In a blaze of colour, power and churning white water the cannons of the Royal Yacht Squadron yesterday signalled the start of the seventh and final Whitbread Round the World race.
Earlier, the soft and sentimental side of an uncompromisingly hard competition was provided by Southampton's Ocean village as the 10 yachts slipped their moorings. Fond goodbyes from all and a stirring account of Rule Britannia for Lawrie Smith's Silk Cut soon gave way to the thrust of a battle that will go on for 31,600 miles over eight months.
The first 7,350 take them round two islands off the coast of South America on the way to Cape Town. The first 10 took them out past the Needles into the Channel with the positions already changing, with Paul Cayard in Sweden's EF Language and then Grant Dalton in Merit Cup and then Cayard again steering their yachts at a merry clip through the maelstrom of spectator boat wakes and into the lead.
A 12 to 17-knot east to south-easterly breeze out of a blue sky and sunshine gave perfect conditions for a spinnaker start. Cayard, the American who took over from Smith as skipper for Sweden, was first to power his way to the front, starting from the mid-Solent end of the start line.
As he took advantage of the sort of positioning and timing learned in the school of America's Cup racing, race favourite Chris Dickson in the American yacht Toshiba was scattering some of the boats which had strayed inside the Isle of Wight side of a race track laid between two lines of a spectator fleet estimated at 2,500.
But, as first Smith struggled to find any pace and then Norway's Knut Frostad's Kvaerner took up the back marker position after shredding a $15,000 spinnaker at the first gybe, Dalton marched on down the middle and into the lead.
But the wind had its say as it swung a little into the south, favouring the group of boats that had stuck to the island shore, and Cayard surged ahead again, leading Dalton through Hurst narrows. Dalton was second but changed to a jib and by the time they reached the Needles Dickson had shouldered by him.
By St Alban's Head Dickson was in front, Smith was up to fourth, George Collins' Chessie Racing was fifth, Gunnar Krantz had slipped to ninth in Swedish Match as Frostad pulled back to sixth.Reuse content