Sailing: Ainslie has world title in sight

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The Independent Online
BEN AINSLIE is just two races away from winning the Laser World Championship to give Britain a flying start today in the seven Olympic classes holding their world title regattas at Port Phillip Bay. The 21- year-old, now based in Lymington, yesterday doubled his lead on his nearest rival, the Brazilian Robert Schiedt, who pipped him for gold at the Atlanta Games.

The quietly spoken Briton, who has won four races while Scheidt has taken just one, has a 14-point overall lead on the Brazilian and said: "I thought it would be a bit tighter than this," but he is not taking anything for granted.

Ainslie won yesterday's first race and saw both Schiedt and the Australian Michael Blackburn struggle in the shifty, softer winds and knows he will need all his concentration to ensure he does not fall into the same trap. "This is the big one for '99, the one I want to do well in," he said. And is it a step to the Olympics in Sydney next year? "No," he said, "Sydney is still a long way off and the conditions at an Olympics will be so different. At the moment I am not sailing towards Sydney, I am sailing each event as it comes. And I want to defend my European title in Helsinki at the end of August."

Two fourths for Shirley Robertson in the Europe, added to the two wins of the first day, were enough to keep her in the lead. She has a four- point advantage over the Netherlands' Margriet Matthijsse as the current world champion, Carolijn Brouwer, languishes in 25th, having been disqualified in the first race.

And Iain Percy landed his second victory of the series in the Finn class to stay third overall - he was not helped by a 20th in the first race of the day - and he is the only one in the top 12 to have scored a win.

The 49ers, still managing to capsize regularly and recovering from three broken masts and a bent boom in the squalls of Monday, continue their lengthy, 12-race qualifying process, which should finish today.

Britain hopes for four, maybe five, boats in the gold fleet, which then embarks on another 12-race series to decide the world champion over the next three days. Top of the British pile last night were the Budgen brothers, Andy disappointed at lying seventh overall. "We were consistently average today," he said.

The southerly winds, blowing at seven to 12 knots, suited the Soling trio of Andy Beadsworth, Barry Parkin and newcomer Richard Sydenham. "We are quick in the lighter stuff," Beadsworth had said, and so it proved as they won the fourth race and pulled themselves up to sixth overall. Just as important psychologically was that they regained the advantage over British rivals Lawrie Smith and his 1992 bronze medal crew of Rob Cruikshank and Ossie Stewart.

Smith, 14th yesterday and 11th overall, makes light of putting in a serious bid for his third Olympic place, saying: "The number one objective was to come to Australia and do some regattas, and to keep up with the game. But if we finish in the top 10 we have the option to carry on and, even if the America's Cup happens, we will probably carry on anyway. If everything went well we might even consider going for the Olympic team trials."

He did not wish to comment about the America's Cup except to mention talks to bring in a major sponsor, saying: "Remember the primary rule. Where is the money?"

Whoever wins the Soling Championship will have earned it. "This is as good a fleet as I have ever seen," said keelboat coach, Bill Edgerton. "There are no marshmallows out there, no one with a soft centre." With Denmark's Stig Westergaard setting the pace, chased by triple gold medallist Jochen Schuemann, Edgerton also pointed to the pace of 1996 Finn bronze medallist and 1998 Whitbread skipper Roy Heiner of the Netherlands. "He is running hot," he said.

Mike Golding has withdrawn from the Around Alone race as the damage to his pounds 1m 60ft Team Group 4, sustained while leading the race, was too great to allow him to complete the final two legs from Auckland to Charlestown, South Carolina.