Sailing: Olympic heroes launch Cowes

Ellen MacArthur and Britain's three Olympic gold medal winners - Ben Ainslie, Shirley Robertson and Iain Percy - were on parade at 7am yesterday to open officially Skandia Life Cowes Week 2003. But for Ainslie and Robertson, the early-morning gun ceremony from the Royal Yacht Squadron was just a precursor to an intense day of racing.

The Team Volvo for Life sailors took command of two Laser SB3 dayboats for the first race of the week and were bow to bow all day, exchanging the lead several times. Ainslie went on to clinch the battle with Robertson, but not with the eventual winner of the class, Colin Symonds. Ainslie finished third and Robertson was fourth.

This is vintage Cowes. The weather forecasters are predicting the hottest Cowes Week on record, and the fleet of 955 boats has only ever been bettered once, in 2001. Among the competitors is Betty Moore, who is setting records of her own. The Solent Sunbeam sailor, now in her 80s, is sailing in her 55th consecutive Cowes Week.

Racing yesterday was postponed for two hours while the wind settled in, but from then on it was business as usual, with 37 classes setting sail from three starting lines over the next couple of hours. Later in the week, the focus will turn to grand prix as the America's Cup, round-the- world and circuit sailors contest the Britannia and New York Yacht Club cups.

After that, many eyes will be on the Hugo Boss yacht, with racing driver David Coulthard at the wheel of Alex Thomson's new boat on Friday. Coulthard's Cowes Week debut is sure to be watched with Formula One-style morbid fascination as he negotiates the crowded start-line with 60 feet of boat in front of him.

By then, Ainslie and Robertson will be long gone. Tomorrow they fly to Athens in preparation for the pre-Olympics event which starts in just over a week's time.

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