Why Britain could take on Conner

The chief of the New Zealand challenger has a recipe for America's Cup success. Stuart Alexander reports from San Diego
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The Independent Online
Can Britain win the America's Cup? Do it the right way and the answer is an unequivocal "yes", according to Peter Blake, who tomorrow squares up as chief of the New Zealand challenge to the United States and Dennis Conner. But if British yacht racing carries on as normal the answer is "highly unlikely".

The last time Britain challenged, in the 1986 Fremantle spectacular, was the first time New Zealand had challenged. The Kiwis reached the Louis Vuitton Cup final, also against Conner, but the British Crusader attempt failed even to make the semi-finals.

The 1988 America's Cup, which took place in New Zealand after Michael Fay's challenge, was a court-riddled mega-yacht versus catamaran mismatch that the Kiwis eventually lost to Conner. They then reached the Luuis Vuitton final of 1992, in which they were beaten by the Italians, skippered by Paul Cayard, who is now with Conner, and in 1995 they won the sole right to challenge. Not bad for a country of 3.5 million people, who have some pretty special yachting and yacht-building talent.

Blake, who lives in Emsworth on the south coast, makes one preliminary proviso. First he thinks Britain should wait to see if his team can win it and take the cup to Auckland. If not, he says, do not bother. The Kiwis will produce fair rules and an open competition. If the Americans win, he believes they will continue to twist the rules and that will put a lot of people off.

The next task would be to put the right mix of people together, people who are genuinely concerned with giving their life and soul to winning the event, "not because it is a marvellous way to make a living".

"Many of Britain's problems can be caused by not having good chemistry in their camp," he says. "Sometimes there is conflict over who can stick their faces in front of a television camera. And you have seen some campaigns brought down because someone who is not involved gets jealous."

Having missed the last two cups, both of which have been in a new style of 75ft yacht, Britain would need to import some talent. So a strong manager should be appointed to buy in some of the talent from a winning America's Cup campaign first.

"Then the important thing is that you need to listen to them. And the design team needs to listen to the sailors. They are the customers, they know what they want from a boat.

"Then you need a mix of flair and computer technology. We have a great partnership in Laurie Davidson and the American Doug Peterson, who had been in a cup-winning syndicate. But don't forget our third man is David Alan-Williams, an Englishman. He knows what makes an America's Cup campaign tick."

Blake also acknowledges the strength that lies in Britain. "Does Britain have the technology? If New Zealand has then Britain certainly has." And his is not the only syndicate that uses British facilities, like the test tanks in Southampton and Portsmouth, and the wind tunnel on the west side of Southampton Water.

Does it need a big budget? "No. A big budget can do more harm than good, because ideas can be tested that would not be allocated budget by a leaner group." But how would it happen, unless a single backer with about £10- 12m came along?

"A sole sponsor obviously picks up a major return," Blake said. "But we have five, including a very important national TV station, and the returns can be staggering."

"All the expertise is there in Britain, it just has to be harnessed in the right kind of way," says Blake. His group, win or lose, has shown what a smoothly crafted, correctly focused, tight-knit group from a small country can do. Perhaps the answer lies not in Britain's yachting community, but among its businessmen.