Thrills and spills on the Solent

Stuart Alexander joins the crew of Nicorette for yesterday's Britannia Cup, the highlight of Cowes Week
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The Independent Online
It might not have been the most animated of team talks in the locker-room before the race but then again when the captain is Finnish and the crew's chosen lingua franca is a mixture of Swedish, German, Afrikaans and English, purple prose might have been a bit too much to expect.

Ludde Ingvall, the skipper of Nicorette, geeing up his crew before yesterday's Britannia Cup race - the most important trophy on offer at Cowes Week - seemed content on muttering a low-key message about the "classic and historic" race, the need to "get away alive" at the start and then if we could just just be in front all would be fine and dandy.

The faces of the 20 crew ("No, make that 18," said New Zealander Jeff Scott, "we've got two Englishmen") were impassive but, worryingly, there was barely a murmur of reassurance as Ingvall asked if all the damage from Tuesday's hard race had been repaired.

It is a favourite maxim of the veteran America's Cup campaigner Dennis Conner, and many others, that to finish first you first have to finish, so making sure the gear will not let you down is a crew's prime concern.

Unfortunately, the first problem hit us even before we had reached the start of the race and immediately our chances of lifting the cup presented by King George VI in 1951, took a bit of a battering.

The idea was to take a look at a couple of the headsails most likely to be used in the fresh westerly breezes on the Solent.

With just half an hour before the 10.30 start, up went a smaller jib called the number four. Satisfied nods all round. It looked reasonable and was taken down to be repacked. After a slight delay, up went the larger number three. The musclemen leaned on the handles which turn the winches to pull it in tight and, easy as you like, out popped the head of the sail. Unfortunately, as it is meant to take a strain load of about 12 tonnes and with the sailmaker on board there was not a little embarrassment.

It was not possible to mend it, the time for the race start was looming, and Ingvall was left with the equivalent of a race car with no top gear. And all the time the brains department, led by Harry Cudmore, was debating what the wind would do... Swing to the right or left, or turn into something new if the land heated up under the sun... What is the tide doing? Where is the current strongest? And, by the way, can we have the number four back up on deck because we need to use it and in the next 10 minutes?

Once under way, the first leg of 30 minutes sees fortunes fluctuate between Nicorette, Grande Mistral - the near-identical water-ballasted, fearsomely powerful 80-footer entered by a mixture of the Russians and French - and the more conventional 84ft maxi, Mike Slade's Longobarda.

Going into the turn back downwind the pace hots up and, with the adrenalin surging, Nicorette first crossed Longobarda with less than five feet to spare, then in a nail-biting manoeuvre squeezed round ahead, and set off under a huge asymmetrical spinnaker.

Fortunately for your intrepid correspondent, the hard work was limited to a guest appearance on the winches for the mainsheet trimmer. Early on in the race I even managed some worthwhile pressure. Hanging on to the flying handles then became the major achievement.

"That was exciting," said Ingvall, probably referring to the tussle with Longobarda rather than my humble contribution.

As the atmosphere relaxed more people began to talk, different groups speaking in different languages. Two are joking in Afrikaans about the dubious heritage of the previous day's sandwiches.

As the race progresses a couple of sail-changes go wrong. "Same thing as yesterday," says Ingvall, "I don't know who is in charge". And going back up from Portsmouth to the finish at Cowes the opposition, especially the Russians, close in. The crew goes quiet, Harold Cudmore pronounces: "Our only hope is he goes aground on the way back out from the shore. Otherwise he has us."

It is a squeeze, but the Russian is beaten on the line as Nicorette claims 13th spot. Longobarda beats us both on handicap, and all three are hammered by the smaller yachts with even bigger handicap advantages.