Sailing: Riley closes in on her promised land

America True's skipper is ready for her next challenge in the America's Cup. By Stuart Alexander in Auckland
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The Independent Online
TODAY Dawn Riley is listening to the waves gently lapping on the shores of a holiday resort in Fiji. Tomorrow evening she will be back at the headquarters of her America's Cup challenger syndicate, and back to work.

The battery-recharging exercise has been allocated just two and a half days, and comes at the end of a five-month drive which culminated with a place in the semi-finals of the Louis Vuitton Cup, the elimination series that finds a sole challenger to take on the America's Cup defending champions, New Zealand, at the end of February.

Riley's America True were the top-scoring US team after three round- robins of gruelling races on the Hauraki Gulf. She beat her more high- profile San Francisco rival, Paul Cayard, in AmericaOne and the America's Cup legend, Dennis Conner, in Stars & Stripes. She trampled on the prospects of the vastly experienced John Kolius' Hawaiian-based Abracadabra. And, by handing the French yacht, Le Defi, a vital nine points through a deliberate decision not to race them, she put to an end the hopes of the lofty and lavishly-funded New York Yacht Club entry, Young America.

Even the few who had given her a genuine chance of a semi-final place would not have predicted the style in which it was achieved. But, then, the 34-year-old from Detroit, Michigan - not the foremost cradle of US sailing talent - is used to overcoming doubters.

She was at the heart of the first all-woman Whitbread round-the-world race team, on Maiden, in 1989/90. In 1992 she was invited by Bill Koch to join his successful America's Cup defence team on America3. She stepped in as skipper for Heineken in the next Whitbread in 1993/4 and a year later she was back with Koch in his all-woman defence syndicate.

This year she became the first woman to head and skipper an America's Cup syndicate in the event's 148-year history and, in doing so, has tuned into a fashionable phase of current American political correctness focusing on successful women in sport.

Just raising the money to compete in Auckland has been a battle for Riley. She put in all her savings and persuaded her parents to mortgage the family home to provide the necessary funds to start work on the design process. She then toured the country on the after-breakfast, lunch and dinner speech circuit, and kept making progess.

As the syndicate's prime mover, she has taken the prime position ashore, that of Chief Operating Officer. But, in the water, she is one of the bumpers and grinders in the middle of the boat, working the area known as the pit, making sure the sails work at the right time without any snarl- ups. Managing both jobs in parallel may be demanding, but it also gives her the necessary motivation.

Her crew has put in more practice than almost any other syndicate - with the exception of the high-riding Italians - and they have managed to keep breakdowns to a minimum, not because of ultra-conservatism but by being ultra-paranoid, making sure that everything is double-checked and triple- checked. She is happy to let the helmsman, John Cutler, and tactician, Kelvin Harrap, call the shots on the yacht. "The only tensions occur when someone on board treats me as the CEO rather than just another crew member," she reveals. "I want to be a team player."

Being a relatively low budget campaign with a one, rather than two, boat programme, she has created a very tight team. "When we have a meeting it all clicks. If anyone is having a bad time there is always someone to turn to. And if anyone needs a quick kick in the butt, there is always someone to do that, too."

While some other syndicates are still searching for further funding, she has been able to take her break knowing that the whole programme is sorted for the semi-finals, both financially and logistically. But, while she was hoping to stretch out on the deck of a yacht wearing a swimsuit for a change, she concedes: "I suppose I might be making the odd telephone call from the resort to try and tie up some more money."

When her yellow and blue yacht was launched, by the mayor of San Francisco last May, Riley said that a dream had come true. Making the semi-final stages of the America's Cup elimination is a second dream come true. Now she is nearing the promised land she is able to add: "There are still more dreams to come."

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