Sailing: Floating circus faces storm

ADMIRAL'S CUP: British boats run into trouble on home waters. Stuart Alexander reports
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The beleaguered Royal Ocean Racing Club takes the 21st Admiral's Cup to the water on Thursday hoping it can leave ashore the intense debates about the future of what is the major international team championship in big boat racing - and even the gripes about its base in Cowes.

There was considerable criticism during the last Cup in 1995 when decisions were taken about the format of this year's edition, particularly the mix of boats to be used, which many felt would lead to its further contraction. There are only seven teams this year, compared with eight then - the lowest since 1963. There will be another similar meeting this time and some radical thoughts are sure to emerge.

The complaints of some in Cowes are largely commercial. They are based on a desire to see the Admiral's Cup brought forward in the calendar instead of muscling in on, and overlapping, the far more social Cowes Week. That would lead to four to five weeks of restaurant sales and house rentals rather then three to four.

Chris Troup, Cowes' deputy mayor, said: "Cowes would love to see the Admiral's Cup stay in the town and blossom but there is now a real danger, in its present form, of the organisers being asked to stage it elsewhere."

David Minords, the general manager of the Royal Ocean Racing Club, said: "We will be responding when and however appropriate."

In making their voice heard, the traders have also criticised the way the event is run, as they feel it reduces entries. A lot of people think they know how to improve the running of the Cup. Having to move the fleet from Cowes to Christchurch Bay to avoid Solent congestion is a bit like having the party at Ascot, but running the races at Sandown Park.

But, given the cost and complexity of running a grand prix sailing team, the good old days of up to 19 three-boat teams may never return, and there is more quality and professionalism in this year's seven national teams than ever seen before. It has cost over pounds 10m to bring them together.

Yacht racing, in any case, lacks a coherent structure from top to bottom and is constantly pushed and pulled by complex handicap and design rules, the whims and petulance of the owners of such expensive equipment, and either the timidity or the intransigence of the administrators.

Even the governing body, the Royal Yachting Association, is barely involved in the selection and running of the team to represent Britain. Not many sports would allow that.

The strong, international line-up of top quality competitors could never be accused of timidity. Worryingly, the British trio of boats has seen early plans for a smooth development programme upset by a variety of factors, from lack of regular competition to tighter purse strings than some would have liked.

But they are still in a gritty mood, especially after seeing the 1995 team come last out of eight. The appointment of Chris Law as skipper of the big boat, Graham Walker's 45ft Corum Indulgence, and an optimisation programme have so far worked well. They were the joint top boat at the Berthon Source regatta over last weekend.

Tony Buckingham's 40ft Easy Oars seemed to have fallen behind the pace at a recent world championship, but the crew has been shuffled, late improvements made, and consistency when others may be more erratic should be the key to a good team contribution.

Consistency will also be the goal of Tim Barratt's Mumm 36, Bradamante, in the hands of the 1996 470 Olympic silver medallists, John Merricks and Ian Walker. They know they can match the pace of the top-rated Americans and Germans, but are short on offshore experience and need to keep mistakes to a minimum.

"We are in pretty good shape, we could even take a day off," Barratt said. "It's a long regatta and we just have to keep reminding ourselves to get through this with no protests, no breakages, no premature starts, just solid top three results. The interesting thing is we don't see any of the top teams entirely without question marks over them."

The Americans make the New Zealanders the favourites and the Kiwis know the Americans are strong. The defending Italians know they can turn in top three results in all three divisions. It is only the Germans, of the fancied teams, that have yet to produce their usual form.

Geoff Stagg, a Kiwi, long based at the Annapolis design office of Bruce Farr and sailing for Britain on Easy Oars, said yesterday: "Earlier I would have put my money on the Americans over the Kiwis. Now the US team has to overcome the hit caused by their 40-footer MK Cafe losing their mast at the weekend. That means adjusting their handicap and retuning and that makes things dead even."

Anything can happen in a long series, where gear failure can strike at any time and there is so much weighting on the points given to the 605- mile Fastnet Race at the end. A top four finish for Britain would be respectable; but the future is also on everyone's mind. It needs some very canny analysis and a management with the equivalent flair.

"You can't take anything for granted," Andy Beadsworth, the skipper of Easy Oars, said. "After all, this is the Admiral's Cup. We've already had people on the rocks, and masts falling down, and it hasn't even started. Anthing can happen and there's all to play for."

CONTENDERS FOR THE CUP

Country Big boat ILC40 Mumm 36

GREAT BRITAIN Corum Indulgence Easy Oars Bradamante

Skipper Chris Law Andy Beadsworth John Merricks / Ian Walker

Owner Graham Walker Tony Buckingham Tim Barratt

AUSTRALIA Ragamuffin G-Net Sea

Michael Coxon Colin Beashel Steve Kulmar

Syd Fischer John Calvert-Jones Kulmar/

Richard Friedrichs

GERMANY Rubin Pinta I Punkt

Jochen Schumann John Kostecki Marcus Wieser

Hans-Otto Schumann Willi Illbruck Tomas Friese

ITALY Noon Madina Brava Q8 Breeze

Rod Davies Enrico Chieffi Tommaso Chieffi

Danio Ferrari Pasquale Landolfi Paolo Gaia

NEW ZEALAND Numbers Mean Machine Georgia Express

Russell Coutts Tom Dodson David Barnes

John Risley Peter de Ridder Jim Farmer

SCANDINAVIA Investor Fram XIV Mumm a Mia!

- - Fredrik Ramsfeldt

Thomas Blixt HM King Harald V Kenneth Jonsson

UNITED STATES Flash Gordon MK Cafe Jameson

Kenny Read John Kolius Dee Smith

Helmut Jahn Marell Kwasnicki Tom Roche

CHAMPAGNE MUMM ADMIRAL'S CUP: 31 July: Two inshore races (The Solent). 1 August: Channel Race. 4 August: Two inshore races (Christchurch Bay). 5 August: Two inshore races (Christchurch Bay). 7 August: One short offshore race (The Solent). 9 August: Fastnet Race (Cowes to Plymouth).

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