Sailing: Ripping yarn of Fastnet - Stuart Alexander reports from on board Rhone-Poulenc

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The Independent Online
RHONE-POULENC was fighting to protect her lead in the Ushant-Fastnet race yesterday as she was hit twice by gear failure and damage.

Having led for much of the first 500 miles in this first test for the British Steel Challenge round the world race later this year, she had rounded the Fastnet Rock off south-west Ireland on a night of black clouds, rain and squally winds, temporarily in second place just a few boat lengths behind Interspray. Then, although far from expert, the crew - all amateurs paying for the privilege of taking part in some major races - managed to hoist their spinnaker with some speed and they were away.

Not for long. Less than 20 minutes into the 350-mile leg back round The Scillies and up the Channel to Southampton, the spinnaker halyard broke with an almighty bang. The sail cascaded on to the deck, over the bow and into the water, ripping it to shreds. Caution prevailed for much of the rest of the night as Interspray also had to sort out problems, but yesterday morning British Steel II was sighted about five miles astern pulling strongly. Up went the second kite only for that to be ripped when snagging on a mast rigging spreader. More tears and a nine-metre-long strip of edging tape ripped away meant frantic repairs by hand on the saloon table: the lack of a sewing machine was keenly felt.

After an hour and a half, it was possible to rehoist the spinnaker, Rhone-Poulenc's lead now slender but preserved as British Steel, too, had to drop their spinnaker. First against Interspray and then against British Steel it had shown what close racing was about, how two evenly matched yachts of the same design could track each other for hours with only slight changes in position and the bigger gains usually a result of either a less experienced helmsman taking over or a shift in wind direction favouring one over the other.

The second stretch from Ushant, off north-west France, had been a mite uncomfortable. Nothing like the cruelties promised by the Southern Ocean when skirting the Antarctic on the second leg of the British Steel Challenge round the world race, the major event for these 10 identical 67ft yachts. But, as the wind increased to 30 knots at times, some of the crew found the constant pitching made for a queasy ride.

However, at 11.20 on Saturday night, after more than 35 hours and 250 miles, they could raise a quick cheer as they rounded one of the most famous turning marks in ocean racing, the Fastnet Rock. Behind this leading trio, the fleet was stetched over 80 miles, but, with continuing 15 to 20-knot westerly winds forecast, all should be assured of a quick run home to Southampton by tomorrow.