Sailing: Britain on the rocks

First America's Cup challenge since 1987 has hit rough water
Click to follow
IT HAS been a bleak week for Britain's hopes of mounting a competitive America's Cup challenge. On Monday the Spirit of Britain syndicate running the British bid were hit by the news that the financial path they had been led up by a City consortium was in fact a blind alley.

Since December the group had defended their challenge against a take- over bid and then negotiated terms of co- operation with the take-over bidders, a consortium led by Richard Down, who appeared ready to back the building of two pounds 1.5m boats and a campaign to the tune of around pounds 10m.

But with time to the start of racing in New Zealand on 18 October ticking away and a natural deadline to allow time to build a boat here and deliver it to the other side of the world looming, the prospective partners were given a week to make a deposit of pounds 500,000. That was due to expire last Wednesday, but on Monday Spirit of Britain's lawyer Richard Butcher received notification that the consortium had no funds. The syndicate's management were mystified. "It seems bizarre that they would negotiate to such an advanced stage without ensuring the sponsorship moneys were available," said Butcher.

The news that talks which a week earlier had been described as "promising" had collapsed could prove to be the fatal blow to British involvement in America's Cup 2000.

However, there is still hope. The project director, Angus Melrose, is still in negotiations with potential sponsors and is looking at other ways to get Britain on to America's Cup waters for the first time since 1987. "We've got sponsors offering several million pounds' worth of design and technology services who we are telling to sit on the fence right now," he said. "And we have a financial package from Lottery funding that we are ready to invoke."

But Lottery funding, substantial though it could potentially be, will only match hard cash and not goods in kind. Ironically, Spirit of Britain has around half of its pounds 10m budget ready to unleash if the management can find cash investment. "Other projects have proved to us that if we can actually get committed to building and give potential sponsors something to touch and feel, the rest will come," said Melrose.

The syndicate are now negotiating with potential underwriters to get the project under way and provide the vital tangible evidence that will lure the bigger fish. "We need between pounds 2m and pounds 2.5m to push the start button," said Melrose, who remains optimistic. "We are fortunate that one of our in-kind partners has air transport connections and we could therefore fly a boat to New Zealand if we need to. That pushes our deadline back to around the end of February."

Without doubt Melrose and his team are at the degenerative stages of a drinking session at the last chance saloon, but remain confident that Britain can be well represented. " I genuinely believe we have some pretty cute ideas," he said.

And as for not having time to tune up and prepare? Melrose sees the Louis Vuitton Cup series, where the 10 to 12 challengers self-prune to the final boat that gets to take on the New Zealanders, as the real key tune time. "You've got around 60 races before you meet the All Black boat in the America's Cup. All that matters is that we have a fast boat."

Melrose, like the rest of British sailing, is desperately hoping that Spirit of Britain will have a chance to find out whether they do have a fast design. Cynics would say that their chances of coming back from the last week are very, very small but Melrose and his partners are still talking to potential backers. "I don't want to make too much fuss about what has just happened," said Melrose. "I'm just hoping that in not too many days we'll pull the rabbit out of the hat."