BT Global Challenge StartsThe BT Global Challenge got underway on time, at 12.05 on Sunday 10th September. And almost immediately, the sun poked through onto a grey Solent - which had been in thick fog only three hours earlier. It seemed that the weather was smiling on the crews as they embarked on their ten month odyssey - but there was to be a twist in the tale by the late afternoon.
A light easterly breeze had filled in to provide a running start, with the fleet headed west towards Hurst Narrows and the exit to the Western Solent. They were surrounded by a huge spectator fleet. Everyman and his jet bike or gin palace - and all shapes and sizes in between - was out there to watch. Save the Children collided with a police boat, which was trying to save them from the over-attentions of the spectators. I'm sure it wasn't the only ding.
The clear winner off the blocks was Neil Murray's Norwich Union, which pulled a blinder on port gybe and crossed the rest of the fleet, many of whom were still struggling to hoist spinnakers. Gybing out of sequence with the rest of the bunch in clear air from then on, she was a comfortable leader as they sailed down the first mile long corridor.
Chased hard by Olympic Group and Compaq, Norwich Union rounded the East Bramble buoy ahead, and turned up onto a port reach to lead the way into the second corridor, which ran down the Cowes waterfront. So far, so much a procession. It wasn't until the fleet reached the Jubilee Sailing Trust's Tenacious, and could breakout of the corridor and into the open water of the Western Solent, that the tactical options widened.
It was now about 1.30, and the ebb tide was still running strongly with the fleet. The gybe away from the Isle of Wight and over towards the mainland shore was the big gainer, Manley Hopkinson's Olympic Group crew and Will Oxley's team aboard Compaq both pulled themselves right back up to Norwich Union that way. Isle of Man also got themselves back into the pack - after a poor start - using the same route.
Neil Murray and Norwich Union, having been caught staying too close to the Island, then hit the mainland shore (not literally) and gained it all back, finally gybing in front of Olympic and Compaq half-way down the Western Solent. These three led the way towards Lymington, swopping the lead. But it was slow going in the six to eight knot breeze, and by 1500 it was clear that the whole fleet would suffer some serious wind weirdness before they escaped the Solent.
The sea breeze had filled in at Hurst Castle, the south-westerly blowing at a good ten knots through this narrow exit to the Solent. And with the fleet running towards it in the easterly gradient, they were faced with a big hole to traverse between the two winds. To make matters worse, the tide was now clearly on the wane, the ebb dying away to be replaced on the shores by the first of the foul-going flood.
It was apparent the fleet weren't going to exit the Solent any time soon. That was a huge disappointment for the thousands that had gathered at Hurst Castle to cheer them past a traditional farewell point. In hindsight this was perhaps predictable, the start time was a good three hours and change after the ebb tide began to run - and the start line at Gilkicker a long way to the east. In light air, they were always going to be pushed to get out of the Solent on that tide. It's not at all clear why the start was arranged that way - but it certainly wasn't for the benefit of the sailors or the mainland-bound spectators.
Stuck in the hole off Lymington with the tide building rapidly against them, the anchors were soon being prepared. The middle of the Solent had been paying until then, with a little more breeze and the tide turning against the fleet later.
Compaq, along with Jeremy Troughton's Logica and Will Carnegie's Veritas, had taken advantage of this to slip through to leeward of the then leader, Olympic. But when the flood tide kicked in against them all the way across the Solent, this was the first group to start heaving the hook over the bow. That's a frustrating way to start a ten month yacht race.
When we left the fleet at 1730, they were slowly compressing into a bunch, anchors going up and down, the gradient breeze fitfully reasserting itself against the sea breeze, and everyone sliding into the shore to avoid the tide. It was Logica, and Nick Fenton and his crew aboard Save the Children, that had the better of it. While the one-time comfortable leader, Norwich Union, eventually found herself all the way at the back of the fleet. But then, that's yacht racing - welcome to the next ten months.