The Island Sailing Club is a national treasure that deserves to be Grade III listed, wrapped in cotton wool and preserved forevermore. It’s a club with fabulous, friendly, welcoming staff and volunteers who make organising one of the biggest yacht races in the world effortless and a joy to participate in. ‘Incredible’ is an overused word but incredible is what the Island Sailing Club are.
For this weekend it was the 90th anniversary of the UK’s most prestigious race – the Round the Island Race – and as anniversaries go, this one was a classic. Forgive my radio silence for a few days but preparing my International H-Boat for the race required a few days of concentration – amazing how something that only measures 28ft can consume so much of one’s life and time but it was, and is, worth every second, minute and hour to take part in sailing’s equivalent of the London Marathon. The amazing Wight Shipyard over in East Cowes (the one with the country’s largest Union Jack on its shed doors) moved heaven and earth for me and my thanks go to Peter Morton and his outstanding team shoreside. We splashed on Thursday and it all worked like clockwork…
When it’s a small boat race – as it was in this edition – the competition is tough. There’s probably 30 boats or so that can reasonably win it and it all comes down to sailing close to perfection. Getting the weather transitions right is paramount and so too is not hitting anything hard around the corners or soft at Ryde Sands. And literally every second counts. It’s a mind-bendingly complex course with tidal gates and races, back-eddies, standing waves and a mass of boats of all different flavours and strains vying for clear air and ‘lanes’ – get it right and you feel like a genius, get it wrong and you’re in chump’s corner as you get rolled over by all and sundry. The ultimate game of snakes and ladders.
Our start was at 7.20am so it was a 4.30am wake-up call. To be honest, I barely noticed the hour such was the excitement to get going. Jumping on the boat, we broke out the box-fresh North Sails that Charlie Cumbley, the UK’s One Design Manager, had moved heaven and earth to get shipped in ahead of the race and the best simile I can find about setting them is to liken North’s to a haute couture gown – they fit immaculately and set like a dream, just so long as the mast is set to the magic numbers that North’s expertly provide.
With the engine room sorted we pottered out silently under electric motor (you have to buy one) and found a mooring buoy just behind the Squadron line to hang off (see above), take some memento snaps and wait for our start. Zephyrs filtered down the Medina River and we exercised caution when slipping anchor to cross the start line about 20 seconds late. Get that wrong and you can forget any chance of silverware.
The wind gradually filled as a thousand boats road the magic carpet up to the Needles and it was a highly tactical beat, playing the clouds and the shifts, staying in the maximum current to fast exit the Solent. We had a good one and felt pretty good through the Hurst Castle narrows approaching the lighthouse and took the decision to go between Goose Rock and the Varvassi. Heart-in-mouth time and my crew said afterwards that they had “seen the rock” just off our port quarter. Phew. It’s always a nervy moment on every lap of the Island.
Leg two down to St Catherine’s lighthouse was a snore bore only made better by the scenery – it’s quite astonishing just how beautiful the back of the Isle of Wight is. If you haven’t been, go. We briefly played with the spinnaker to get down into the Bay on the shoreline and then angled up on a two sail fetch to the southernmost point of the Island, hugging the beautiful bare Jurassic coast past Compton Bay and Atherfield Ledge whilst eating sausage rolls and keeping an eye on the depth gauge. The beam of the lighthouse welcomed us in as the mizzle persisted. We barely noticed the rain as it was all eyes on the fabulous spinnaker run ahead down through Sandown Bay where we had the boat rocked over to windward, sailing fast by the lee and working every wave and gust at max power. Magical sailing. Pinch yourself to appreciate it. I didn’t want it to end.
As Bembridge Ledge buoy approached and the fleets converged, it was all on to keep clear air and get through up to the Seaview buoys and then onto Ryde Sands – the graveyard of many a good challenge. Again we had a good one – I didn’t enjoy seeing 0.8m on the depth gauge but we got through – an Impala to windward wasn’t quite so lucky – and then it was a two sail beat into the finish line as pulses of South Westerly breeze filtered in across the land around Fishbourne Harbour and Osborne Bay. Amazing sailing as the sun came out and of course we tangled with the Portsmouth to Fishbourne ferry – it’s a right of passage every single time I do Round the Island Race. Why me? But quite frankly it was an aberration on an otherwise beautiful leg home. If anyone didn’t enjoy that final leg then there’s not much more our sport can do for you.
Crossing the line is a moment to savour and quite how the Island Sailing Club records everyone is a feat of unbelievable organisation. But they do so effortlessly and they have the results in a flash. It was a small boat day and a pure rating game with Olympic bronze medallist and esteemed yacht designer Jo Richards sailing one of the smallest and almost the lowest rated boat, a bilge-keeled Alacrity 18 called Eeyore winning (and defending) the Gold Roman Bowl. A remarkable achievement. Certainly no dopey donkey.
For myself, I was pleased to be first H-Boat in 12th place overall and look back on the race with few regrets. We hit all the channels we wanted to hit. We sailed the course we had planned and had no dramas – rare for a Round the Island. We took chances and sailed well but most importantly we thoroughly enjoyed it.
What a race. What a day. What a monumental effort by my two crew, Tom and Olly. The big question now is: can we close down the 20 minute delta that we surely must to win it? Looking at the conditions yesterday it was hard to see 20 minutes but for sure there’s another gear to be found in the boatspeed and boat set-up. We’ll be back and the game will go up again as it does every year.
To the Island Sailing Club, the Royal Yacht Squadron, the RNLI, the volunteers and everyone who made the race happen – thank you. It was an unbelievable job all round and us sailors are just so grateful for your efforts and support. Brilliant race by a brilliant club. Looking forward to the 91st edition in 2022 already.