Serious world of Witty

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The Independent Online
This weekend Chris Witty flies to New Zealand, the modern-day home of the America's Cup. For him it is the first tangible step on a crusade that he believes will culminate in the year 2000 with a serious British assault on a trophy that left these shores at the first attempt in 1851 and has never really looked like returning since.

While British yachtsmen have been keen and loyal competitors down the ages of America's Cup history, recent challenges have been notable more for their flamboyant leading figures than their competitive prowess. This time, if Witty, the commercial director of the Royal Dorset Yacht Club's America's Cup syndicate, has his way, things will be different. "We're not looking for a Koch, a Gardini or a De Savary or for $50-100m," says the man whose experience of sailing and the America's Cup was garnered at the side of Richard Branson when the Virgin boss was considering backing a challenge in 1987. "We want to run a lean and mean effort where the goal is not to milk sponsors but to win the America's Cup. Nobody will be making the big bucks this time around. The pay-off, if and when it comes, will be from winning the Cup and hosting it back here in Britain."

This financial lesson is one learned from Peter Blake and Team New Zealand. In contrast to the big money that the likes of Paul Cayard and other hired assassins have made out of the cup, the members of the successful 1995 Team New Zealand campaign went to work each day on an unremarkable daily wage. Now that the cup is in New Zealand some of them at least are reaping the rewards of their previous dedication.

And so it is that Witty and his team are seeking pounds 10-pounds 15m to mount a serious British challenge. At present their fund-raising efforts are themselves supported by a number of wealthy philanthropists keen to see their efforts succeed. That support includes sending a crew to New Zealand to race a regatta which albeit of little relevance to the America's Cup three years away, is of vital importance in re-establishing Britain on an America's Cup stage departed quietly after Graham Walker's White Crusader campaign in Perth almost exactly 10 years ago.

Leading the crew as skipper is the mercurial Chris Law. Law steered White Crusader in Perth and is at present seventh in the world match-race rankings having won the most recent international regatta on the circuit in Perth in February. He is the only sailor in Britain with any experience at the helm of an America's Cup class boat during a race but his future is anything but secure. "Chris is on a one-race deal," says Witty. "That doesn't preclude his involvement in the future but we felt we must keep our options open at this stage."

Those options will undoubtedly include Lawrie Smith. Smith it was who was earmarked to skipper the Virgin boat had Branson entered the game. Smith it is who has seconded two of his sailors to the British crew on a brief sabbatical from the Silk Cut Whitbread campaign. You would bet good money on Smith, while not able to become involved at this stage due to commitments to the Whitbread, being involved in some way once the fund- raising activity gives way to designing, building and sailing America's Cup boats.

But all that is some way off. In the short term the goal is Auckland in April. There the British crew will compete in an informal round of America's Cup-style races against three other challengers. They hope the week of racing against the New York Yacht Club, the San Francisco Yacht Club and the French Societe Nautique Grau du Rois will culminate in a crack at Team New Zealand in a best-of-seven final. And when it comes to that, at this moment in time there is no one better to command the British boat than Law who steered Syd Fischer's Sydney '95 in San Diego until he was summarily dismissed by the enigmatic Fischer. Law can reasonably expect to win the four-way contest to meet the New Zealanders but after that he won't be heartened much by the knowledge that Ed Baird, skipper of the New York Yacht Club challenge, a contemporary of Law's and himself a top match racer, was trounced four-nil by Russell Coutts and Team New Zealand in the same boats and on the same waters just last week.

But if Law and Britain do actually get to meet skipper Coutts and his crew they will not be too worried by the eventual score, because at this stage just to be able to compete is the main goal. After that it's back to Witty to raise the money and deliver the British team an efficient operation with two boats and the resources to begin to realise the potential that for so long has lain enforcedly dormant.

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