Caffari sets her sights on new record

A good, old-fashioned Bay of Biscay buster is lining up to welcome the 30 competitors in the Vendée Globe singlehanded non-stop round the world race as they start off at the fishing port of Les Sables d'Olonne today.

Winds are expected to be 25 knots and could whistle up to 40 knots but, yesterday, there were no last-minute plans to delay the start. In 2000, 60-knot winds pinned the fleet in harbour.

The British presence, with seven starters and a Frenchman, Seb Josse, driving Ellen MacArthur's BT, has never been stronger, but the competition, with 20 of the 30 Open 60-foot boats being new for this race, has also never been stronger. "It's going to be a pretty rough ride," said Alex Thomson, who has been racing against time for the last three weeks after his Hugo Boss was badly holed and dismasted in a collision with a French fishing boat.

One of Britain's Olympic masterminds, Sir Keith Mills, has declined a trip to Valencia to watch his America's Cup team at play, to support Thomson in more than just financial terms. Mike Golding will also be wary, not least as his Ecover was dismasted just eight hours into the race in 2000 and one of the two women in the race, both British, Sam Davies, sailing the eight-year old Roxy, added: "It could also be quite dangerous, so we will have to be careful." Her counterpart, Dee Caffari, in the brand new Aviva, is aiming to become the first woman to sail both ways around the world, non-stop and singlehanded.

But she recognises that the much faster downwind route can be a lot more threatening than the upwind way, eastabout. In contrast, conditions were more benign in the more troubled venue of Valencia, where four America's Cup contenders were centre stage of the annual regatta of the recently formed Club Nautico Espanol de Vela, among them Sir Keith's Team Origin.

The significance lies in a 150-year old stipulation in a New York deed of gift that a challenging club must, among other things, stage an annual regatta. That is at the heart of a claim by the San Francisco-based Golden Gate Yacht Club, through which Larry Ellison's BMW Oracle team is trying to challenge, that the CNEV is not properly qualified.

The holder, Ernesto Bertarelli's Alinghi, is contesting that, and the Valencia regatta. Triple Olympic gold medallist, he has a silver, too, Ben Ainslie is at the helm of the British challenge, which is racing in a boat borrowed from the Spanish team. Some smart sailing, with another double gold medallist Iain Percy at his side, gave Origin a win in the opening race.

But the main purposes of taking part at all are to give the team a sense of purpose while the America's Cup event is bogged down in its legal wrangle and to put in some much-needed practice ahead of the 12-team Louis Vuitton Pacific Series in Auckland in January/February next year.