British skipper Alex Thomson leads off start line in Velux 5 Oceans Race which started today 22/10/06

The first leg of the Velux 5 Oceans race kicked off today in Bilbao, Spain, a 12,000 nautical mile trip through the remote Southern Ocean to Fremantle, Australia.

Labelled the ultimate solo challenge, the round the world yacht race will take eight international skippers across the world’s most hostile oceans, onboard ultra-light Open 60 yachts which reach extraordinary speeds. The youngest sailor on the start line today was 32-year-old Alex Thomson from Britain who led the fleet out of the Bay of Biscay on his striking black boat Hugo Boss, while the oldest was 67-year-old Sir Robin Knox-Johnston (GBR).

A stylish departure by Hugo Boss skipper Alex Thomson, gave brief respite from the tense atmosphere in the race village as friends and families bid an emotional farewell to loved ones at the dock. Whilst his fellow competitors departed in traditional sailing gear, Thomson was sporting a slick black Hugo Boss suit and shades, as Spanish models escorted him to his yacht, to the sound of Rolling Stones tune ‘Paint it Black’.

The race started at 1300 local time in 18-20 knots of southerly breeze. Thomson executed a first class start and led the fleet to a rounding mark before heading out of the Bay of Biscay on the start of his 45-50 day journey. The first few days, particularly once the boats are heading south having rounded Cape Finisterre, look set to be brutal, and skippers can expect to have an bone-shaker ride, crashing upwind with over 35 knots for several days.

Thomson, who is competing in the first of three round the world yacht races in the next three years, will be particularly wary of the brisk conditions. His ‘maverick’ character manifests itself in his style of sailing – he holds the 24-hour solo monohull World Speed Record and is renowned for pushing his boat to the limit. However, a boat failure forced Hugo Boss to retire from the last Vendée Globe and Thomson’s main priority is to complete this solo circumnavigation. “This race is part of a long term project for me building up to the next Vendée Globe,” says the British sailor. “My first goal is to finish the Velux 5 Oceans, my second is to learn from it, and my third is to be competitive.”

The leg from Bilbao, includes extended time below Latitude 40° South in the ‘Roaring Forties’ and ‘Furious Fifties’. From Cape Finistère the fleet will sail down the Portuguese coast and on through the Doldrums, across the Equator, on south then east into the remote freezing wastes of the Southern Ocean. The first yachts are expected to arrive in Fremantle, near Perth, West Australia sometime after 6 December.