Maguire set to join Smith's W60 in round the world race

 

AS the London Boat Show opens its doors at Earl's Court this week, the first display to greet visitors will be of particular interest to Irish sailors on their annual off season pilgrimage. A multi million pound sponsorship for British professional Lawrie Smith for this year's Whitbread Race should see Ireland's Gordon Maguire signed up as watch leader and right hand man to the race veteran and Olympic silver medallist.

A long awaited press announcement just before Christmas confirmed that the Gallaher tobacco company would sponsor a fully funded Whitbread 60 footer campaign under the Silk Cut brand, bringing the current predicted fleet numbers to 13 new boats plus a further three second hand boats currently in use by syndicates in training. Numerous rumours abound of other campaigns but organisers appear to be preparing for a smaller entry that the 20 plus target spoken about after the last race ended in June 1994.

The latest entry comes at a time - when the fortunes for offshore and ocean racing in Britain appear to be on a up turn: a strong Admiral's Cup team was announced in the autumn and Smith's campaign will be the first serious contender from the home of the round the world race since the 1989/90 race that saw the largest turnout, including NCB Ireland in the 23 boat fleet.

That race also saw a late entry and boat building programme by Smith but the advantage of an established W60 class should minimise problems this time, especially as his amicable transfer with Maguire from the Swedish EF Team allows for continued training with their two old boats, EF Language and EF Education, whose all male and all female crews expect to be racing new craft from May onwards.

While Smith has three round the world races under his belt, his new crew line up is not short on ocean experience either. A mixture of past course knowledge and racing pedigree is the hallmark of the initial crew announcements.

And the sponsor's interest in the Irish market may yet see another appointment from this country.

Maguire will be remembered for his own mid race transfer from NCB Ireland to Smith's Rothmans in 1989 during the Uruguayan stop over, soon after the Irish maxi's lack of speed became apparent and later finished 11th while the Howth sailor ended a close third on his new boat behind Pierre Fehlman's Merit Cup and Peter Blake's Steinlager II.

The last event saw Maguire graduate further up the ranks of professional sailing when Dennis Conner and de facto skipper Brad Butterworth appointed him watch leader on board the 60 footer Winston sailing under the stars and stripes.

The natural progression seemed to point towards his own boat for the 1997/98 race but a long sponsorship hunt bore little fruit for an event that is proving increasingly attractive for the heavy hitters of world yacht racing.

While the presence of at least three boats from the United States, together with two stopover ports, has secured the Whitbread's reputation and led to credible television contracts, the timing of the 31,600 mile race has led to numerous America's Cup sailors adopting the event as part of their work up programmes. The recent 12 month postponement and subsequent receivership of a rival round the world race for one design maxis has significantly boosted confidence.

The race now counts such serious contenders as New Zealander Chris Dickson teaming up with former arch rival Conner for one of the US entries. Another is Kiwi Grant Dalton, winner of the maxi division in 93/94 and joined by Italian Guido Maisto of Brooksfield fame for bringing his boat and crew back from the icy wastes of the southern ocean last time.

But in a curious twist of irony, the EF Team's willingness to part with two valuable assets less than 10 months before the race start is explained by another pre Christmas announcement: America's Cup skipper Paul Cayard is to be Smith's successor, paving the way for a joint development programme.

Meanwhile, visitors to the boat show over the coming eight days can view the cramped conditions of a 93/94 race veteran W60 at the main Warwick Road entrance. The seventh round the world race starts from Southampton on September 21st.