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.

Tomorrow sees the 76th edition of the world’s largest single yacht race, the J.P Morgan Asset Management Round the Island Race, take place off Hampshire’s shores.

Almost 1,500 yachts with about 13,000 sailors will descend for the world famous 50 nautical mile race around the Isle of Wight.

As ever the iconic 55-mile race has an early start – with the gun firing at 5.30am setting the first wave of competitors on their way from the Royal Yacht Squadron in Cowes.

The Solent will become a mass of sails as the racing yachts all squeeze through Hurst Race and out round the treacherous Needles.

The fleets will then round St Catherine’s Point, Bembridge Ledge and pass Palmerston Forts to the finish line outside Cowes.

And you don’t have to be out on the water to enjoy the spectacle of the race – a dedicated race village has been set up in Cowes to keep landlubbers entertained all day long.

Hundreds of Hampshire sailors will be taking part in the race, including some rockstars of the sailing world.

Topping the bill is four time Olympic gold medallist Ben Ainslie, pictured, who will be looking to break the race record in his 45ft catamaran J.P. Morgan BAR.

Gosport ocean racer Alex Thomson will be making his first appearance on his 60ft yacht Hugo Boss since finishing third in the Vendée Globe non-stop solo round the world race.

Yachtswoman turned eco-campaigner Dame Ellen MacArthur will be making a guest appearance to mark the tenth anniversary of her charity the Ellen MacArthur Trust, dedicated to helping young people regain confidence after cancer and leukaemia.

The trust is the official race charity supported by the event’s Race for All ethos – and this year five boats carrying 25 recovering youngsters will compete.

Dame Ellen said: “This race is a pretty special event for us.

“For the youngsters it’s about taking part in something big – it’s a proper adventure.

“For them they might as well be sailing across the Atlantic than round the Island.

“It is an incredible event for all involved.”

Competing for the first time on one of the trust’s boats will be footy boss Sean O’Driscoll.

The Bristol City manager said: “I’m not a sailor but I’m sure the young people and the trust’s experienced skippers will tell me what I need to do quickly enough.

“The race is a big challenge so I’m looking forward to getting out there and testing my sea legs.

“I’ve heard and read so much about what the trust does so it will be great to actually go sailing with the young people and volunteers to see exactly what a difference it makes to their lives.”

For many competitors the race will take many hours to compete – but amazingly the quickest boats will be back in Cowes for breakfast. The course record for a monohull boat was set by Southampton superyacht ICAP Leopard in 2008 with a time of three hours, 53 minutes and five seconds for a monohull boat.

Frenchman Francis Joyon holds the overall record of three hours, eight minutes and 29 seconds set on his trimaran IDEC in 2001.

At 100ft, ICAP Leopard is the largest yacht competing in this year’s race.