Thirty knot winds hit the the Round Britain fleet as they crossed the startline yesterday

Yesterday saw the spectacular start of the Round Britain Challenge. After weeks of intense preparation, in mostly glorious spring conditions, the weather that greeted everyone for the start was a shock to the system.

The sky was overcast, the winds had intensified to around 30 knots, moved around to the north-east and temperatures had plummeted. It seemed that the event was going to live up to its fearsome reputation. However, the weather did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm, commitment and emotions riding high first thing in Ocean Village as the yachts departed one by one, supported by hundreds of family and friends who had travelled from all over the country to bid farewell to loved ones.

Off Cowes, the yachts and the spectator fleet were greeted to almost gale force conditions. The last time a Challenge event started in similar conditions was during the 1996/7 BT Global Challenge – but this time the start would be a tricky downwind one. But for many of the crew, this was why they embarked on such an adventure – a test of their mental and physical stamina on one of the most challenging yacht racing courses in the world. By the time the Challenge fleet started their pre-start manoeuvres, many of other races in the Solent had already been cancelled as a result of the rough conditions.

And at precisely 1300 local time, the start gun sounded off the Royal Yacht Squadron at Cowes. All the yachts got off cleanly with Vail Williams leading the fleet in the early stages just ahead of BG Group and Spirit of Southampton. With the tide not turning for another hour, the favoured position was close to the Island shore. Spirit of Southampton exploited this opportunity and took an early lead.

The sail configurations of the fleet were in two camps – some choosing to stick to headsails whereas others (Vail Williams, The Daily Telegraph, Spirit of Hong Kong and Team Spirit) chose to hoist their heavy weight spinnakers. The impact of the kites had an instant impact as the fleet stormed towards the Western Solent and those with kites began to see an advantage. However the advantage for some was short-lived. With less than 30 minutes of the two week race complete, Vail Williams got into difficulty with their kite, broached and then blew the kite. It is believed they also incurred damage to their spinnaker pole.

Team Spirit was to suffer a similar fate moments later when they also broached but without damage to their kite. Each yacht carries three spinnakers on board, one heavy weight and two medium weight, but with the class rules banning the use of sewing machines, all sail repairs have to be done by hand. Meanwhile at the front of the fleet, Spirit of Southampton, LogicaCMG and BG Group led the fleet out through the Hurst narrows at the western end of the Solent. They were followed out by Team Spirit, Spirit of Hong Kong and The Daily Telegraph. Spirit of Hong Kong were to suffer a similar fate of Vail Williams, blowing their kite as they passed the spectator crowd along Hurst castle. Vail Williams was the last yacht out of the Solent.

By the time the fleet had reached the Needles, the conditions had begun to improve with flatter water and the wind speed reduced to around 15-20 knots. Soon after the Needles, the first tactical move was being made – while the rest of the fleet hugged the coastline, Team Spirit had taken the most southerly position. Only time will tell whether any advantage will be gained. As the fleet head towards the Scilly Isles, the crews on-board will have begun to move into their watch systems (typically six hours on, six hours off during the day and then fours hours on, four hours off at night). However, there is no let up, these teams will be racing intensively 24 hours a day for the next 10/14 days trimming sails day and night, downloading weather faxes and sailing hard and fast to gain any advantage. With the yachts being one-design, their triumphant return to the Solent is likely to be close.