have been friends since they were seven years old, when their parents somewhat optimistically entered them in an Under-15s competition at Western Sailing Club on Southampton Water. "Everyone else was behind the bike sheds trying smoking and kissing, and we were playing with Lego," says Percy. He is the more voluble of the pair, yet by his own admission the less assertive in the crucible of competition. "When the heat is on I get quite angry with myself and I think Andrew was taken aback by that," he says. "He's very good at getting me back into focus, and actually I was shocked at how confident he is out there, how sure of his decision- making. I'd kind of thought it would be the other way round."
Despite being friends for years, they had never raced Stars together until 18 months or so before the 2008 Olympics. But then Percy decided to dispense with Steve Mitchell, who had partnered him to a disappointing sixth-place finish in the 2004 Games, and with whom, more significantly, he had won the world championship in 2002 and the European title in 2005.
"That," he says, "was the hardest thing I've ever had to do. Steve's a good sailor and he hadn't done anything wrong. But I knew there would be light winds in China, and that's not his strongest area, or mine. I knew how good Andrew was in those conditions. He gives Ben [Ainslie, three times an Olympic champion] and me a good cuffing every time the wind's light, trust me, and I needed someone with that ability. But at the same time I was taking away a man's job, his passion, his dream, all at the same time. Finishing with a woman is easy by comparison." A pause. "Not that I've ever done that. They've always dumped me."
Whatever, Mitchell's heartache was Simpson's joy. In 2000 he had finished second behind Percy in the Olympic trials in the one-man Finn class, but with only one competitor per class per nation, it effectively meant that the world's second-best Finn sailor could not compete in the Olympics. Instead he selflessly became Percy's training partner. But in 2004, cruelly, it happened again, when he was pipped by Ainslie. So by 2008 he was raring to make his Olympic debut. He and Percy had made an auspicious start in the Star, finishing third in the 2007 world championships, but last year's corresponding event was a disaster. Their progress from finishing a dismal 52nd in the world championships six months before the Olympics, to bagging gold in Qingdao, is one of the sport's more inspiring stories.
Their abiding aim now, assuming they can first assert their experience over a raft of thrusting young British challengers, is the defence of their Olympic title in 2012, and this week's regatta has afforded a useful look at the venue. "It's very different from China," says Percy. "It's more functional, and it will be more friendly. It's not set up for razzmatazz like China was. That's what we have to do generally with these Olympics, win [people over] with friendliness, prove that biggest is not necessarily best."
The user-friendliness of the Weymouth venue, however, means that the racing is relatively close to the shore, which in turn can mean unstable winds. "I prefer a cleaner wind," Percy says. "But we don't want to be dots on the horizon."
Nobody will mind as long as they're the fastest-moving dots, which they will need to be if they are to win the next world championship, in Rio de Janeiro in January. "Our biggest rivals are the Brazilians, especially the one with the unfortunate name, Robert Scheidt, so it will be good to take them down on their own waters," Percy says. Scheidt, adds Simpson hopefully, might also be distracted by having recently become a father. A little Scheidt, I venture. They make a mental note to pass that one on to Ainslie, for Scheidt it was who had the memorable and furious tussle with Ainslie at the Sydney Olympics, after which the Englishman received death threats from Brazil, an illustration of the exalted status of sailing over there. Here, by contrast, it remains a distinct minority sport in terms of its media coverage. Yet Percy has two Olympic gold medals won eight years apart, and a world title, to his name. Does it rankle at all that he is able to walk unrecognised through even a sailing town like Gosport?
"No," he says flatly. "We have a long career, we can do the America's Cup, go round the world, the Olympics, but at the same time we can walk down the street [unharassed]. Saying that, I would like more people to join the sport. There are perceptions about sailing that are all wrong. There aren't any public schoolboys in our team, for instance, and the start-up costs are much less than they used to be. You can buy a first boat for the price of an expensive tennis racket. But places like this don't help the perception."
We are talking, beneath a faded photograph of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, in the sailing centre's wood-panelled dining room, which as he says is not the most suitable place to stress the lack of elitism in sailing. Nor, since he mentions the America's Cup, does that venerable event exactly exude pluralism. Percy and Simpson, along with Ainslie, are part of Team Origin, the British bid, bankrolled by the Airmiles and loyalty-card multimillionaire Sir Keith Mills, for the next America's Cup.
With the teams Alinghi and Oracle still embroiled in a bitter legal dispute, nobody knows when the 33rd America's Cup will take place, but when it does, Percy and Simpson will be ready, embodying what Percy identifies as a new ruthlessness in British sport. "I think the culture has shifted over the past 10 years from taking part to winning," he says. "Since Britain lost the America's Cup in 1850 or whenever it was, our attempts to win it back have been too Corinthian. But Andrew, Ben and I will do anything within the rules to win. We're not concerned with doing the right thing."
There will be 17 crew on the America's Cup boat, which in many ways is a floating computer. The two-man Star, by contrast, remains fundamentally the same as when it was first designed in 1911, and for all that they and their team are forever tinkering to find some technical asset that might yield a crucial lead of a metre or two, Percy and Simpson's stature as Olympic champions really boils down to one thing: formidable skill. "There are just so many variables," says Percy. "I know every sport says that, but with wind, waves, tides, the technical elements of boats, the variables are huge. That's why experience matters so much. Hopefully, we can outsmart the younger, fitter guys."
As a partnership, I ask whether they ever bicker? "We have a rule never to speak about anything serious before nine in the morning," says Simpson, "because we always fall out when we do." He has just returned from his honeymoon, in the Maldives. Percy was his best man, Ainslie the chief usher. How, I wonder, did the best man's speech go?
"He bottled it," says Simpson. "He didn't play golf on the morning of the wedding because he wanted to rewrite it. But it was good. He only swore once, which is quite good considering his Tourette's..."
Percy laughs, while I wonder whether, in their mutual affection and remarkable synergy on the water, there is perchance another Olympic gold.
Iain Percy and Andrew Simpson are part of Skandia Team GBR. To follow their progress please visit www.skandiateamgbr.com
Crest of a wave: Weymouth log
At the Skandia Sail for Gold regatta in Weymouth yesterday Iain Percy and Andrew Simpson brushed aside the premature start which cost them 20 points in the fourth race of the Star keelboat class to establish an 11-point lead over their old rivals from Sweden, Freddy Loof and Johan Tillander. Topping the 470 men's dinghy were Britain's Nic Asher and Elliot Willis, while Ed Wright and Giles Scott were second and third respectively in the Finn, with Ben Ainslie absent.
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