If you don't have a national title to your name then you will rank among the 'nobodies'

It will undoubtedly be the strongest fleet assembled on UK waters outside of the Admiral's Cup or the Whitbread Round the World Race in the last five years, and certainly the largest single sailing event of its kind this year.

The Melges 24 class, a new breed of fast, lightweight four or five person keelboat, successfully bridged the gap between the world of high performance dinghy sailing and big boat offshore and inshore racing, reduced spiralling costs of running these bigger boats, and immediately offered fast and furious competition in virtually identical boats.

On Tuesday the first races for the inaugural International Melges 24 World Championships answer the start guns at the 1948 Olympic sailing venue of Torbay, in the heart of Devon's English Riviera, with a remarkable fleet of 95 boats from 14 different countries scheduled to compete.

It is a fleet where if you don't at least have a national championship title to your name then you will rank among the ''nobodies''.

At least five different Olympic medallists will be competing, several sailors ranked near the top of the International Sailing Federation's lists, and of course most of the top names in the Melges class, who have become well established over the five years since the class was first conceived by America's Cup winning helmsman Buddy Melges, the American who lends his name to the boat, and designed by the US Reichel/Pugh partnership.

The class has spread like wildfire through Europe, with 30 boats sold to France in the last 18 months. They expect to have a fleet 100 strong there by the end of next year. Scandinavia, and especially Norway, has taken the class to its heart and there will be 13 Norwegian Melges competing and 15 French boats. Among the better Norwegians is 1996 Olympic Laser class bronze medallist Peer Moberg, and top Soling sailor Herman Johannessen. The French have Benoit Charon, a J24 European champion sailing McDonalds and the ubiquitous former French Olympian Henri Samuel (who owns the H Samuel jewellery chain of 700 shops and threw a party for the class at his castle near the Spi Ouest regatta in the Spring) and a great depth of talent.

From Estonia, Tonu Toniste won a silver medal in the 1988 Olympics in the 470 class and then a bronze in 1992 in Barcelona. That they have developed in the Melges in relative isolation makes little difference and they are expected to be well to the fore.

Ironically the home of the class, the USA, has yielded only five entries but include Harry Melges, the designer's son who teams with twice American Gold Cup champions Brian Porter. A 'works' team from North Sails USA is led by former Star champion Vince Brun partnered by British Olympic Silver medallist Ian Walker and Simon Fry - both from North Sails.

Prior to a road accident which claimed the life of Walker's silver medal winning partner John Merricks which curtailed last year's Melges European Champion-ships, in just under a year they had established themselves as a force to be reckoned with in the class and lead the Europeans. Walker has done little in the class since, but has been campaigning in the 49er, the new Olympic dinghy class, and he will be as sharp a contender as ever.

Hopes are high of a British victory, indeed a Scottish win, despite the class having dwindled on Scottish waters.

Kevin Sproul, 35, a former 470 Olympic campaigner, who originates from Brightons just outside Falkirk, won the European Cup circuit last year with victories in Cowes, the Scandinavian Cup, second place at Kiel Week and a fourth at the Europeans in Punta Ale, Italy. Their victory gave them a place at the American Key West regatta last January to represent Europe, and they led there until being disqualified for a premature start. All races counted and they finished eleventh.

In a class where boat handling and the use of the massive asymmetric spinnaker must be to best effect all the time, Sproul has built a very strong crew. Edinburgh's Hamish Calder was tune-up partner to Paul Brotherton's 470 Olympic slot in 1992 in Barcelona and this year has already combined with Sproul to lead a crew to win the Mumm 30 European Championships at Punta Ale against the cream of Italy's America's Cup sailors including Thomasso and Enrico Chieffi. Duncan Macdonald may be a full-time consultant paediatric anaesthetist, but he is one of the country's top International 14 sailors. Partnering brother Neal in 1991, their last visit to Torbay won them the International 14 World Championships. Jerry Epplett, another top International 14 crew who made his name on the Ultra 30 circuit as bowman on DBS, and Pete Selby make up a team with a strong chance of winning.

''We have always had better speed than most people, and I think that continues to be the case. We are a crew which really moulds together and gets on. What is important is that I know I can totally rely on them when we get right in among the close action stuff. It's a real synthesis of different talents,'' explains Sproul who sails professionally for Hyde Sails.

While Sproul won the European circuit last year, he won the only event they sailed at this year, at Spi Ouest in France. Italian Olympic gold medallist Georgio Zuccoli has won it twice and will head the European challenge in Torbay.

Dalmally hotelier Ian Cleaver leads the home-based Scottish challenge in Highland Heritage. They posted two top-five results at last year's Europeans and lay sixteenth when the regatta was abandoned. ''This will be far and away the highest standard of fleet we've raced at and will be delighted to make the top third of the fleet,'' comments Cleaver.

With two races a day, on short upwind-downwind loops, race management will have to be first class, and already controversy simmers. The aggregate weight of the crew is limited to 360 kilos (a few kilos of body weight hanging off the edge of the boat to lever it more upright adds speed), while in the USA this figure is 340kg. The Americans have accepted the European figure but may protest.