Italians may have the Fastnet edge

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The Independent Online
The fresh air of purpose blew through the Solent yesterday, with a racing breeze and some sunshine finally greeting Cowes Week. Accordingly, the Admiral's Cup teams completed their final preparations ahead of today's finale, the Fastnet Race.

In Lymington, Southampton, Hamble, and even Plymouth, the nine Whitbread 60s appeared ready for the task at hand. A handful of maxis, including Morning Glory, Hasso Plattner's Sydney-to-Hobart record-breaker, were hoping the forecasters had got it wrong and there would be stiff breezes for the 605-mile journey around the rock off the south-west coast of Ireland and back to Plymouth.

More than 250 yachts have entered, including 200 club-class racers and a dozen multi-hulls which are competing for the first time. The multi- hulls, featuring some of France's top boats, will sail a longer course.

With light airs forecast, the only word of caution - competitors are ever-alert after the tragic deaths in the storms of 1979 - was that a rogue low-pressure system could sweep in on Monday or Tuesday. That would provide enough punch for a fast, downwind ride home and play into the hands of the Italians, whose challenge for honours is led by their big boat Madina.

The Fastnet has always proved the deciding race in the Admiral's Cup, and last time, in 1995, the Americans went in with a seemingly secure 25-point lead, only to see the Italians exploit some light air conditions and grab the cup by the slender margin of a quarter of a point.

This year the Italians are lying fourth, 23 points behind the Americans. As the Fastnet counts for quadruple points, they have to make up six places, an average of two in each of the three divisions. With major tactical decisions to be made in the early stages - such as whether to go out to sea, avoiding the Portland tidal gate, or to stay in, where they can at least anchor if there is no wind overnight - there are opportunities for major gains as well as big losses.

The second-placed New Zealanders, just 16 points - or four places on Fastnet scoring - behind the Americans, know what is required, and their America's Cup-winning skipper Russell Coutts, on board their big boat Numbers, is the right man for the pressure occasion. Germany, in third place, have been known to spring the odd surprise and cannot be written off.

The British, too, although languishing in sixth place of the seven three- boat teams, will be happy with a test of skill in light air. It will suit their two bigger boats, Graham Walker's 45-foot Corum Indulgence and Tony Buckingham's 40-foot Easy Oars.

Tim Barratt's Mumm 36 Bradamante, in the hands of the Olympic silver medallists John Merricks and Ian Walker, races on equal terms with all the other Mumms and is capable of footing it with the best boats.

Cowes Week finally provided perfect conditions for the X-boats yesterday after they had had only one race in six days. The course-setters waited an extra couple of hours so that the 900 yachts could start in a settled breeze.