Sailing: Shockwave surprised by spinnaker snarl-up

A slow, hot race was in prospect but there was a brisk and cooling breeze for the 248 entries in the Rolex Fastnet Race, which set off from Cowes yesterday morning. Ahead of them were 608 miles in conditions where sun block was likely to be more in evidence than oilskins.

Just past Yarmouth, before the yachts had even left the Solent, predictions of developing sea breezes from the south-west had already come true, though that meant working against a headwind.

Some pessimists, looking forward by two to three days, were predicting a vast, windless area around the Isles of Scilly, which would create a major parking area. The sight of the yachts leaving the Medina River dutifully testing, as the rules require, their storm sails seemed rather incongruous.

The 608-mile course takes them down the Channel, across the Irish Sea and out to the Fastnet Rock, with its famous lighthouse, just off the south-west tip of Ireland. Once round it, they make their way back to the finish in Plymouth, and, for some, it could be a long way.

The race to be first home in the monohulls should be led by Neville Crichton's Shockwave. The sleek, silver 90-footer won the Sydney to Hobart Race eight months ago and wants to take the two top prizes in ocean racing in the same season.

Unfortunately, a spinnaker snarl-up allowed Robert McNeil's 86ft sled, Zephyrus V, to storm ahead. Also up against Crichton is Mike Slade's 97ft Leopard and Charles Dunstone's 76ft Enigma.

But Crichton, the Sydney-based New Zealander, has a powerful crew, including the Volvo Race skipper Erle Williams and the GBR Challenge America's Cup tactician, Adrian Stead, with Ian "Freshy" Burns from Crichton's adopted home of Sydney as navigator.

Enjoying a race of their own is a clutch of Open 60s, with Mike Golding taking Ecover for its last major outing before taking over the new yacht built in New Zealand with which he hopes to attack the singlehanded, non-stop Vendée Globe round-the-world race next year. Against him is a crew skippered by Nick Moloney in Ellen MacArthur's former Kingfisher, now sailing as Skandia Set Sail.

A few minutes late to the start and still sorting out his 100ft catamaran, Legato, Tony Bullimore should finish first if the winds are kind, but there are some nimble multihulls less than half his length which may give him a major headache.

There were testing times to come last night, especially in the fickle breezes, as the navigators would have to decide whether they hug the coast or head offshore - a decision based on the often conflicting variables of wind and tidal current.

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