Sailing: The cold warrior of the sea

Round The World Race: New Zealand's driving force the man to beat but Britain's finest can push him to the limit Andrew Preece says Chris Dickson has earned his fearsome reputation
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Already they are calling it the Dream Team, the alliance of Toshiba, Dennis Conner and Chris Dickson. Ever since William Hill announced odds on the Whitbread Round The World Race, which starts in Southampton on Sunday, three weeks ago, Toshiba has been the favourite. The reason is Chris Dickson.

As Conner, a formidable sailor in his own right, has stepped back from the front line, preferring instead of sailing to raise money and run Team Dennis Conner from San Diego, he has entrusted the business of driving boat and crew to the New Zealander who he accused of cheating when they lined up as opponents in the America's Cup in 1987. Conner learnt a lesson four years ago when, despite ample backing from Winston, his Whitbread challenge failed to impress. This time he is taking no chances. It may have cost him, but in Chris Dickson he has the most feared and respected sailor in the Whitbread fleet. Britain has a strong challenge in Lawrie Smith's Silk Cut (second favourites with the bookmakers), the former winner Grant Dalton and the America's Cup skipper Paul Cayard are also in the race, but Dickson is the man the world's best know they have to beat.

"Chris Dickson came into the Whitbread four years ago and just blew the whole thing away," the American Kim Worthington, a watch leader on EF Language, said. Dickson's boat then, Tokio, was always as quick as his rivals and often quicker. He was denied victory only when his mast broke and fell over the side on the penultimate leg.

In that race Dickson took Whitbread racing to another level. It was he who coined the skippers' mantra "boots or shoes" referring to the choice every sailor now makes routinely over which one item of footwear to take with them for more than 30 days at sea. It was Dickson who joked that after the first leg of the last race all of his crew were familiar with the intricacies of the watermaker and the satellite communications because operations manuals were the only reading matter permitted on the boat. Chris Dickson has a reputation for driving crews hard.

Unlike Smith, whose charismatic style elicits a level of devotion from his crew that borders on worship, or Dalton, who surrounds himself with people "who are better than me at each of their individual tasks", Dickson simply gives 100 per cent of himself at all times and demands that his crew do likewise. The atmosphere aboard Toshiba is not one of camaraderie and fun.

"It's not a social outing but purely a professional boat race," says the Briton Paul Standbridge, who is more used to sailing with Smith but who has chosen Dickson and Toshiba because the package was "the absolute best".

He explained: "Our political or religious views don't come into it and, like a football team, you won't necessarily know or like the people in the team and it doesn't really matter."

Dickson himself seems not to care whether or not his crew like him. He appears not to have made any profound friendships with any of his crews over the years. What he does know, however, is that all of them respect him. He is a racing machine who will steer the boat for 14 hours a day. "Sleep is not on the agenda," he said. "Comfort is not on the agenda. We're here to race the boat 24 hours a day."

In fact, racing is much more than a 24-hour a day job to him. Where others will be seen on the golf course in the weeks in port between the legs, Dickson's way of relaxing is to guest as tactician at less serious regattas in the Caribbean. It is a lifestyle that has brought substantial financial rewards: he was recently ranked as New Zealand's wealthiest sports person.

Early form suggests Toshiba will be difficult to beat. Though they did not actually win last month's three-day Fastnet Race - they were overtaken just metres from the finishing line when a shackle failed and the spinnaker dropped into the water, which allowed Grant Dalton and Merit Cup to slip by - the moral victory was theirs. And they have already unofficially broken the record for the greatest number of miles sailed by a monohull in a 24-hour period while they were sailing the Atlantic to England.

But Dickson, more than anyone, knows that in the end it comes down to much more than ability and drive. Luck will play a part. Dickson was happy enough with his preparation that he felt able to fly to Sardinia to skipper a boat in the maxi world championship a week before the start of the Whitbread, while other skippers wrestled with crew changes and last-ditch tuning. "We certainly believe we can win this race," he said. "Whether we will... well, we'll just have to wait and see."