Sailing: Small is best for battling Britain

Andrew Preece senses a wind of change in the Admiral's Cup
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IN A stunning comeback that will have delighted their team members ahead on larger boats who had already finished, the crew of the British Mumm 36 Barlo Plastics, skippered by Adrian Stead, pulled up from fourth to first in the final miles of the 200-mile short off-shore race of the Champagne Mumm Admiral's Cup. It was their third win in the regatta and ensured that the Chernikeeff British team remained on top of the rankings after five of the eight races.

Barlo Plastics, the smallest of the three-boat team, left the Solent on Friday in an also-ran position and spent most of the ensuing 24 hours contesting the middle order. But yesterday their tactics and boat-speed allowed them to finesse their way through the fleet as they split from the leaders while beating against the tide on the south side of the Isle of Wight. "Moby Jeantex reached into the shore to get out of the tide," said helmsman Tim Powell. "We did not think that was the right call and stayed hard on the breeze. They came out on bad angles, so we sailed into the lead. Then as we were running down from Poole to the finish we are about 20m ahead of Moby and Stewie [two-time Olympic sailor Stuart Childerley] got on to the spinnaker sheet and started working it. By the finish we were half a mile ahead." The crew came ashore visibly wired having had no sleep, very little food and a diet of Red Bull.

It made all the difference to Britain's overall prospects. Ahead Lawrie Smith, Ian Walker and the crew on Venture 99 had finished fifth in the big class, and Chris Law, Graham Bailey and the crew of Nautica Arbitrator, fourth. With Barlo Plastics down the fleet it looked possible that Britain could have dropped as low as fourth in a regatta they had led from the start. Fortuitously, however, key opposition - Holland and Amercia - had a poorer mix of results and Britain are ahead of yet another different second-placed team, Europe.

They had topped the leader board after the first day of racing on Wednesday, buoyed by two classy wins from Barlo Plastics. As the inshore racing continued on Thursday, the British lead was slightly bigger but the defending champions - the Americans - were up into second place. There was a hair- trigger atmosphere dockside as rivalries on the water were not universally laid to rest over a friendly beer. "It was a difficult day," said the British team manager, Harold Cudmore. "Most people had a good race and a bad race and everybody - not just the British - came ashore feeling they had had a bad day."

Before the eight-race regatta - that combines six Solent inshore races with an overnighter and gruelling 400-mile to the Wolf Rock off the tip of Land's End - Britain were among the favourites, but then few would write off more than two or three of the nine teams. The United States had always expected to mount a strong defence of the trophy and the European team - made up of Italian boats and largely powered by Italian sailors - looked a good bet. But the early surprise was the performance of the Dutch who have never, in the 42-year history of the event, been better than simply in the running.`

The cup continues with two inshore races tomorrow and the final high-scoring Wolf Rock race on Wednesday. The British sailors now know what they always suspected: that they have the hardware to equal the best of the other teams. If the offshore racing of Friday and yesterday proved anything it is that Britain can win the trophy they have not held for 10 years. But then so too can four other teams.

"This regatta will not be about your best boats," Cudmore had said before the start of racing. "It will be about your weakest boat. It's no good performing well in two classes and missing out in the third.".

On the performances so far Cudmore knows he need have few worries about the performance of his smallest boat, but he will be thinking hard about how to get the solid seconds and thirds the team still need from the two bigger boats.