IT is one of the most iconic images of the region – the brightly coloured sails of hundreds of yachts packing the Solent before squeezing out round The Needles.

Saturday sees the world’s largest single yacht race, the Round the Island Race.

More than 1,700 yachts with about 16,000 sailors will descend on The Solent for the world famous 50 nautical mile race around the Isle of Wight.

It will be an early start for the racers, with sailing heroine Dame Ellen MacArthur firing the starting gun at 5.30am from the Royal Yacht Squadron in Cowes.

As always, the race has attracted the great and good of the sailing world including some big names such as Francis Joyon and Mike Golding.

Frenchman Joyon is returning for his eighth race in a bid to beat the course record of three hours, eight minutes and 29 seconds he set onboard trimaran IDEC II in 2001.

Golding, one of the world’s greatest singlehanded sailors, will be onboard one of four state-of-the-art Extreme 40 catamarans which are capable of speeds of more than 40mph.

Warsash’s Pete Cumming will be returning on his Extreme 40 Masirah to defend his line honours victory of last year.

Southampton’s former Olympic champion Iwan Thomas will be swapping his running shoes for sailing boots when he takes part in the Charity Challenge.

The Challenge will see boats from the race’s four official charities go head-to-head against each other in a bid to raise funds.

Last year they raised more than £100,000 for the charities.

The start is at Cowes and the competitors sail anticlockwise round the Island via The Needles and along the beautiful south coast of the Island to St Catherine’s Point, the most southerly tip.

From there the yachts will head to Bembridge Ledge, the most easterly point, before sailing back through the Solent’s famous forts to Cowes, hopefully avoiding the treacherous Ryde Sands.