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The Transat 2004 starts next Monday
      This weekend will see roughly £40 million worth of ocean racing yachts arriving in Plymouth ready for the moment when at 1400BST on 31st May Omega ambassador and Russian tennis starlette Anna Kournikova will fire the start gun marking the departure of The Transat, single-handed race to Boston.

This morning the 60ft mutlihulls of Franck Cammas (Groupama), Karine Fauconnier (Sergio Tachini), Marc Guillemot (Gitana X) and Lalou Roucayrol (Banque Populaire) sped into Plymouth. Already all the American entries are tied up in their berths at Plymouth Yacht Haven as is Hellomoto, the Open 60 of Plymouth-based skipper Conrad Humphreys. The spectacle of what will be one of the most impressive racing yacht fleets ever assembled in the UK will grow over the next 24 hours as under rules for The Transat all the competing 60 and 50ft long yachts must be gathered in Plymouth Yacht Haven by 1200 on Saturday 22nd May.

Members of the public have the opportunity to view the boats on the pontoons at Plymouth Yacht Haven from 22nd May through until the start, although pontoon access will be restricted on the day of the start. The Transat Race Village will be open to the public from 22nd May to 31st May and will house a multitude of exhibitors. The Royal Navy display will feature a submarine simulator and Renault will be displaying one of their Formula 1 racing cars alongside many exhibitors from the British and French marine industry.

Traditionally there are always last minute surprises in The Transat. This year it is the 11th-hour entry of Canadian veteran solo skipper Mike Birch. Originally a delivery skipper, before that a cowboy, Birch first competed in the OSTAR (as The Transat was then known) in 1976. In that race he astounded race spectactors by bringing his tiny The Third Turtle home in second place ahead of monohulls and multihulls twice the size of his 32ft long trimaran. Birch entered the history books when he performed a similar stunt in the first running of the French equivalent of The Transat, the Route du Rhum in 1978. Sailing another small trimaran, Olympus Photo, Birch pipped Michel Malinovsky's giant monohull Kriter V within sight of the finish line, arriving first by just 1 min and 35 seconds. In typical low-key fashion Birch was using the race as a delivery trip to the States!

Birch subsequently graduated up to bigger multihulls and was responsible for the construction of the 75ft maxi-catamaran Formula TAG in which he set a 24-hour record in 1984. Ten years later the boat became Peter Blake and Robin Knox-Johnson's round the world record breaker ENZA New Zealand. Over the years Birch has finished fourth in the 1980 OSTAR, second in the OSTAR's two-handed equivalent, the TwoSTAR in 1986 and last competed in the OSTAR in 1988 when he hit a whale rupturing the hull of his 60ft trimaran Fujicolor. A seaman to the last, instead of abandoning the boat Birch steered her, full of water, back to France, not eating for the last three days because he had run out of food.

For The Transat Birch now aged 72 has borrowed Nootka, the 50ft trimaran of Fuji France boss Claude Develay and at present is carrying out a last minute qualification passage. Nootka is a sistership to Rich Wilson's Great American II.

Today, British skipper Alex Thomson has announced that he has withdrawn his entry from the Transat due to a lack of funding. "I'm extremely disappointed at having to withdraw from The Transat at this late stage but in the absence of a title sponsor it's just not feasible for me or the boat," said Alex Thomson. "I wish all the competitors good luck." French sailor Andre Jantet who was entered in the 50ft monohull class has also retired.

At present entries stand at: 12 ORMA 60ft multihulls, 17 IMOCA Open 60s, six 50ft multihulls and four 50ft monohulls a total of 39 boats in all.

Elsewhere in the Open 60 class, the qualification deadline has been extended for the two newly launched Marc Lombard designs Jean le Cam's Bonduelle and Roland Jourdain's Sill. Both boats have been delayed as they have had to have work carried out on their keels. Their qualifications passages will take place en route to Plymouth.

Meanwhile for the teams the clock is ticking prior to the start in Plymouth Sound (check out the new Omega countdown clock at www.thetransat.com).


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