Sailing: Whitbread TV dispute

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RELATIONS between a group of skippers led by Pierre Fehlmann and the organising committee of the 1993-94 Whitbread Round the World Race have taken a turn for the worse with the revelation that some of the leading yachts, still unhappy with the lack of information from Whitbread, may consider a rival service to the official television pool.

Whitbread hopes that new systems, many of them pioneered by British Telecom, to bring pictures from the yachts while they are racing in mid-ocean will broaden interest in the United Kingdom, Europe, Japan, Australasia and the United States.

However, speaking in St Tropez yesterday, Fehlmann said: 'The Offshore Maxi Yacht Association already has its own TV pool whereby all the yachts contribute to a central editing facility and distribute material to television stations. We don't agree with the situation with the Whitbread TV pool. They want to sell the TV material to make money, whereas our sponsors will distribute it free as part of their marketing effort. So it's possible there will be two TV pools.'

Fehlmann, the chairman of OMYA, is hoping to recruit the new class of 60ft boats, specifically designed for the Whitbread, to his organisation. Roger Nilson, the skipper of a Dutch-based 60ft entry, Intrum Justitia, is an individual member of OMYA. 'We hope he will manage the integration of the 60ft class into OMYA,' Fehlmann, third in the '89-90 race and line honours-winner in '85-86, said. The 60-footers would be able to join the OMYA television pool.

He denied he was leading a breakaway group to look after the interests of tobacco-sponsored boats, about whom the Whitbread committee is nervous. It believes that too much tobacco brand exposure could lead to television networks banning altogether coverage of the race. 'We will act for everyone,' Fehlmann said. He was critical of the Whitbread organisation for saying after the last race that no new tobacco sponsors would be allowed and then welcoming Dennis Conner's 60-footer, Winston (an R J Reynolds brand), last month.

But the disaffection goes further back. 'It is difficult to have positive contacts with Whitbread,' Fehlmann said. 'Sometimes we call them, but we are the sailors, they are the race organisers, and they don't necessarily take on our ideas. When they do, it's because it's the only solution.

'This is race organisation power against player power. We have to stick together as long as the Whitbread committee continues to think they are sailing the race. We are not very happy, we want more dialogue.'