Tough weather in store for Isle of Wight competitors

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A tough physical test awaits a record entry for the annual JP Morgan Round the Island race (RTI) today if the forecasters have read the runes correctly. It is nearly 20 years ago that 1,813 entered for the 52-mile, anti-clockwise dash round the Isle of Wight.

Today, flying in the face of the credit crunch and economic doom-mongering, 1,875 have entered a fleet which is divided into 11 starts at 10-minute intervals, kicking off at an enthusiasm-testing 06.00. Among them will be Lewis Hamilton, guesting, along with triple Olympic medallist Ben Ainslie, on Alex Thomson¹s shiny black Hugo Boss, long also a sponsor of the McClaren F1 team. The bumpy conditions will rival anything that corner-cutting the rumble strips on a grand prix race track can offer and Hamilton, restricted to a funereal 50mph in the pit lane, may find half of that quite a rush in an Open 60 racing yacht.

Against him in other Open 60s, all on their way to the Vendee Globe singlehanded round the world race in November, are Mike Golding in Ecover, Brian Thompson in Pindar, Dee Caffari in Aviva and Jonny Malbon, giving the old Artemis an outing as the new one waits for its new mast. They should not be able to match new brand new Volvo Open 70s. Team Russia, its boat named Kosatka (Russian for Orca), makes its first appearance alongside Green Dragon, the Irish team having come to an agreement with various authorities in China over the new name for the boat.

Double silver medallist Ian Walker will be at the helm of that one; a search for a Chinese crew member has been set in motion. Out front should be the 99-foot Leopard, designed, like Kosatka, by Rob Humphreys, which has had to hot-foot it up the Channel after knocking over 10 hours off the BMW Round Ireland race record. Its owner, property millionaire Mike Slade, is the existing holder of the RTI record. He completed the race in 4hr 5min 40sec in 2001 and is champing at the bit to ramp up the challenge. The multihull record is an hour faster than the monhulls at 57 minutes, but the real needle today will be between a gaggle of Extreme 40 catamarans. Leading the charge should be Rob Greenhalgh, with brother Peter assisting, the British America's Cup team boat, Origin. Greenhalgh is anxious to avoid any early traffic but will surely be challenged by Olympic double gold medallist and local mum Shirley Robertson and Dame Ellen MacArthur.

There will also be a new presence in the form of an Extreme 40 carrying the colours of the Sultanate of Oman, another Middle Eastern country anxious to join the western sports community, which has bought the 75-foot trimaran from Dame Ellen MacArthur, in which she set a round the world speed record before losing it to France's Francis Joyon earlier this year. Joyon holds the RTI multihull record. Not so new, and in a much more gentlemanly yacht, is Edward Donald, last year's winner of the top prize for the best time on handicap, in his Folkboat Madalaine. He will be in good company as a crew from the UK Sailing Academy take Sir Francis Chichester's Gypsy Moth IV for a day out and Britain's 1958 America's Cup challenger, Sceptre, is the mount of Sir Robin Knox-Johnston.

Listen to Rob Greenhalgh talk Stuart Alexander through the Round the Island course