It isn't every day that you get to test your sailing mettle against the best British sailors but then the Round the Island Race is pretty unique in many ways. How often have you raced against 1,584 boats? Or embarked on a race that you know will take a minimum of 10 hours? That's what I and the crew of the gaff rig 'Susan J' did last weekend.
Preparation is key
The Round the Island Race is a race in four parts, or so our skipper says. Personally I think there are five parts if you factor in the necessary preparation for the race. There are weather forecasts to be checked, tide tables to be reviewed, hazards to be plugged into the chart plotter and tactics to be discussed (over a bottle of wine in the cabin the night before). There is also provisioning to be done. A crew cannot race for 10 hours on an empty stomach. The mound of sandwiches, pork pies, chocolate and fruit was a sight to behold!
The Day Dawns
Race day always dawns early - 5am in our case. This year all starts were relatively late (due to the tide) and the first boats left at 7am. Ours was the second start at 7.10am. I think this is one of the best bits of the day. Cowes comes alive very quickly with the sounds of final boat preparations and engine checks. The air is heavy with the smell of sizzling bacon and excited anticipation.
On the Start Line
Once out on Cowes Roads in your holding area with the main hoisted, the excitement is palpable and the boat watching spectacular. Remaining calm admist this veritable storm of boats is Castle One with his preparatory and start signals. A calm and considered voice with perfect Queen's English, he is the rock of the Round the Island Race.
Finding a focus
With such a long race and so many boats with very different handicaps, you need to pick a boat or two against which you will personally pitch yourself. 'Susan J' ( acing in the Gaff rig 23 -28ft class) is a Heard 28 and, as luck would have it, there was an identical boat also racing round the Island. It seemd natural, therefore, to pitch ourselves against 'Rocket', David Dimbleby's boat which had travelled all the way from Dartmouth for its first Round the Island Race. 'Rocket' has a topsail (and as it turned out a spinnaker) but we were well matched for a race within a race.
Windward to The Needles
The first leg of the race is usually upwind, and with a west/south-west F3/4 this year was no exception. Tacking up the Solent, spotting boats under the staysail and calling "Starboard", this is always an action-packed leg. It offered some wonderful opportunities for boat spotting and the Gaffers were looking splendid.
The Needles to St. Catherine's
Arrival at The Needles marks the second leg of the race. It's usually the point when the spinnakers are hoisted. However with the wind off our stem quarter, not everyone opted to do this. With a foul tide, our Skipper chose to duck in shore. With so many boats converging, The Needles is often a tricky spot and this year was no exception. We certainly saw a t-boned boat heading for home. The second quarter of the race is a good re-fuel point for the crew (especially if there hasn't been a moment to munch marmalde sandwiches on the windward leg). The sun shone and we were soon stripping off our oilies and enjoying a picnic.
St. Catherine's to Bembridge
There are three lighthouses on this race and arrival at the third lighthouse marks the start of the third leg of the race.
From St. Catherine's our skipper butterflied the staysail as we were dead downwind. Then we gybed into Sandown Bay and did a final gybe out to Bembridge Ledge, hiding from the tide all the way. Another relatively quiet "recuperating" leg for us, but not for all. We spotted the lifeboat dealing with a de-masted boat just past Ventnor. Thankfully the crew all looked unharmed sitting forlornly on the deck. We also spotted a brave laser dinghy sailor racing amidst all the big boats. I admired his stamina and doubt he had time for a picnic!
Bembridge back to Cowes
The start of the fourth leg is marked by rounding the only buoy in the entire race, the Bembridge Ledge buoy. Its always an exciting moment as the boats harden up and head like a procession of sharks towards the forts and Ryde. Close hauled all the way, I was glad I'd put my oilies back on.
Ryde Sands always requires concentration. Most boats, and 'Susan J' was no excpetion, chose to fight the foul tide by sticking close to the sands. With so many boats converging in a tightly defined space once again, concentration and tacking skills were tested! Our skipper put one member of the crew on chart duty to keep us in deeper water but, if you are forced to tack (that dreaded cry of "Starboard") you can easily end up in scarily shallow water. A strong nerve and good communication are key. At one point, our chart said there was 8 metres of water but the depth gauge said we only had two and a half metres ('Susan J' draws 1.6 metres). Its not really the moment to debate who is right.
This year the Ryde Sands passage seemed to go quite quickly. Some years the tacking seems endless and the tired crew have been heard to shout "that b***** spire" as Ryde church refuses to move behind our pointing bowsprit. Having sped round the island so fast (relative to previous years) we found ourselves still fighting a foul tide at the finish. Here then was our Ryde church moment. It took several attempts to cross the line (and it was'nt that our skipper was relaxing).
Finally after an elapsed time of 10 hours and 26 minutes we crossed the line - and we were ahead of 'Rocket'! After such a long race, feelings are mixed at the finish. I was physically exhausted with aching arms and bruised knees (from all the tacking) but it had been such a wonderful day (weather-wise) and such an exciting sail there was a big smile on my face and that of the rest of the crew.
How did we do against Britain's best sailors ?
Once all the results were in, we were delighted to discover that we came second in our class (Gaffer Division 2: 23ft - 28ft) beating our chosen rival 'Rocket' into a respectable third place. Most excitingly, we were only seven minutes behind 'Rosenn' (who we usually dont see for dust in races since she has a fine racing rig). Best of all we beat Susan'J's personal best coming in at ten hours, twenty-five minutes and fifty-one secs (on elapsed time), a full three minutes and fifty-seven seconds faster than our previous best.
Of course we didn't beat Britain's best saiors! The fastest boat completed the course in three hours, thirty minutes and twenty-four seconds (in a multi-hull). Ellen MacArthur, who was sailing in one of the Cancer Trust boats, 'Moonspray', completed the race in nine hours and thirty-four minutes. But then, neither Ellen nor the other sailors had the joy of sailing an Old Gaffer.
Hatty Fawcett is an OGA member and regularly crews for her father and brother on 'Susan J', a Heard 28. Hatty has recently moved from London to Swanage (in order to sail more) and is blogging about the experience at www.lifebeyondlondon.com
If you enjoyed this account of the race take a look at Ivy Green's first experience of the race here.