Sometimes it is the smallest things that can spoil the most ambitious plans, and today it was a broken halyard sheave that forced series leader Idea SAI out of the offshore race of the Giraglia Rolex Cup.
Tommaso CHIEFFI, the tactician aboard the blue Italian Maxi, explained: "We heard a huge bang and the genoa fell down half a metre. We immediately changed the genoa on to the other halyard, but when the mastman went up the mast he discovered that the broken sheave had caused damage to the other halyard sheave as well. We would have been unable to hoist any spinnakers, so we made the decision to retire."
Just an hour and half earlier as the massed fleet of 186 yachts started from the St-Tropez line in idyllic conditions, Idea SAI was doing everything to justify her billing as pre-race favourite. She made a bold move for the pin end of the line and won the start, tacking and crossing the fleet less than a minute after the gun had fired. Everything was looking good for winning the 243-mile race to Genoa on corrected time. "We were leading the pack of Maxis, with the exception of Alfa Romeo, and so we were going well,"
Raffaele RAIOLA'S elegant Maxi had also been looking good for winning the overall series, as she was on top of the leaderboard this morning, having been the most consistent performer over the past three days of inshore racing in the Gulf of St-Tropez.
But the demise of Idea SAI should make Neville CRICHTON'S job easier, as he attempts to steer his 90-foot Maxi Alfa Romeo to a line honours victory in Genoa tomorrow. Although on paper the water-ballasted Maxi from New Zealand is the faster ship, Idea has proven a real threat in sub-6 knot conditions when Alfa Romeo is unable to make her water ballast advantage pay.
However, the moderate breeze at the race start was sufficient to launch Alfa Romeo into an early and very comfortable lead. Whether it is enough for Crichton and his Kiwi/Aussie crew to threaten their course record of 22h 13' 48", set in windy conditions last year, they will have to wait and see. This morning Crichton had written off all hope of that happening.
"We know the record is gone, our forecasters have predicted light winds for the race,"
said the owner/driver. "But we've got our focus on getting line honours for Alfa Romeo."
So keen was he to maximise his chances in the long race, he took on some specialist lightwind sails including an upwind Code 0 sail. "We had to get ourselves a new rating, which means we've disqualified ourselves from the last three days of racing. But we think it's a sacrifice worth making."
Despite the shock retirement of Idea SAI, Crichton knows line honours remains far from guaranteed. He fears the downwind pace of the lightweight Maxi sisterships, Nokia Enigma and Black Dragon. It was Nokia Enigma that led the first half of the race to the Giraglia Rock last year, as she power reached at speeds of up to 18 knots.
Lisa MCDONALD, the skipper of the all-female crew in the last Volvo Ocean Race, flew in yesterday to add further strength to the experienced British crew on Nokia Enigma. For her the chance to get out on the water is a welcome break from her recent months spent in boardroom negotiations for the next Volvo Ocean Race. "I'm not used to spending so much time indoors, so I'm looking forward to getting back up to speed with the crew,"
she said. McDonald was on board Charles DUNSTONE'S Maxi when she finished second on corrected time in last year's race to Genoa. Corrected time winner in 2003 was Alberto ROEMMERS' Alexia, who returns to defend her title with a new owner - Massimo DE LUCA - and a new name - Damiani Ourdream.
The greatest threat to Maxi domination of the race comes from Near Miss, the Grand Soleil 42 which has already won two of the three inshore races in St-Tropez. Idea SAI's navigator Silvio ARRIVABENE said: "I was looking at our relative ratings on the IMS system, and I saw that we would have to beat Near Miss to Genoa by 11 hours. I don't know if we could have done that."
Much depends on how the winds behave around the Giraglia Rock, off the northern tip of Corsica. They can be notoriously fickle and are known to reshuffle the fleet terribly. Perhaps this is why Thierry PEPONNET was keen to dispel any notion of Near Miss winning the race. "I don't have a good feeling about this long race, I don't know why. I think it will be a big boat race."
We now know that it won't be Idea's race, nor Blu Magic's race. Giovanni CARNELUTTO'S 35-foot JNP999 yacht was sailing close hauled on starboard when a larger yacht on port tack collided with her and brought Blu Magic's mast tumbling down in two pieces. She completed less than an hour of the race. Sailing can be a cruel sport.
Now in its 52nd year, the Giraglia Rolex Cup is established as one of the classic regattas of the Mediterranean. The regatta has been sponsored by Rolex for the past seven years, with BMW and San Pellegrino as co-sponsors. The Giraglia Rolex Cup 2004 is the largest yet, with 186 teams from 15 countries, and more than 20 yachts competing in the spectacular Maxi division. The regatta reaches its climax with the 243-mile offshore race from St-Tropez in France to Genoa in Italy, via the ancient Giraglia Rock a few miles from the northern tip of Corsica.