Smith may lead British Whitbread challenge

Sailing

A multi-million pound British-based challenge for next September's Whitbread round-the-world race is expected to be announced within the next few days.

The tobacco company, Gallaher, is thought to be planning a project, costing at least pounds 5m, which could include the recruitment of the leading British skipper, Lawrie Smith. The boat would be called Silk Cut, which is one of the leading brands produced by Gallaher in the United Kingdom.

The deal would be an important boost to British sailing, which in recent years has struggled to find adequate financial support to fund entries in major international events such as the Whitbread and the America's Cup.

A major complication in the plan, however, is that Smith is already the skipper of an entry for next year's Whitbread. In June this year he signed a contract with EF, a Swedish company selling language and educational products around the world and which is investing pounds 10m in a two-boat entry for the 1997-98 race.

Gallaher wants to recruit Smith because it sees him as the best skipper in Britain. Smith is highly resp ected by his competitors and turned around the Intrum Justitia challenge in the last Whitbread. The negotiations with EF are understood to have centred on Gallaher buying into the Swedes' design and technology programme. EF has been using two 1993 boats, Intrum Justitia and Galicia, to choose crew and test sails. Masts and keels are a separate programme.

EF is also building two new, Bruce Farr-designed boats in Sweden, one for an all-male crew at present skippered by Smith, the other for an all- woman crew. It is understood that the Silk Cut yacht, also designed by Bruce Farr, is being built in Australia.

While EF does not want to lose Smith, who skippered Rothmans in 1989- 90 and another tobacco-sponsored yacht, Fortuna, in 1993-94 until it retired, the Swedes are likely to receive substantial compensation in return for releasing him from his contract.

If the deal goes ahead, Smith may bring some of EF's British crew with him. Only four weeks ago EF announced that four Britons, Gordon Maguire, Neal McDonald, Adrian Stead and Steve Hayles, had joined their team. Despite earlier claims that they had signed written contracts, it is now understood that they have only verbal agreements. Smith would almost certainly want to retain some of his core crew in the event of any move.

Signs that the rush is on to announce the Silk Cut entry in the race have been seen this week in Hamble. The 1993 Whitbread boat, Dolphin & Youth, which until recently had been the entry of the Sussex Challenge, is being painted there in Silk Cut colours. It is thought the yacht will be the centrepiece on the forecourt at Earls Court for the London Boat Show, which opens in four weeks' time.

Gallaher may even be preparing to announce plans to sponsor entries in the next two Whitbreads. As an existing sponsorship, this could circumvent any possible future legislation banning cigarette promotion.

EF, meanwhile, would have to move smartly to find a replacement for Smith. The Swedes spoke earlier this year to the 1993-94 race winner, the New Zealander Ross Field, about the possibility of his being skipper, but instead decided on the man who had been their No 1 choice throughout.

If Smith does leave, the favourite to replace him is the San Francisco- based America's Cup skipper, Paul Cayard. However, the Frenchman, Marc Pajot, could also figure, along with two or three others.

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