THE tall ships race is already battling the elements - the majestic boats struck a thunderstorm on the first night of their voyage to Japan. Heavy rain beat the decks and lightning lit the sky as the 30 ships from 18 countries made their way across the South China Sea. 'It was very spectacular, but when the storm passed this morning the fleet was left becalmed,' said race communications officer Peter Creek, trailing the fleet in a rescue boat last night. 'What we now need is more wind.' The Royal Observatory predicted his wish would be fulfilled with a vengeance. Strong winds caused by a northeast monsoon are expected today. Last night, the Japanese ship Escape 1 was leading the fleet, which is spread over a 160 nautical-mile stretch of sea approximately half-way between Hong Kong and Taiwan. In the tall ships class, Poland's Dar Molodziezy, a huge wooden three-master, was ahead. Many of the 1,500 crew in the 4,224-kilometre race to Osaka in Japan are young people with little sailing experience, but the senior crew are fully qualified. The ships will make several stops en route and are expected to cross the finishing line by April 27.