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Alfa male: few have dominated the European grand prix yacht racing scene over the last few years as Neville Cichton with his 100-footer Alfa Romeo II. The Sydney-based Kiwi is bringing the boat bact to Australia to take on Wild Oats XI and potentially a wider fleet of 100-foot Maxis in the 2009 Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race.

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Sitting across a work cluttered desk in the corner office of his Ateco Motors headquarters on Parramatta Road, the blinds down on a sunny morning in Sydney, Neville Crichton is a long way from the glamour and success of the Mediterranean sailing scene, which has virtually been his second home for the last few years.

It's a busy morning at Ateco and there's a flurry of activity swirling around the office of the governing director. But Crichton has taken time out to talk yachting and his attention is undivided as we converse on what is clearly one of his favourite subjects and his true passion.

At times leaning forward and always fully engaged in the conversation, Crichton speaks with conviction and tenacity, traits that seem to permeate his business endeavours and yacht racing in equal measure.

Compared to the gaudy red interior of his famed Alfa Romeo grand prix racing yachts, with their cutting edge design inspired by the Italian sports cars from which they draw their name, Crichton's office in Homebush is a much more subdued and business-like work space. It's clear that Ateco is work, Alfa Romeo is play.

"Really my desire to go sailing has never changed, it's only that I've had to work in between to make a living, otherwise I'd be sailing all the time. I love sailing," he says.

Crichton's passion for yacht racing was instilled at an early age, but success on its present scale did not come until decades later in life and not before many distractions took him away from the sport.

Growing up in rural New Zealand, Crichton developed his love for sailing early in life, practising on a river running through the family farm. He moved into racing dinghies competitively from the age of 12.

"I was fortunate, I did well in dinghies. But when I left school I didn't have the time or the money to get into yachting really for another 20-odd years," he says.

At the age of 18 Crichton entered the world of motor sport, a passion which quickly absorbed more of his attention as his talents grew. As fiercely competitive behind the wheel as at the helm, the ambitious Kiwi moved into a career as a professional touring car driver during the 1980s, and sailing fell by the wayside.

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Today, Crichton's involvement in motor racing is only as a spectator at the odd F ] race, but he looks back on those years fondly and retains strong connections with the motor sport fraternity. Just as every sailor remembers their favourite yacht, Crichton vividly remembers his best drive.

"Probably the most enjoyable car, which I raced for two seasons, was the BMW 635 I drove for John Players. It was probably the most pleasant car I drove, it was an enjoyable team to drive for and Jim Richards was the number one driver clearly. In fact, out of all the driving I did I probably enjoyed that more than anything. I enjoyed long distance racing but that particular car was probably the most enjoyable car."

It was not until 1992 that Crichton returned to yacht racing. Having achieved success in his Ateco wholesale automotive group, which today imports Alfa Romeo, Citroen, Fiat, Ferrari, Maserati and GWM brands into Australia, he was able to re enter the world of yacht racing at a competitive level.

Success quickly followed with one of the most memorable wins in his yachting career - a world title in the Two Ton Cup in Hawaii that same year. Numbers in the series had dwindled due to the effects of the recession, but Crichton still rates it as one of his finest achievements in yacht racing and the one which gave him a taste for victory on a blue water racecourse.

"There were only 11 boats represented, but it was incredibly good racing and we were winning races only by seconds. That was the first world championships in yachting I had won, nice sailing and good guys we raced against."

After spending the past four years campaigning his yachts with great success in Europe, Crichton has now secured a reputation as one of the sport's most formidable competitors. It's been an incredible run for his Alfa Romeo yachts, starting with the 90-foot Alfa Romeo I, the 2002 Sydney Hobart line honours winner, which claimed what Rolex calls its 'grand slam', taking out the Garalgia race, the Fastnet, the Maxi Worlds, the Middle Sea race and the Barcolana race in a single season.

More recently, the 100-footer Alfa Romeo II has built a brilliant record claiming 141 line honours wins. The third in the Alfa Romeo series recently took to the water, a 69-footer, which will be a strong competitor under IRC rating in the Mini Maxi Class.

"We've had line honours every regatta we've sailed in. So it's been a pretty good record," he says.

"I like Europe, we're made to feel very, very welcome amongst all of the clubs and competitors. It's beautiful sailing, we come back in from sailing to beautiful resorts like San Tropez and Porto Cervo in Sardinia; we sail in some of the best places in the world and we're lucky."

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As we talk in his Homebush office, it's just weeks until the 103rd Transpac Race, one of the great ocean classics with a marathon racecourse traversing the Pacific from Los Angeles to Hawaii. Crichton is talking up Alfa's chances of not just taking out line honours but carving up the race record.

It's been 30 years since he last entered the Transpac race and although much has changed--the boats, the technology and the sheer speed of the fleet--Crichton's uncompromising desire to win remains constant.

"It's a major race and we've won every other major ocean race except the around the world race, because it's not my scene. So we thought we'd have a crack at it. It's like a last conquest," he says.

Few predicted the manner in which Alfa Romeo II and its all-star crew would deliver on the pre-race hype. Staying north of the rhumbline and catching favourable winds, the crew, which included Olympian Ben Ainslie and many other top names in ocean racing, sailed a perfect race, finishing in 5 days, 14 hours and 36 minutes and beating the previous race record by one day, one hour, 27 minutes and 51 seconds. Reaching speeds of up to 25 knots over the 2,225 nautical mile course, Alfa even came close to beating the multihull course record.

But while talk of "last conquests" may sound capitulatory, there remains unfinished business for Crichton and his 100-foot maxi. The boat will soon leave Hawaii and head for New Zealand before making the trip across the Tasman in time for the 2009 Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race to take on Wild Oats XI as it makes a bid for a fifth line honours win.

Comparisons between the two yachts are natural given their shared pedigree. Launched in mid-2005, the 100-foot Alfa Romeo II is a Reichel Pugh design built by McConaghy Boats in Sydney to replace the 90-footer. The state-of-the-art supermaxi's carbon fibre composite hull was fitted with a canting keel, a towering 44-metre high rig and power winches.

It's a virtual sister ship to Bob Oatley's canting keel 98-foot Reichel Pugh launched from McConaghy's just months later. (Wild Oats XI is currently being extended to take advantage of the new 100-foot LOA upper limit for the Rolex Sydney Hobart).

Starting with their duel down the Australian East Coast during the 2005 Sydney Hobart race, which resulted in a shock win for Oatley's brand new and virtually untested Wild Oats XI after Alfa Romeo II had the edge in their first six encounters during the lead up to the race south, the two supermaxis have provided one of the most compelling contests in yachting over the past few years.

"[The 2005 Rolex Sydney Hobart] was a good race, I don't think there's much between the two boats, you need a bit of luck each way and they were smarter, they went in and got the breeze and we went out and didn't get it."

Speaking with Crichton, you get the impression that beating Bob Oatley would bring some sense of personal satisfaction. Their longstanding rivalry is well known and neither shy away from adding fuel to the fire. This year's Rolex Sydney Hobart presents an opportunity to square the ledger, but he insists his campaign is not focussed on Wild Oats XI.

"We want to beat everyone, we don't go into any race to beat just one boat. That cost us a Farr 40 trophy by covering a boat in the last race and we took them out but took ourselves out of the regatta too and lost it on a countback," he says.

"I don't enjoy long ocean races, that's not me, I enjoy around the bouys where it's fierce. The Hobart, I can certainly do without going to Hobart. But the Hobart is an incredible race, it's one of the most famous races in the world and we have a boat which is capable of doing it, so we do it."

2009 is shaping up to be one of the most exciting Sydney Hobarts in recent memory with as many as five 100-foot supermaxis potentially lining up on the harbour on Boxing Day. Alfa Romeo II and Wild Oats XI may well be joined on the racecourse by other world class supermaxis including Mike Slade's ICAP Leopard from the UK, Grant Wharington's Skandia from Victoria and the New Zealand boat Maximus.

With its form coming into the race, Alfa Romeo II would have to be looking like a favourite, but Crichton doesn't discount the opposition.

"I think you might be surprised just how good Leopard is actually, and certainly if we get a heaW southerly (headwind) I think Leopard will probably have the advantage over both of us.

"If it's on the nose in the rough seas, their boat's 10 tonnes heavier than us, it's a big, heavy, beamy boat and they've done a lot of sailing in the last 12 months. They know the boat inside out and we won't have done quite as much competition as they have done."

Rumours also suggest the American supermaxi Speedboat, the most modern 100-footer in the fleet, may be considering making an appearance in the Rolex Sydney Hobart.

"Certainly if you are going for the record across the Atlantic then Speedboat is the one to do it in. Around the buoys, 1 think we'd kill it.

"We all know about Oatley, it's a copy of my boat and they sail it well. Richo does a bloody good deal with Oatley's boat, they've got big budgets to play with, it's a very good boat, they sail it well they've got good sailors, and they are always fantastic competitors. Everyone thinks we're arch enemies but we're not. Richo and I are good mates and he was at my house on Christmas Day for dinner, that's how well we know each other. But when we're on the race track we don't take any prisoners."
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Title Annotation:Skipper Profile
Author:Henry, Matthew
Publication:Offshore Yachting
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Aug 1, 2009
Words:1858
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