IT is one of the most famous - and gruelling - yacht races in the world.

On Sunday more than 300 yachts will gather off Cowes for the start of the Fastnet Race, a challenging 605-mile offshore race round Fastnet Rock off the south of Ireland and back to Plymouth.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the tragic 1979 race, which saw 15 people killed and hundreds injured when the fleet was ravaged by freak storms.

Yesterday hundreds of people gathered at Holy Trinity Church in Cowes for a memorial service to commemorate the disaster.

Competitors from back then and present-day sailors attended the service, held in the middle of the Cowes Week sailing regatta.

The yachts were racing from the Isle of Wight around the Fastnet Rock off Ireland and back to Plymouth at the time of the disaster.

The 15 lost their lives over three days as rescue services picked up 140 survivors hit by the storms in the bi-annual competition, but many yachts did not have radios - forcing a review of safety afterwards.

This year's race is due to start off the Isle of Wight on Sunday, with 300 yachts taking part.

Yachtsman Mike Sanderson will be competing in the Open 60 boat Team Pindar.

"The events of 1979 undoubtedly sent shockwaves around the sailing community - nobody could have predicted the scale of the tragic events that unfolded," he said.

"Since then, a major overhaul of the rules and equipment required for the race has impacted on all forms of offshore racing."

The race record is held by Icap Leopard 3, which set a time of 44 hours 18 minutes in 2007, taking almost nine hours off the previous record set in 1999.