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Boom and bust for sea-race balloons

GERMANY carried out an emergency deflation yesterday to counter its isolation by European rivals. Immediate reports suggested the Germans had been 'burning up' large quantities of reserves, while Britain's progress was marked by a series of booms.

Alas, the reports had nothing to do with national economies or the exchange rate mechanism. Germany's plight concerned the first transatlantic balloon race, in which Belgians Wim Verstraeten and Bertrand Piccard yesterday clung to a narrow lead over Dutch and American rivals.

As the rest of the five-balloon field climbed to catch the fast Atlantic air streams, the German team of Erich Kraft and Jochen Mass dropped to 5,000 feet to melt ice that had weighed down their balloon overnight.

Ice can cause the craft to sink uncontrollably and force the crew to burn up large quantities of fuel to maintain altitude. 'They soared too high looking for wind, and that can be dangerous at night when there's no sun to stop ice forming,' said the project coordinator Blethyn Richards.

Last night, the Germans ditched in the sea several hundred miles off Newfoundland. As a Hercules aircraft circled overhead, their sealed capsule, released as the 90ft helium balloon touched down, was picked up by the tanker Granite.

At the start of the fourth day of the 3,000-mile (4,800km) crossing, the balloons were 1,200 miles (1,920km) east of Newfoundland, travelling at up to 40 knots (46 mph). The Belgian balloon, which heads the neck-and-neck Dutch and American teams by about 20 miles (32km), has at least a third of the perilous voyage behind it.

The British balloon, lying fourth about 50 miles (80km) behind the leader, had complained of the effect of sonic booms and lamented the time it took to boil a cup of tea.

'A good sonic boom from Concorde takes years off your life,' the team captain, Don Cameron, said in a telex to the control center. 'And we've only had one cup of tea so far because the kettle takes half an hour to boil.'

The five balloons took off from Bangor, Maine, last Wednesday. Finishing times are uncertain, but the craft could land in France or the Iberian peninsula some time tomorrow.