Royal Dorset on course for America's Cup

Sailing: Stuart Alexander assesses Britain's chances of staging a credible challenge

Sir Peter Blake has, according to some of his Kiwi compatriots, more power and influence than the Prime Minister in his native New Zealand, having won the America's Cup last year. So his belief that Britain's challenge for sailing's greatest prize is a credible one - "you can win it" - is difficult to ignore.

"It would be a bit naive to think you could rip it off first time," he says, "but it's a huge benefit to have Britain there."

Such an advantage that Sir Peter, an Anglophile who lives with his family in Emsworth, personally carried the entry form, with its $100,000 (pounds 66,000) entry fee cheque, from Weymouth's Royal Dorset Yacht Club to Auckland last week to announce the 11 challenges for the 30th defence in 2000.

He knows only too well the list of priorities being drawn up not so much by the Royal Dorset as by the backers whose identities they have resolutely refused to disclose that will convert their challenge into a winning campaign. These include assembling the right design team, finding the builder of the hull, mast and keel, refining the sails and recruiting the skipper, tactician and crew - and relentlessly keeping the development programme going to the last race.

The most important of any hurdles which the first British challenge since 1986 has to cross is raising enough money to see the campaign through from start to finish. The commodore, Bill Simmonds, his senior colleagues and, perhaps most importantly, the lawyers who advise them must first have been persuaded that, in going public, they would not be embarrassed. "We would not have entered unless we thought it would go the full distance," Simmonds said.

It is a long road and Britain start well behind other countries which now have the experience of two cups behind them in developing a type of boat that has never been built in Britain. The tools, however, are all in place.

In the Wolfson Unit at Southampton, tank and wind tunnel testing facilities are already the first choice of other leading designers. There is also time to recruit the necessary foreign talent - both design and sailing - before the May 1997 deadline to meet the three-year residency requirement. There is abundant home-grown talent to draw from, too.

Add to these elements stacks of carbon fibre technology, aerospace design and computer power, and it should not be difficult to put a winning crew together. "Keep the team as small as possible, as experienced as possible, and make sure they are all compatible, that is so important," is Sir Peter's advice. "They need, above everything, a will to win and the determination to enjoy it. If you have people who want to become millionaires out of it you won't win."

One of the most important factors in the Royal Dorset's preparations is one over which they have least control: the management structure of the syndicate and its challenge. British sailing has been known more for its attritional, competitive and confrontational approach than tight-knit cohesion. There are already signs of cliques.

The final consideration - would Weymouth be a good place to stage an America's Cup if Britain won it and had to defend - is the easiest to answer. With the deep-water harbour at Portland now vacated by the Navy there is a first-class facility and the bay would provide spectacular racing. And does this hush-hush challenge have the proper backing? "It's got real legs," Sir Peter said.

n Lawrie Smith, the man most likely to skipper the Royal Dorset challenge, is set to announce which Whitbread syndicate he will join for next year. The Swedish EF Challenge has announced they are close to a deal, but Smith has continued talking to the Tag Heuer group in Switzerland over what could be a two-boat campaign.

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