As the leading quartet in the Rolex Fastnet streaked westwards towards the Needles and the English Channel yesterday (12 August), the Solent was already kicking up rough

John Kostecki gave all his rivals a lesson in how to catapult off the start line in the Rolex Fastnet Race off Cowes yesterday. As the cannon bellowed smoke from the Royal Yacht Squadron to send the first of seven divisions on their way, the Olympic silver medallist was determined to make every second count and grab every yard of advantage in his VO60, illbruck. While the three other VO60s made a conventional run towards the Isle of Wight shore on the starboard tack, which gives them right of way, Kostecki made a flying attack on port tack and crossed all of them safely. That left Roy Heiner on Assa Abloy, Jez Fanstone on News Corp and Gunnar Krantz on SEB gasping, but there was plenty to keep everyone else on their toes.

As the leading quartet in the Rolex Fastnet streaked westwards towards the Needles and the English Channel, the Solent was already kicking up rough. The south-westerly wind was gusting between 20 and 23 knots and, as the tide turned into it, there were more and more white tops to the building waves.

The multihulls were coping well as Emma Richards in the 60-foot trimaran Pindar timed her run perfectly to power away, one hull flying well clear, from her principle rival, Francis Joyon in Eure et Loire, only to see the Frenchman, aided by double Olympic Gold and Silver medallist Rodney Pattisson overtake them. But there were problems for some of the smaller boats.

Collisions at or just after the start led to some early retirements among the cruiser and club classes which form the bulk of the 233-boat fleet. Many too, failed to note that they had to pass outside the yellow Alpha buoy on the island side. A jury penalty awaits them in Plymouth.

By the time the big boats were called up for their starts, conditions were very murky. But Britain’s Olympic gold medallist Iain Percy was able to outdo even Kostecki as he also came in from the left in the 52-foot Australian-owned Loco. He crossed all the boats above him to give the crew a big morale-booster.

The two biggest yachts in the fleet at 90 feet, were quickly locked in battle as Mike Slade’s Leopard and Giovanni Agnelli’s Stealth, with Whitbread veteran Paul Standbridge calling the shots, matched each other tack for tack. But, in problems of their own, was the crew of the 79-foot Nicorette, with another Olympic gold medallist, Shirley Robertson, on the helm. They broke a batten in the mainsail and he crew was feverishly attacking the problem with hacksaws as she started well and under sail jib only. The breakage was fixed within half and hour, the mainsail re-hoisted and skipper, Ludde Ingvall reported they were going “like a bat out of hell”. Skies had been grey and the breeze threatening as the crews spent the last morning checking the yachts, holding last-minute briefings, and eating a final, civilised lunch ashore. By early afternoon, still with hours to their starts, they then moved on to their yachts and left their moorings early, not least to demonstrate to the Royal Ocean Racing Club organisers their storm sails and that they were all wearing lifejackets.

The fastest may be crossing the finishing line by Tuesday night, perhaps even earlier for the first multihulls like the two 60-foot trimarans. But the majority face a three or four-day challenge. Some of the smaller boats could take much longer, especially if the winds become light as a high pressure system pushed in from the south.