Tactical first day of racing in gusty conditions sees the cream of British sailing rise to the top of the fleets.

The first day of Skandia Cowes Week certainly blew some cobwebs out of the sailors’ systems with a healthy south-westerly force 4 gusting to 5 in the Western Solent helping to shuffle the fleets into an early pecking order. After a small delay to the starting sequence, Principal Race Officer Peter Bateson and Chief Race Officer Malcolm McKeag representing the First Triumvirate on behalf of the Royal Southampton Yacht Club, fired the canon of the Royal Yacht Squadron at 10.50am to start a record number of entries, at 1,036, for eight days of glorious Solent racing.

Some of the top names in British sailing were to be found out on the waters of the world’s largest regatta with the likes of Olympic medallists, Shirley Robertson, Ben Ainslie, Iain Percy and Nick Rogers joining Dame Ellen Macarthur and a stellar collection of past, and present World, European and National champions. The Duke of Edinburgh graced the Royal Yacht Squadron platform, surveying the action as it unfolded before commenting that “I never knew yacht racing could be such an exciting spectator sport!” Indeed, the thousands that lined the foreshore of Cowes and all along the Green, were treated to a superb spectacle as the record fleets were sent off on courses predominantly in the Western Solent.

Class Zero IRC, very much the glamour class of Skandia Cowes Week, were the first away off the outer Black Group starting line and an early marker of intent was posted by the TP 52Patchesowned by Irishman Eamon Conneely and steered by double-Olympic Gold medallist Shirley Robertson. As the timer ticked down, Robertson aggressively positioned her brand new charge down towards the inner distance Alpha buoy before smartly tacking onto the making port tack to steal a march on her rivals that included the 98ft Super-MaxiSkandia Wild Thingof Australian Grant Wharington and Nick Lykiardopulo’s all-conquering Ker 55Aera.Patcheswas the outstanding performer of the day, haring around the Western Solent course with Olympic Silver medallist Ian Walker calling the shots to finally record a resounding victory of over 3 minutes to scoop the premier piece of silverware for the day – the Queens Cup – awarded at the Skandia prize-giving by Dame Ellen MacArthur.

Shoreside spectators however were wowed by the sight of Wharington’s newly refurbishedSkandia Wild Thingthat recorded speeds of 21 knots downwind and even managed to complete the entire 30 mile course before the final class of the day, the XOD’s, got away for their start!

The first start of the day on the inshore White Group line saw some 65 gung-ho Laser SB3s vying for position on a very crowded line. Unsurprisingly the considerable jostling led to a large number being on course side (OCS) leaving the Race Officers with only one option – to call the first general recall of the regatta. Upon restarting cleanly with the last of the ebb tide under them the SB3s stormed upwind withBoo IIof Neil McGrigor getting away cleanly inshore whilst Simon Relph sailing the company boatMailspeed Marinemade the best of it at the outer distance Beta buoy. However the SB3s had a dramatic afternoon with several retirements, a broken mast and some high speed downwind wipe-outs turning the results on their head and making the art of picking an overall winner of the fleet very difficult. After three and a half hours of sailing, Solent veteran and multiple champion in various classes Ian Southworth brought home Andrew Mclelland’sWKD Vodka Redto a resounding victory over Jerry Hill’sTeam Touareg.This class promises to be one of the most hotly contested fleets at Skandia Cowes Week 2005 and the class has certainly benefited from the generous sponsorship by Volkswagen Touareg who are supporting the fleet throughout the regatta.

As the tide began turning on the Island shore, running from west to east, the remaining classes got away without incident amidst some surprisingly line-shy starts. The early part of the beat westwards was a highly tactical affair for all classes with pulses of breeze bending around the headlands of Egypt Point and through Gurnard Bay beneath patchy low-cloud that threatened rain but failed to produce.

Olympian Ben Ainslie, fresh from steering for the New Zealand America’s Cup Team was pushing hard in Class 1 IRC steering the Farr 45John Merricks (Volvo for Life)but couldn’t overcome class specialist,Warewolfof Benny Kelly who pipped the double gold medallist by a little under a minute. There were no such worries however for Colm Barrington’sFlying Glovein Class 2 IRC who aced the start, powered into an early lead and was never headed to win by over a minute from the Belgian entryMoana.

Meanwhile the inshore fleets were experiencing some exciting conditions as the wind freshened to occasionally top 20 knots in the gusts and it was becoming very much a day for the experienced and well prepared crews. The ever-popular International Dragon class with thirty-one entries saw one of the closest finishes of the day with multiple World Champion and class boat-builder Poul-Ricard Hoj-Jensen bringing his beautiful cold-mouldedDanish Bluehome to victory by just 11 seconds from Eric Williams aboardEcstatic.A mere 31 seconds separated the top three boats after more than three hours of racing and this class promises to go down to the wire. In the International Flying Fifteen class which this year has been paired with the RS Elite fleet owing to numbers, the very familiar names of John and Rupert Mander sailingMen Behaving Badlyrecorded their first win of the regatta by nearly four minutes. The Manders will be looking to emulate their overall White Group victory of 2004 and only an unhealthy dose of Solent misfortune looks like stopping them from achieving a superb double.

Away from the White and Black Groups, six fleets contested the Committee Boat start-line, including the fast and furious Multihulls where Brian Haynes’s 2004 Skandia Cowes Week winner,Carbon Tiger 2scored a resounding victory by over five minutes on corrected time. Andy Budgen’s Sigma 38The Projectshowed a clean pair of heels to emphatically record victory by over 3 minutes in this hotly contested fleet whilst Adam Gosling’s new Corby 29Yes!scored a narrow victory in Class 5 IRC over Nigel Colley’sQuervain VI.

Back on the inshore White Group start line, the vintage classes got away with a fast running flood tide against them but there were some familiar names at the top of the fleets who judged their timed run-ins to the line to perfection. In the largest fleet of Skandia Cowes Week 2005, the 79 strong XOD class, Lt Colonel Stuart Jardine proved just why he’s seen as the class guru with a superb start that allowed him to streak into an unassailable lead to win by just under a minute from David Lindsay’sCaprice.Jardine, a sprightly septuagenarian, is hot favourite to lift his sixth Captain’s Cup to add to his trophy cabinet after a truly remarkable sailing career.

In the National Squib class, a shaky start from defending champion and local Isle of Wight yachtswoman Sarah Everitt meant that she and her crew onFirestreakhad to work hard to record victory by a little over a minute from Martin and Anne Harrison’sHussar.However in the Sonar fleet there was heartbreak for Duncan Bates and his crew aboard the previously untouchableBillywho, after finishing some three minutes clear of the field came ashore only to be told that they had jumped the gun at the start and were thus disqualified. Victory was therefore handed to Simon Barter’s crew aboardBertiewho narrowly squeezed out the hard-drivingJoshteam of John Quigley by just 11 seconds. This year, headline sponsor Skandia has commissioned five Sonars from the Island Sailing Club to form the Skandia Squad with the help of the UK Sailing Academy with all entry fees, mooring, crew clothing and entertainment thrown in for free. The Skandia Squad will be joined by some of Britain’s top sailors over the course of the week and despite today’s rather disappointing showing on the results sheet, the crews stepped ashore with wide grins and minds overloaded with new knowledge!

Several retirements and a few breakages across the fleets marred what was otherwise a near perfect day of sailing on the opening day of Skandia Cowes Week which certainly favoured the experienced sailors out on the water. Forecasts suggest a slight abatement of the winds for Sunday and only a 50% chance of a sea-breeze forming in the early afternoon. Today’s winners will therefore be seeking an early night as success at Skandia Cowes Week requires consistency and with the wind Gods perhaps not playing ball, there’s everything to play for in every fleet!