Patches snatches slim lead

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By Stuart Alexander

in Plymouth

In the Celtic Sea there were mirror-flat seas, patches of fog, fitful squirts of breeze and painfully slow progress for the 281 remaining entries in the Fastnet Race yesterday. Fewer than 20 of them had rounded the rock off the south-west of Ireland by late afternoon as they then began the 250-mile trickle back to the finish in Plymouth in just six knots of southerly breeze.

While the New Zealand 100-footer Maximus led its Australian rival Wild Thing by nearly six hours at the turning point, it was the Irish 52-footer Patches that was leading on handicap. "It's all very slow," said the principal helmsman Shirley Robertson, despite holding an hour and 25-minute lead over their main rivals, Jez Fanstone and Jeremy Robinson in Aera.

In the Open 60s, Mike Sanderson and Emma Richards in Pindar kept the pressure on their rivals. They were first of their class to round, 19 minutes ahead of Jean-Pierre Dick in Virbac, but Bernard Stamm in Cheminées Poujoulat was breathing down their necks.

"We are working pretty hard to wriggle our way out into a north or north-westerly which will carry us all the way to the Scillies," Sanderson said. "We are really focusing on digging out hard."

Maximus is expected to finish this morning, well outside record time, and Sanderson may be across the line overnight. Many of the smaller boats may not finish until the end of the week.

l Keith Mills, the managing director of the successful London 2012 Olympic bid, is aiming to organise a British challenge for the America's Cup. The defence in Valencia by Switzerland is due for 2007 and the winner - there are 11 challenger syndicates - then chooses both the date and venue of the next Cup.

Mills and a group of fellow businessmen hope to put up an initial £10m and are seeking a further £50m.