Sailing: The time and money game

Grant Dalton, Merit Cup skipper, reflects on his win in the Fastnet Race and looks forward to next month's Whitbread Round the World race, when he will write for the Independent
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The Independent Online
The pressure on the syndicates preparing for the start of the Whitbread has suddenly increased following a Fastnet Race that raised more questions than it answered. Both time and money are at the heart of it and there may be a few unpleasant bullets to be bitten, some courageous decisions to be made. Merit Cup was first into Plymouth, but it wasn't first out as teams scurried away to start a whole new round of testing and catching up.

We have been in this situation before, in the 1989 pre-Whitbread Fastnet, with the maxi Fisher & Paykel against Peter Blake's Steinlager. We went round the rock and were run down big time, and by big time I mean an eight and a half minute lead turned into a two and a half minute loss, but knowing in our heart of hearts that we had a serious downwind problem.

It had to be addressed. We knew that if we didn't we would be suffering badly in the Whitbread. The net result of it was we had to improve the boat considerably, tossing the entire sail wardrobe out, and starting again.

But we never quite caught up because to do that we would have had to make up six months not only of the work which our rivals had put in place, but six months of our own history and we had just six weeks to do it in.

In the end we were on the pace with them, but we never had the sparkle they had. I think some of the Whitbread teams are finding themselves in that situation now, and I am not saying we are not one of them, that we are the hot ones and the others are not. By no stretch of the imagination is that true.

But we had planned on continuing development and all the Fastnet Race win has confirmed to us is that the development programme is at least on the right track, rather than having to come to terms with the thought that it might be on the wrong track, throw it out, and take a new direction.

Any campaign between now and the start on 21 September would have had a lot of work on. Sailing with sponsors' guests, maybe fitting a new rig, we will have our second boat arriving to do some side by side testing. Many will have engineering work to do, perhaps replacing keel bulbs, tidying up glitches in the mechanical and electrical systems.

Having to fit in an additional performance analysis programme, develop new sails and modify boats, will all have to be crammed into an already tight schedule. They will also have to be paid for out of budgets which may not be as elastic as everyone needs. The only thing which everyone should have equally is the flexibility of management approach which is always necessary in running a campaign of Whitbread complexity.

But the extra problems are those you can do without as the prospect also looms of having to invite the scrutineers on board to make sure you have complied with all the rules. Every bit of kit may have to be measured to make sure it meets specifications, and when, for some, a favourite bit of work on a secret weapon is thrown out, there is the time lost, the money down the drain.

The options at this stage are normally pretty limited and the only things people would be playing with would be sails, keel bulbs and masts. In the main that means lighter masts and lighter keel bulbs, though keeping the favourite shape, and perhaps still looking at the mix of sail shapes and weights that gives you maximum cover and speed over the widest range of wind speeds and the angles at which the boat is sailed.

The Fastnet crystallised our thinking in particular areas, like light air sails. Our trio of Kevin Shoebridge, Mike Sanderson and Micky Ickert, the ex-Team New Zealand America's Cup designer who has also been consulted by Lawrie Smith, are working hard on that as we take the boat to Belgium this weekend. That is business, but next weekend a visit to the motor racing grand prix should be more pleasurable.

We have some pressure on us, too. We know we are not fast enough at this point to win the race and I believe both Chris Dickson's Toshiba and Smith's Silk Cut could beat us. The worry is that they still have more to pull out of the bag, that they are not as deep into their development programme or into what they think are achievable targets as we are. So we are going to have to work really hard.

The bonus from winning the Fastnet was that, of the top four boats, we were the only ones who had not sailed Whitbread 60s before. We started in March and in five months we can probably say we are on the pace. So we have been pleased to see the hard work, thinking and meetings paying off. That is a credit to the guys.