ICAP Maximus's great rival for line honours, the newly refurbished Skandia Wild Thing, was two minutes late for the start at the windward end of the long start line, over by the mainland shore at Calshot. Her participation in the race had been cast into severe doubt just hours before, when a routine check of the rig revealed serious damage to the top of the mast. The crew made a makeshift repair to the mast using carbon and epoxy, and a crewman was still perched aloft just minutes before the start, using a hot air gun to dry the hardening epoxy as much as possible.
Despite Skandia's late start, owner Grant WHARINGTON soon found good pressure on the mainland shore and was eating into ICAP Maximus's lead. At least ICAP Maximus, owned by Charles St Clair BROWN and Bill BUCKLEY, had made ground towards the mainland side of the Solent. Others that held the island shore, such as Patches and the Maxi yacht Leopard of London, found themselves increasingly stranded in fickle winds. Every so often, a zephyr of breeze would offer them some hope of redemption, but ultimately the breeze was more reliable to windward.
The Volvo Open 70 MoviStar held a high line along the shore by Lymington and hit 14 knots boatspeed as the wind puffed up to ten knots on the beam. She started to make big inroads into ICAP Maximus's lead as the yachts approached Hurst Castle at the western end of the Solent. Skandia Wild Thing was also making back ground on the leaders until her gennaker broke. She was forced to sail bareheaded until the crew could put up a replacement. Things really are not going her way so far.
With the fleet sent off in staggered starts, the bigger yachts had just about caught the leading cruiser/racers of IRC divisions two and three by the time they passed the Needles. It was here that the breeze difference between the island and the mainland shores was at its greatest. The obstruction of the Shingles Bank created a fork in the road as the fleet poured out of Hurst Straits into Christchurch Bay. What the sailors would have given for a bird's eye view at this point, because it soon became apparent that the mainland shore was definitely the place to aim for now. Two foreign entries made the most of this advantage, Harry HEIJST's Dutch S&S41 Winsome stealing a march on her rivals, along with Night & Day, a French J/105 skippered by Pascal LOISON. These two were the first yachts past the Needles.
Meanwhile, Aera had dug herself out of her windless hole at the start and having sailed up behind her competitors to the mainland shore, emerged into Christchurch Bay over a mile ahead of Patches. It was a remarkable turnaround of fortune between these co-favourites for IRC handicap victory. Having stayed close to the island shore all the way along the Solent, Patches and Leopard were committed to passing to the south of the Shingles, drifting close by the Needles. While the likes of Aera and the others that aimed to the north of the Shingles were sliding along in a healthy force two, the glassy water by the Needles signified a complete disappearance of breeze for Patches and those around her. After a great start, the early miles of this race have not been kind to the much fancied Irish boat.
Further back was the 14 strong Open 60 fleet, with Mike SANDERSON (NZL) helming Pindar into a useful lead over Roland JOURDAIN's (FRA) Sill as they sailed past the Needles. Another half mile behind, Skandia, Ecover and Hugh Boss were in a closer battle for third.
Mike BROUGHTON, a long time competitor in the Fastnet as a navigator, is this time sitting ashore and watching the weather closely. He is standing by Saturday's prediction of a very slow race. 'The first few boats might just make it past Portland this evening before the tide turns against them,' he said. But it will be a close run thing, even for yachts as fast as the 100 foot canting keel Maxis or the VO70. 'The wind is blowing six knots from the southwest at Portland, and they have positive current only until 1900.' If the leaders can break through this tidal gate before it shuts, they will gain a substantial advantage over the rest of the fleet.
The Rolex Fastnet Race entails 608 miles of racing from Cowes to Plymouth, via the Fastnet Rock off the southern tip of Ireland. In addition to the two main prizes - the Fastnet Challenge Cup and the Fastnet Rock Trophy, there are more than 30 trophies to be awarded at the conclusion of this year's race. The prizegiving will take place at the Royal Citadel, home of 29 Commando Regiment Royal Artillery, in Plymouth on Friday 12 August.