Plans set fair for Grand Mistral

Stuart Alexander on the reasons for confidence of the race's organiser
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The Independent Online
Any doubts that the new Grand Mistral round-the-world race would go ahead this September were shrugged aside in London yesterday by the organiser, Pierre Fehlmann.

The Swiss ocean racer, who has five Whitbreads under his belt, was adamant. "There will be a minimum of nine yachts on the start, more probably 10 to 12," he said.

Fehlmann has secured considerable financial backing for the race from his long-time sponsors, Philip Morris. He also has the support of the French regional governments of Bouches-du-Rhone and the Cote d' Azure to build the Bruce Farr-designed, water-ballasted 80-footers at a factory in La Ciotat, southern France.

Hull number five is being built, and it is claimed that further yachts can be produced at the rate of one every three weeks to be chartered to the competing syndicates.

What has been less clear is exactly who will be campaigning the boats in a race that starts in Marseilles on 21 September, going on to Cape Town, then Sydney for the 1996 Sydney to Hobart (which is incorporated into the race), Auckland, Mar del Plata, Argentina and New York. The fleet then returns across the Atlantic and into the Mediterranean for the finish in Marseille.

Only three yachts have declared backers. They are Fehlmann's Merit Cup, which will be skippered by the 1993/94 Whitbread winner, Grant Dalton, Finland's Ludde Ingvall in Nicorette, and the French Americas skipper, Marc Pajot, who is due to announce details of his backers in France on Friday. The city of Marseilles is expected to pick up most of the bill.

Fehlmann also claims Tag Heuer will back a Chris Dickson entry and that negotiations are well advanced, but they have dragged on for some time.

As for the remaining five, race spokesman Hans Bernhard says they will come from a list of 36 who have expressed interest, although it is known that many of those cannot proceed. It is thought that arrangements may be made to make the boats available in one form or another just so that contract clauses requiring a minimum fleet of, say, eight boats can be honoured.

Neither Fehlmann nor Bernhard was willing to discuss any financial implications but Dalton said: "There has been a meeting of everyone involved at which we knew we either had to end up with a race or not. There was a considerable will for the race to succeed and a determination for it to go ahead. Now there is a structure in place that guarantees these boats will race."

Dalton has also been trying to secure enough cash for a 1997/98 Whitbread, but has found the going tough in a New Zealand heavily focused in the short term on Olympic sailing and in the longer, more expensive, term the defence of the America's Cup in 2000.

"If I can't put it together in three more months then I may have to abandon," Dalton said. He will also have to give more and more time to preparing his multi-national crew for the start of the Grand Mistral.