Speed III: The Sprint for Spain.

Beginning today, a high-speed ferry is scheduled to leave New York for Spain in a quest to break an 8-year-old record for the highest average speed by a commercial vessel in a trans-Atlantic crossing.The record: three days, seven hours and 54 minutes at an average speed of 36.65 knots is held by Hoverspeed Great Britain.

The challenger, the Catalonia, a 300-foot, 400-deadweight-ton ferry, hopes to sail the 3,125 miles in three days and two or three hours.

If successful, the Catalonia will become the first winner since 1990 of the Hales Trophy, given to the fastest ship to cross the Atlantic.

After the voyage, the ship will enter commercial service, operating between Barcelona and Palm De Mallorca, a major tourist destination in the Spanish Balearic Islands.

While the movie Speed 2: Cruise Control was about a leisure cruise gone wrong, the Sprint for Spain is the personal quest by the owner of Buquebus Co., a global transport company in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and the builder of the Catalonia.

At a news conference Thursday, Juan Carlos Lopez Mena says the attempt at the record was a natural, given his love for sailing and the sea.

And if the Catalonia fails, he says he plans to try again next year with another ferry.

Mr. Lopez had the Hales Trophy in mind when he contracted the boat one and a half years ago, says Sylvia Edwards, a spokeswoman for Buquebus Co.

''There have been attempts (to break the record) but not by commercial vessels, so they have been disqualified,'' says Ms. Edwards.

Past winners include the Lusitania, the Queen Mary and the United States, which held the record from 1952 to 1990. Harold K. Hales of Great Britain established the trophy in 1935 to stimulate innovation in passenger transport. The criteria for the Hales Trophy are commercial ships that make a trans-Atlantic crossing unassisted and in a safe manner.

Catalonia can hold 900 passengers and 250 vehicles. The ship has reached a peak of 47.7 knots at lightship and its average speed is 43 knots, says Ms. Edwards.

The first trans-Atlantic crossing was made by the American steamship, Savannah, in 1819. It took the Savannah 29 days to cross from Savannah, Ga., to Liverpool, England. Catalonia is powered by four 18-cylinder Cat 3618 diesel engines, the newest marine engines designed by Caterpillar Inc.

''The new engine is based on an older design,'' says Sally J. Forker spokeswoman for Caterpillar Inc., ''and it is bigger than anything else ever built, creating a hot market.''

The company has received 18 orders for these engines since the Catalonia was built. Company representatives are optimistic that the Catalonia will succeed because the ship performed at a higher average speed than the Hoverspeed during its sea trials while in Tasmania, Australia.

Incat Australia Pty. Ltd. built the Catalonia.

Only a handful of passengers will be on board the ship to keep a light load, including the captain, Leonel Torres, who is a veteran employee of Buquebus, and technicians from Caterpillar Inc. and Incat Australia Pty. Ltd.

When it enters commercial service, the Catalonia will offer both tourist and first-class tickets between Barcelona and Palm De Mallorca. Tourist class on the ship, which includes duty-free shopping, will be about $50.