Profile: The impatient mariner: Lawrie Smith

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IT has been building for a long time, and now that it has arrived, Lawrie Smith is riding the crest of his wave just as hard as he can.

It is not surprising after the two months he has just experienced. Across 8,000 miles of the most unforgiving waters on the planet, Smith picked up a boat and a crew he barely knew and wrung out of them performances the like of which had never been seen before. This barely a month after slinking home in the middle of the night as the laughing stock of the sailing fraternity.

Both were typical of Smith. Today as he sets out from Fremantle to Auckland on the third of the six legs of the Whitbread Round the World Yacht Race, the pressure is on him as never before, to prove what he has claimed for years, what many observers have said, and what some had begun to doubt. That he has it in him consistently to compete with - and overcome - the world's best yachtsmen. Then, and only then, will he be able to put his feet up and book a cruise.

Smith has crafted a career as Britain's best-known yachtsman to such an extent that he has property interests in the sailing town of Lymington, and a half-share in a pub. Born to a comfortable background in Bury, Lancashire, Smith became hooked when his father took him dinghy sailing and he has since built a career from inland reservoirs across the world's oceans. Now approaching his roaring forties he is, and has been for some time, far and away Britain's best-paid sailor. But reputations need foundations, and Smith's were beginning to creak. In the past five years, the man who had leapt on to the international stage as an America's Cup captain at the age of 22, was becoming too used to life in the chorus line. He trailed the New Zealanders all the way around the last Whitbread race, and could manage no better than a lacklustre bronze in the Olympics in Barcelona.

He tried, and failed, to raise enough money to build a new boat for this race, and eventually started it with an old, monstrously modified boat, Fortuna, funded by a Spanish tobacco firm. Within 24 hours of the start, what was to have been the boat's key technological weapon, a wing-shaped carbon-

fibre mast, broke. The boat's other mast followed, and so did the sponsor's will to go on. Smith was ordered to return and crept back to the Hamble in the early hours of a damp October morning.

At which point the tide started to turn. All was not well on one of the other boats in the race, the gleaming new Intrum Justitia, one of the ground-breaking class built especially for the race. Intrum was set up as a pan-European challenge, with nine nations represented, but her skipper, the Swede Roger Nilson had not been able to match her against competitors of the calibre of Chris Dickson. He went home for an operation on a knee, and Smith was presented with a daunting opportunity.

He joined the boat three days before the second, hardest, leg of the race and proceeded to rock it - fiercely. 'He just stepped on board, cracked the whip, and said 'let's go',' one of the crew (and a long-time Smith aide) Paul Standbridge says. The result was that a boat which had been well off the pace through 6,000 miles of the first leg, suddenly set a hotter one than had been seen before. Not only did they win, they also went further in a 24-hour period than any racing yacht had done before.

Which poses an obvious question as to what Smith did; what he does to drive a boat and a crew. Rodney Pattisson, a double Olympic gold medallist of the Sixties and Seventies who sailed with Smith in the 1983 America's Cup campaign, says Smith's greatest strength is his ability to mould a crew together. 'Anyone who has ever sailed with Lawrie is always very supportive of him, and that is not an accident,' he says.

He does this simply enough - by not interfering. He expects and demands his crew to know their jobs. If they don't, he gets someone who does - and holds on to them. 'It's a mixture of charm and aggression. And he knows exactly which buttons to press to motivate people,' Rick Tomlinson, an Intrum crew member, says.

Smith can be as good with his equipment as he is with his crew: witness six world titles in various classes, best boat in the Admiral's Cup and line honours in the

Sydney-Hobart and Round Ireland races. 'Where he is special is that he has got an instinct that senses what is going on, that reads conditions and gives him a very clear idea about getting from A to B fastest,' a long-time observer of yacht racing points out. 'He is a natural sailor. To some extent you have to be born with it, and Lawrie certainly was,' Pattisson says.

And yet. Whenever anyone in the sport talks about Smith, there is always a huge 'and yet'. Largely because in recent years he has not often been mentioned in the same context, let alone the same breath, as the game's aristocracy - Dickson, Dennis Conner, Paul Cayard, Russell Coutts, Peter Gilmour et al.

Despite that, Smith perceives this rarified atmosphere as his natural habitat. And he says so. Repeatedly. Which annoys those who do live there at the moment. And their annoyance riles Smith, who itches to prove his point.

For an island nation at the centre of the yachting world, Britain does not take the sport too seriously. Certainly not seriously enough to give Smith the money top-flight yacht racing demands. 'To raise money you have to be a bloody good PR man,' Pattisson says. 'I wouldn't have said that was one of Lawrie's strengths, and I think he would be one of the first to admit it. Unfortunately there are people who are good at that, but who are nothing like as good sailors, and they get the money and then don't come up with the goods.'

All of which fuels Smith's sense of injustice, his frustration at being unable to prove once and for all that he deserves to be ranked with the best. And that explains the necessity to drive boat and crew so hard in this Whitbread, where at last he has a craft which looks the equal of his competitors.

But even an excellent Whitbread would not end the arguments. Smith himself has been critical of the race before, saying it rewards endurance rather than flair, that because it lacks any element of close-quarter racing it is not the ultimate test of race-boat handling skills.

That, of course, is what the America's Cup is supposed to be. Smith has raced in it twice, most notably when he took Peter de Savary's Victory into the challenger final against the ultimately successful Australia II in the most famous cup of them all, Alan Bond's 1983 triumph.

However, even if Britain could find the money to fund a campaign, which is unlikely, Smith's wish for the level playing surface would still not be granted. The cup is now as much a matter of technology and design as it is a test of sailing ability. So Smith, like all professional sailors, would once again be at the mercy of forces beyond his control.