Barmy birdmen braved high winds to reach for the sky as thousands of spectators cheered them on.

Organisers feared a gale-strength southwesterly might scupper Saturday afternoon's lift off, but after a short delay eight competitors defied the weather to strap on their wings.

They took the plunge off Worthing Pier in pursuit of a £30,000 prize for flying 100m.

The beach between the Pavilion Theatre and Lido was packed with more than 5,000 people as Dean Gunn mounted the launch ramp first despite gusts in excess of 20 knots.

Handglider pilot Dean, from Leatherhead, Surrey, flew 27.9m before his glider banked sharply to the left and flipped on its back.

Bill Brooks, 50, from Marlborough, Wiltshire, spent more than an hour assembling his wacky aircraft, which had a 30ft wingspan and a propeller at the back.

All for a distance of 16.4m.

If anybody was going to beat the elusive 100m barrier it was handgliding instructor Ron Freeman, a veteran of the Bognor Birdman, which was this year moved to Worthing after Bognor Pier was shortened after being damaged by a storm.

Even Ron, 52, from Northumberland, thought the conditions were borderline, but by the time he was ready to take the plunge the wind speed had dropped signficantly.

Ron, who was taking part for the 11th time, had previously chalked up a personal best distance of 84.7m.

The crowd held its breath as he skimmed across the waves for 85.9m, which had him punching the air in delight.

Ron said he had mixed feelings about birdman being switched from Bognor, but was delighted that Worthing had rescued the event at such short notice.

He said: "Everything has been first class."

Last man off was American David Moore, from Connecticut, who donned a red Leonardo Da Vinci flying suit, with muscle-powered flapping wings, before dropping like a stone.

Organiser Sharon Clarke, Worthing's Town Centre manager, breathed a huge sigh of relief as David, who travelled a grand total of 6.6m, was fished out of the sea.

Like many, she feared the unseasonal Autumn-style low pressure system sweeping across the country might wreck weeks of frantic preparation, but by the end of the first day's excitement conditions were close to perfect.

Sharon, who had been working 13-14 hour days, seven days a week, for almost a month, to get the rally off the ground, said: "It's lovely to see Worthing like this. It's buzzing."

She estimated that in terms of free publicity for the town, the event, which cost £40,000 to stage, could be worth in excess of £500,000.

Cafes and bars also did a roaring trade as people flocked to the town from all over the south east.

Visitors included the Ivers family, Tom, 42, Julie, 33, and George, five, from Maidstone in Kent, who praised Worthing for its friendliness.

Joan Kilham, 75, from Bramley Road, Worthing, said: "I think it's great. It brings people into the town, but the birdmen are mad."

Husband Ron, 77, thanked the organisers, stating: "They have shown a lot of initiative."

Before the serious birdmen soared and sank, the water was tested by Joe Norris, 24, of Eriswell Road, Worthing, who donned a sombrero for his leap of faith from a platform as high as the neighbouring Southern Pavilion.

Joe said: "It was the best experience ever - fantastic, but the water was freezing. I was very scared, but would do it again."

Joe will on Sunday, subject to the weather, be followed over the edge by several dozen amateur aviators, many in fancy dress, carrying madcap flying machines.

The serious competitors will also have a second go for the 100m pot of gold, with the fun starting at 1.50pm.