They came in quietly at night to an unfashionable yard in Cowes and a hundred busy bees worked like fury to get the carbon rigs in whilst the pro-crews jetted in from around the world and the gazillionaire owner-drivers choppered in. The RC44 circuit is what you do when you have money to burn. It’s the classy grand prix scene for those that still want to compete in the top flight before the inevitability of a Metre or Classic yacht and the Voiles de St Tropez creeps onto the radar. And yes, they are impressive beasts.
On a long beat back against the tide from Gilkicker Point off Portsmouth yesterday in a gusty 25 knot breeze and typical Solent chop in my 28 footer, there came a point where I had to cross the tide to hop onto the next tidal bank on the Island shore and the only option was to cross the racetrack of the RC44’s. How hard can this be? Well apologies to the fleet but my goodness they are impressive close-up – and I mean really close-up – and the way those pros sail is next level stuff. Even the ones at the back of the fleet are on their ‘A’ game although we did see a chase boat drop at the final windward mark and thought it best to tack off and leave them to it. Even the pros get it wrong sometimes…
It’s one of those fleets that rarely gets the headlines but really should. That racing is tight and the fleet is littered with the very best of a little while ago. Read through the crew lists and there’s a whole bunch of Alinghi-era sailors earning a crust and the afterguard rosters read like a Who’s Who of an era we are all old enough to remember: Ed Baird, Iain Percy, Adrian Stead to name just a few. And there are coach boats everywhere – almost a mini armada – following the fleet’s every move, videoing the manoeuvres and dissecting the sail plan set-up. Big dollars are being expended to find fine marginal gains. It’s a good scene and a very, very welcome sight on the Cowes horizon.
My weekend was an immersion in boats. You know, the one where time is sucked up into a vortex but it was rewarding to sail in big conditions and find out just how wrong I could get literally every system on the boat: kicker too long (it looked fine on the dock), backstay system not powerful enough, mainsheet wrong, the bodge job pulpit needs attention, the boom’s about a foot too short – oh goodness the jobs list goes on and on. You know how it is. This kind of stuff keeps a man busy in the winter months – it’s good for the soul, poor on the wallet but utterly engrossing.
On Saturday I commandeered the next generation – let’s call this slave labour – to come and help with lifting the boat and jet washing the bottom. With a good heart and the promise of fish and chips, my teenager rose from his slumber, left his iPhone down below for a few moments and threw himself at the task. I was impressed. And the result was stunning.
So ‘no excuse to lose’ (or should that be: every single excuse under the sun?) on Sunday’s annual Forts Race organised by the sublimely brilliant Cowes Corinthian Yacht Club that saw about 20 vessels of varying hues head off to round the three massive forts that were installed between 1865 and 1880 as defences in the eastern Solent just off from Seaview across to Portsmouth.
It’s a busy area mixing commercial shipping and pleasure boats, all whipping up a chop that’s tough to plug over-canvassed 1.5 ton sheds on through. In winds that touched 28 knots we had the boat rocking and rolling on the long downwind hitting a top speed of 10.4 knots just as we came into the gybe around the first fort. Heart firmly in mouth with prayers being offered to the Gods of aluminium masts, we sent it down a wave, gybed and ran across to round the next two forts and head home upwind against the tide to Cowes.
Magical times. Sailing with brilliant crew makes such a difference and makes an average helm look half decent. We did okay. Finished up fourth on handicap, learned a lot about set-up and the sails and came away with a jobs list longer than Elon Musk’s. The burger at the club tasted better than Five Guys. The drinks and sailing chat afterwards were fun. The scene was just pure Cowes at its very best. Call it the onset of middle age but I prefer passage racing these days to the wham/bam round the cans stuff in yachts – save that for the Laser – and four hours is a decent jaunt.
To be honest I love going a bit further – round the Isle of Wight is just about perfect – and I’m toying with the thought of offshore racing. The tales from the Rolex Fastnet Race serve as utter inspiration and the short-handed sailors are astonishing. I was following Henry Bromby and Shirley Robertson’s progress in the race in remarkable detail and a fabulous second place in the double-handed division was pure class. Can you imagine just how knackered the duos must be after 700 miles at sea on caffeine and snatched naps? Incredible. Shirley has a video report coming out soon and that’s a must-see.
For now, for me, the season goes into a series of passage races out to the Nab Tower (ugly, foreboding marker) and one to the West Princessa buoy near Bembridge Ledge and I literally can’t wait plus there’s something very exciting happening towards the end of this week that I am under NDA not to mention. It’s a record attempt by an astonishing sailor and I will bring you the story as it unfolds. The weather and tides are colluding to perfection and it looks like a Code Green to Go on Thursday…you wait until you hear about this one. Breathtaking.
Stay tuned. We’re vibing. This summer just gets better and better…