The Velux 5 Oceans skippers took off yesterday for the final leg from Norfolk to Bilbao 19/4/07

At 1220 (1620 GMT) on Wednesday April 18, the start gun for the final leg of Velux 5 Oceans fired in the waters off the Virginian coastline. After a postponed start in Norfolk due to severe weather conditions created by the large storm on the Eastern seaboard of the United States, the fleet of four Open 60 yachts began the final sprint back to Bilbao, the start and finish port of the Velux 5 Oceans. As the skippers pointed towards the Basque Country and set sail in the third leg, all are looking to sail fast yet safe in order to successfully complete the solo circumnavigation of the globe.

Leader Bernard Stamm said: “I hope to arrive in Bilbao in around 13 days, although it is difficult to be sure as the weather is not very stable. This leg is very different. The Southern Ocean is a desert, whilst the Atlantic is full of obstacles – icebergs off Nova Scotia, lots of fishing activity and commercial traffic. You have to be very careful. Many times you are fighting for survival in tough conditions, but most of the time you are racing and putting in a lot of work to get maximum speed.”

The start, originally re-scheduled for 1000 yesterday, was delayed by just over two hours to allow an American Aircraft carrier to leave, accompanied by numerous support craft, a regular occurrence in this part of the world. Leaving from the protected Hamptons Road Bay, Unai Basurko’s Pakea was first across the line, after both Bernard Stamm (Cheminees Poujoulat) and Kojiro Shiraishi (Spirit of Yukoh) went too early and were forced to power down so as not to cross the line before the gun. This left the young Basque skipper to charge from behind and be the first to cross the line and lead the charge for his home town across the Atlantic.

Unai Basurko on Pakea was optimistic before the race, as he said: “I will try to take the fastest route possible based on the weather conditions. If I don’t break anything, I believe I can arrive ahead of Sir Robin, given my boat is as fast or faster than his. I have complete confidence in Pakea, especially given all the hard work from my team and she is better than ever.”

“I feel very good because I am returning home. I have spent a lot of time thinking about that moment and I know that waiting for me there will be my friends and family, from whom I have received such unconditional support. For my sponsors, I wish to thank them for their support and the confidence they have placed in me and my project. For me, finishing the race will be the culmination of a dream that I have held for many years.”

Basurko was quickly followed by Stamm and then Shiraishi, and finally Sir Robin Knox-Johnston on Saga Insurance only a short distance behind. However, within ten minutes of the start, Pakea had dropped to the back of the fleet, with Cheminees Poujoulat and Spirit of Yukoh already building a healthy lead as the yachts tacked to pass through the huge Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. The start, which took place in sheltered waters, saw a northerly wind of around 15 knots power the Open 60s through calm waters. However, the conditions the other side of the Bridge-Tunnel should be much tougher, with stronger winds and large seas.

Japanese skipper Kojiro Shiraishi raced well in the last leg, holding second position behind Bernard Stamm. His thoughts before the race were: “This leg will be very, very tough, possibly one of the toughest of the race so far so I want to sail as well as possible. It has been over a month since I arrived in Norfolk so it will take time to get back in the rhythm of the boat and there is a lot of traffic in the Atlantic. A few days ago I saw Bernard and he gave me lots of great advice in order to stay motivated. So now I am ready to go and sail well to Bilbao.”

The departure from downtown Norfolk in Virginia in the morning saw all the skippers, race organisers, local volunteers and sailing fans pay respect to the young people recently killed by a gunman at Virginia Tech University, the worst school shooting massacre in the nation’s history, that saw 33 dead and many more injured. Before the yachts departed, everyone respected a minute’s silence in a small ceremony and the US flag in the marina was flown at half mast.

Back on the course, the most interesting battle will be between Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, the British sailing legend, and Unai Basurko, the Basque hero. Basurko holds a 42 hour lead over the iconic solo sailor and will surely want to be one of the first to arrive back in his home town of Bilbao. The young skipper is counting the days until he sails under the famous ‘Puente de Vizcaya’ bridge, an important spiritual and emotional landmark for Basurko.

Meanwhile, Knox-Johnston is focussing on a potential podium finish, which would be a remarkable feat for the 68 year old adventurer, whose race has been dogged by technological problems and breakages on the boat since the start, but who has yet still managed to remain competitive despite all the barriers. With a well prepared boat and a steely determination, Sir Robin is hoping to pull off a magnificent leg of ocean racing to claim the third place.

Defending champion Bernard Stamm of Switzerland holds a lead nearly two weeks over second placed Kojiro Shiraishi of Japan and is expected to take the overall title again when the fleet arrives in Bilbao. However, Stamm is taking nothing for granted. The skilful sailor is highly competitive and although he will want to sail safely and bring the boat back to Europe in one piece, he will also want to finish with a flourish and take first place in every leg.

Velux Marketing Director Michael K. Rasmussen sends his wishes to the skipper as he said: “We are very excited to see how the last leg develops and wish the best of luck and bon voyage to all the skippers back to Bilbao.”