Battle of Britain during Saturday's Velux 5 Oceans Race prologue 16/10/06

At 1000 local time on Saturday 14 October, seven of the eight yachts entered in the Velux 5 Oceans Race race, which starts next weekend, left the pontoons in the Puerto Deportivo marina in Getxo, Bilbao, for a fully-crewed race in the Bay of Biscay: an event that produced top quality sailing, dramatic tactical turmoil with an unexpected finale.

In brilliant sunshine, crowds lined the docks to witness seven Open 60s slip their moorings in a highly choreographed procession. Sir Robin Knox-Johnston and his crew on Saga Insurance led the fleet from the pontoons as the Queen classic ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ filled the marina, failing to drown out the enthusiastic applause from spectators.

At 1315 local time, the AP postponement pennant on the committee boat – the classic ketch, Saltillo – was lowered and the start sequence began. While Sir Robin Knox-Johnston chose the offshore end of the start line, isolating his Open 60, Saga Insurance, from the bulk of the fleet clustered at the committee boat end of the 300 metre start line, Kojiro Shiraishi was stuck 200 metres behind the line while his crew swiftly repaired a damaged traveller block on Spirit of Yukoh. With one minute to the start gun, Bernard Stamm (Cheminées Poujoulat Landolt) was the last boat to unfurl a headsail as the Swiss skipper and Alex Thomson (Hugo Boss) jostled to the line in 13 knots of breeze while Tim Troy (Margaret Anna) squeezed close to the committee boat. Hugo Boss crossed the line first, with Margaret Anna second, chased hard by Cheminées Poujoulat Landolt and Mike Golding and team on Ecover.

The windward/leeward course took the fleet north-east towards the Cape Villano headland, four miles along the coast from Getxo in a long, light Bay of Biscay swell and following current. Stamm (Cheminées Poujoulat Landolt) and Thomson (Hugo Boss) led the fleet, stretching to windward as Golding (Ecover) tacked inshore, setting the trend for the remaining yachts, including Sir Robin Knox-Johnston (Saga Insurance) who swept in from his offshore solitude to rejoin the fleet.

Bernard Stamm held the lead to the windward mark, five boat lengths ahead of Thomson with Golding closing the gap on the front pair. As the fleet appeared to split in two groups, Unai Basurko headed the second wave of yachts to the windward mark with Troy on his heels and Sir Robin Knox-Johnston overhauling Shiraishi.

At the leeward mark, the race evolved dramatically with Stamm and Golding heading for the wrong, inflatable marker buoy, allowing Thomson and Basurko to take the lead. The Swiss skipper of Cheminées Poujoulat Landolt was pragmatic about the error: “It was very good and we were very happy with the boat going so fast, but then we follow the wrong mark and suddenly it was very, very bad”.

Leading the second pack of yachts, Tim Troy – sailing with his shore crew and young family – was forced to retire from racing and lower the mainsail on Margaret Anna after finding severe chafing to the mainsail outhaul. However, the American skipper was very content with the yacht’s performance commenting: “We all had a ball out there and our boat speed is encouraging as we are the only boat with old sails. The damage to the outhaul is not serious and it’s better that it happened here than in a couple of weeks time in the Atlantic.”

As Alex Thomson rounded the windward mark for a second time, Hugo Boss had developed an unassailable lead and hard sailing by Golding and Stamm failed to close the gap for the 3.5-mile run to the finish line. For the spectator fleet and race committee it seemed that nothing but catastrophic equipment failure could stop Hugo Boss from winning the regatta. Solo sailors are a unique, unpredictable group of yachtsmen and Thomson proved true to type by sailing past the committee boat on the wrong side, failing to finish the race.

On returning to shore, Thomson commented: “Obviously I take this kind of racing very seriously, including this in-port race, but sailors are very superstitious and there is a folklore that says no skipper who has won a prologue race has gone on to win the main event in which he is competing. Therefore, I knew in my heart even before the regatta started, that if we came to the finish and we were in first place, then we would not complete the regatta.”

Mike Golding (Ecover) was the first boat to cross the finish line, followed by Stamm and then local hero Basurko and finally Saga Insurance and Kojrio Shiraishi closing the action on a dramatic day’s sailing.