David Glenn joined the crowds thronging the banks of the River Itchen to watch the world's largest sloop Mirabella V emerge from VT's Woolston yard, the last yacht to launch from this famous ship-building site

The much awaited and considerably delayed launch of Joe Vittoria’s 247ft (75.20m), £30 million, Mirabella V, the world’s largest sloop, took place at the VT shipyard at Woolston in Southampton today in front of hundreds of people lining the banks of the River Itchen.

Due down the ways at 1200 GMT after Vittoria’s wife Luciana had released the traditional bottle of christening champagne, the 500-ton composite hull, minus its 150-ton lifting keel, had to be given a nudge with a hydraulic ram to set it off along its greased wooden slipways.

Mirabella V should have been launched some six months ago and the tallow that had been put in place between the runway and the wooden cradle, in which the yacht sat, had hardened over time causing a 15-minute delay.

The event was historic in more ways than one. Not only is Mirabella V the largest sloop in the world but it is the last vessel ever to be launched at VT’s Woolston yard which has been sold and will shortly be demolished. According to VT’s press officer Phil Rood more than 600 ships have been launched from this site in the company’s 100 years history. “It seems fitting that the last vessel to go down the ways is the biggest of her type. It’s an historic moment.”

As we stood watching and waiting for the massive hull to slide into a sun-bathed Itchen River following a night of storms, a great cheer from the 250 VT ship workers and Joe Vittoria’s guests signalled the moment had arrived and the gleaming, white painted hull slid effortlessly towards us. Her broad stern created more of a wave than a splash but the precision operation went smoothly with only inches to spare either side of the hull. Divers were sent down to remove the cradle still attached to the hull and then Mirabella was shepherded alongside a nearby wharf by tugs.

Mirabella V will be towed to Portsmouth on Sunday 30 November where she will be moored alongside in the Naval dockyard to have the steel fin of her lifting keel lowered into its casing through an opening in the deck. She will then be floated into a flooded dry dock on the floor of which will be the bulb of the 150-ton keel. The dock will then be drained, the steel encapsulated bulb offered up to the fin and the two sections welded together. If observers think the hull of this extraordinary yacht is impressive, wait until they see the mast. The 285ft (87m) carbon fibre tube is still in the Porchester yard of Halmatic (owned by VT) where is was constructed but it will shortly be taken on a barge to Empress dock in Southampton where it will take a team of riggers two weeks to dress it during December. The standing rod rigging from Ocean Yacht Services, weighs 15 tonnes alone and each Bamar furler for the headsails more than 3.5 tons each. As John Channon of Bamar said: “Every job needed to dress the mast will take a team!” The plan is to step the mast between Christmas and the New Year. Nobody can be quite sure when the first sailing trials will take place but the most optimistic prediction is late January 2004. Certainly by February or March Mirabella V will be preparing for her first outing and Yachting World and yachtingworld.com will be there to record yet another remarkable moment in sailing history.

Mirabella V is owned by Joe Vittoria who sold the car rental company Avis Inc in 1987 after becoming chairman and CEO. Together with Mirabella C and Mirabella 111C, both sailing yachts of more than 130ft (40m), he will charter Mirabella V to a maximum of 12 guests who will pay US$250,000 a week for the yacht. Mirabella V’s first charter obligation will be the Cannes film festival in May and next winter she will head for the Caribbean.