On course for Battle of Amsterdam

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It would be a truly memorable sight: the Albert Hall, full of water, with the world's best sailors racing round it. Sadly, it's not going to happen, at least this year. You won't even be able to catch them tacking away at Fenner's, the Cambridge University cricket ground, though Henri van der Aat was considering that as a yachting venue too.

"The problem with both of these places, while ideal in many other ways, is that lt would have cost about £100,000 to install a giant pool and fill it with water," van der Aat says.

You are probably thinking that this particular Dutchman is a few bulbs short in his tulip field. But it's no joke. Henri van der Aat is, after all, one of the most respected and innovative men in sailing. The walls and shelves of his office in Battersea, south London, are awash witlh mementoes, including three Olympic certificates. The one from Barcelona, where he organised all the sailing classes, thanks him for his "participation and contribution to the success of the Games".

He could have been a professional footballer (he was offered a contract with Ajax) or thrown in his lot with judo (he was Dutch junior champion). Instead, he caught the sailing bug. Between 1982 and 1988, Van der Aat was in charge of the Dutch Olympic squad, setting up a development programme which ran from beginners right up to the Olympians. The result was Netherlands' first sailing gold medal since 1936, and victory in several world and European championship classes.

This success brought him a job with the International Yacht Racing Union in London, organising its marketing and communications. His presence was like a 70-knot wind sweeping through its traditional structure. He brought in a world rankings list, introduced the Nations Cup and generally gave sailing a sharper image that attracted sponsors and brought far greater media coverage. Come on, would somebody with such an auspicious record really get involved with something as wacky as sailing races in the Albert Hall?

Er, yes. We may not get the chance to see a totally new interpretation of Handel's Water Music, but that's only because Van der Aat found somewhere better - the middle of Amsterdam. From 1 to 3 September, the Keizers Gracht between Raad Huisstraat and Hasten Straat, smack in the middle of the Dutch capital, will be closed to water taxis and boozer cruisers so the world's top sailors can race along a 130-yard stretch of canal to prove who really is the best.

Van der Aat modestly points out that the idea of sailing as entertainment is nothing new. In ancient Rome, emperors would flood an arena and organise mock sea battles. But in modern times, sailing has become comprehensible only to its participants, a secret society that meets far away from prying eyes for mysterious rituals, then spends hours afterwards arguing over the outcome.

"One of the things I worked on at the International Yacht Racing Union was to bring the sport closer to the spectators, so they could see what was going on. Sponsors liked this because it attracted the crowds," says Van der Aat, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Chevy Chase. "Towards the end, there was a reaction against my ideas. In a way, I was less successful. People said my changes were too radical. In a committee-driven system, things have to be shown to work before people will believe it. I had to work on a different track to achieve what I wanted to."

So in 1993 he set up his own company, World Sailing Management. But he didn't just want to organise competitions and find sponsors. Van der Aat was convinced that the public would flock to sailing if it could be made more approachable. "I realised that I needed spectators. But this meant a stadium, an arena, a field with boundaries, so people could follow what was happening, preferably by being above the action."

The participants weren't hard to find. "There are so many world champions in sailing: about 180 such titles are awarded in a year. I'm opposed to so many; I don't think it's a good thing. But what we are doing is to find out who really is the best."

The ingredients didn't come together until he was back in Amsterdam, where his company also has offices. "I was walking along a canal and suddenly it struck me: this was the perfect place. The quay forms a natural arena and in the middle of Amsterdam, I was assured of a good crowd. The high houses form a tunnel and force the wind straight along the canal.''

The authorities were sceptical at first, though the tourist board was ecstatic. This year's theme for the capital is Amsterdam, City of Water, and Van der Aat's idea of bringing in the world's best sailors fitted the mould perfectly. "I've had about a 70 per cent response so far. Of course there are some who will not come because they don't want to put their reputations on the line, but we should have more than enough to make this event very special."

They will race ``mini-Jods'', four-metre boats which are a mini-version of an America's Cup yacht. Everyone will sail the same boats and race four at a time on the 30-metre wide canal. The aim is to minimise the equipment importance, and bring it back to the best competitor winning and not the one with the most money, says Van der Aat. There will be an umpire to settle disputes on the spot, quayside commentaries and (a real revolutionary step, this) races that start on time.

But what if there's no wind? Van der Aat has even thought of a way around this problem. He is installing eight huge wind-making machines, ventilation blowers that will produce up to 30 knots, to ensure the sailors are not becalmed.

Now 38, Van der Aat has seven other events on the water this year, though The Battle of Amsterdam, simply because of its unique approach, is the one that is occupying most of his energies. ``The traditional sailor with the glass of whisky in hand and his big boat in the Solent may not like it much, but this is bringing sailing closer to Joe in the street. We are never going to make it like tennis or football, but there are certain aspects that can be presented far more attractively to the general public."

He wants to make the competition an annual event, He's looked closely at the Serpentine in London's Hyde Park, though it doesn't have the same historic backdrop as central Amsterdam. It could conceivably still take place in the Albert Hall. Wouldn't it be wonderful if the pool-filling could take place when the place is stuffed to the gunwales with that hysterical Last Night of the Proms mob.