Sailing: The hard man of the sea

Andrew Preece meets a man trying to turn the tide of cup failure; Admiral's Cup: Britain find a rock for the hard place as captain Stead starts to become a world player
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The Independent Online
ALTHOUGH HE won't admit it, the next two weeks promise to be defining times in the sailing career of Adrian Stead, the skipper of the smallest of Britain's three boats, the Mumm 36 Barlo Plastics, in the Champagne Mumm Admiral's Cup.

For skippers looking to move on to the world stage, success at the Admiral's Cup, the unofficial world championship of ocean racing which starts on Wednesday in Cowes, is exceeded in value only by the Olympics, the America's Cup and the Volvo Ocean Race (formerly the Whitbread). Stead has raced both at the Olympics in 1992 and 1996, where he finished fourth as Andy Beads-worth's bowman, and in the 1997-98 Whitbread where he was part of a Silk Cut crew who promised a great deal but ultimately failed to deliver. Those experiences have hardened a burning desire to succeed.

"I think we all came out of Silk Cut thinking `could do better'," he said. "We went into the race as favourites and ended up fourth. But I learned a lot: seeing how Lawrie [Smith] pushes a boat, how to run a big programme, how to delegate."

Though none would admit it publicly the Silk Cut experience was frustrating, particularly for the dinghy sailors in the crew for whom flat out every day for several years is the only way they know how to campaign. It is also the only way to get to the front of the Mumm 36 class where hanging, even stretching, over the side of the boat for days on end when the only breaks are to relieve oneself or to dash below to get another sandwich or bottle of water.

Stead, 32, is suited perfectly to the task: in the 1993 Admiral's Cup he was part of a young crew led by the late Glyn Charles who drove the heart out of a two-year-old boat to finish third in their class behind newer and much faster hardware. The stories came back of Stead, his chin jutted determinedly forward, wrestling the helm downwind on the heavy weather run back from the Fastnet Rock, squeezing every last drop of speed from the boat hour by hour by hour. "We were pumping the main on every wave right the way to the finish line," he remembers."When you come from a dinghy and Olympic background it's the only way you know how to do it."

So the British team manager Harold Cudmore can have no doubts that Stead and his crew will try their utmost through the six inshore races and the two offshore races ahead. And for the crew themselves, they are confident they are fast enough and can get the boat around the track better than any of their opposition. They know this because they have already sailed around 40 races together: part of the deal with Barlo Plastics - a company with a high European profile - was that the boat would take part in a number of European regattas including the Mumm 36 world championship - where they finished second. But experience has come at a price. "Barlo have put up around 70 per cent of the budget," says Stead, "but the number of regattas we had to do ate into quite a lot of money. As a result we've had to do regattas with old gear to get by, with the idea to go into the Admiral's Cup with new gear."

But he's not complaining of a lack of resources to do the business when it really matters. "We've got everything we need and in fact we've actually come out slightly under budget," he confides with a proudness one might expect from a sailor who is not only qualified as a naval architect but has also practised as a chartered accountant. "Not all of our crew are professional and some of the other crews are being paid much more. But it's enough to keep us loyal and besides we want to win it for Britain."

In the past such a statement might have seemed hopelessly overblown as Britain has languished in the Admiral's Cup doldrums for more than 10 years. This time, however, it is a very real prospect: Britain, alongside America, Holland, Germany and Europe, will be at the front of nine strong teams.

In 1997 the John Merricks-Ian Walker dream team added the top CMAC Mumm 36 title to their Atlanta silver medal, but received little in the way of support from their other two team boats. "What John and Ian did last time was awesome," says Stead, "but what is more important for us is that we do better as a team. It's tight but we're there and we've said to the British team management, `We can offer you top three but if you want us to take more risks we'll take more risks'."

And Stead and his close-knit crew - including former Laser European champion Tim Powell, two-times Whitbread sailor Gerrard Mitchell and two-times British Olympic Finn representative Stuart Childerley - are ready to play their part. When asked what the Barlo Plastics crew have over their opposition the answer is ideal Mumm 36 material, particularly as two of the races will be between two and three days long: "We're grunty," says Stead. "We'll get on and do it."