As most of you I'm sure are aware last Saturday was the Round The Island Race 2008 sponsored by JPMorgan Asset Management. Simon and Jeanette were taking part aboard a Grand Soleil 37 called Grand Slam. This yacht was launched only four weeks ago and this was the first chance we had to race her. This year the race had the largest number of entries in the history of the event with 1875 yachts entered and a mix that went from traditional wood classics to state of the art ocean racers.
For those of you who have never been involved with this event I would like to explain some things; with so many boats starting and the course having to be completed in daylight the start is early, the first start being at 0600. This doesn't sound too bad except that you have to first of all have to get to the boat and get it ready and then motor to the start line off Cowes on the Isle of Wight, all this after the obligatory 'race brief' the night before. For us this meant an alarm call at 0330! And we were starting half way through the start sequence at 0650.
Even with all this planning one of our crew managed to be late meaning we got to the start area with only minutes to spare. The hour and a half trip from Port Solent in Portsmouth Harbour where the yacht is kept did just about allow time for much needed bacon rolls and coffee, not easy to prepare in a bouncing yacht with ten hungry people to feed.
Once in the start area it is straight into race mode and with 200 yachts on our start and another 800 or so waiting for the following starts it's an anxious time for owners, skippers and crew with everyone trying to get their yachts in the optimum position for the start while at the same time avoiding the other 199 yachts trying to do the same thing.
At the given time the gun goes and we're all off whether you are on the start line or not. We got a pretty good start and headed off towards Hurst Castle and the Needles, first of all keeping in close to the Royal Yacht Squadron and Gurnard to try and make the most of tide. The wind was from the SW so this meant short tacking along this shore along with the majority of the fleet who strangely had the same idea. As we carried on down the Western Solent the fleet spread out and things became slightly calmer although a good lookout was still required.
Hurst castle fairly flew by with the tide washing us out and then it was on to the needles where one of the biggest decisions of the race has to be made. A few hundred metres off the Needles lighthouse is the wreck of an old steamship the Varvassi which lies just below the surface of the water. Between this wreck and the lighthouse is a navigable gap with the opportunity to save time, the down side is if you get it wrong it is the end of your race and often involves the lifeboat. Having navigated through here several times I know how stressful this is for the decision makers on board and you could feel the tension ease as we passed painlessly through, eased the sheets and hoisted the spinnaker for the long run down the back of the Isle of Wight to St Catherine's Point and onwards to Bembridge Ledge Buoy.
By now the wind was blowing Force 5-6 on the Beaufort scale and with the tide against us the sea was quite lumpy, we headed inshore to try and avoid the worst of the tide and although this made for a slightly longer route would save time. By now we were battling with the front of our class which kept the pressure on and helps keep the concentration going as the spinnaker needs constant adjustment of the sheet and guy with every change in wind speed and wave to get the most out of it.
Now, with everyone heading downwind, it was a lot easier to see how everyone was doing and how the different tactics were working, Zarafa, a yacht Jeanette and Simon have sailed on and against for many years, went slightly further inshore and as a result eventually gained a couple of boat lengths on us as we arrived at St Catherine's.
The overfalls at St Catherine's Point, an area of disturbed shallow water which kicks the sea up, was the most testing part of the race. The fastest way through this area was to head into the overfalls and once clear of the rocks off the point gybe back inshore to avoid the worst of the tide, with the wind now up to Force 6 from the SW this was not only an interesting prospect but needed to be done several times between St Catherine's and Dunnose Point.
While making our way along this leg of the course we did our best gybe while surfing down a wave at over 11Knots, and our worst which caused a major broach in common with most of our immediate competitors, an acceptable risk on a racing yacht with fully trained crew but this was not for the faint hearted! We reached Dunnose Pt. with boat and crew intact although several of the yachts around us had damaged their spinnakers beyond use. After this it was a relatively calm run down to the next turning mark at Bembridge Ledge.
Shortly before the mark the headsail went up, the spinnaker came down and we hardened up round the buoy for the reach to No Man's Land Fort. We were still in the hunt for the top spot although Zarafa had pulled ahead again after we caught up with her off St Catherine's where her spinnaker blew out, and through some slick crew work had it replaced in short order. This leg was fairly straight forward with the main concern being keeping clear air from the yachts around.
No Man's Land Fort brings an interesting little episode as when you round it there is a big wind shadow so the boats in front stop and you catch them rapidly until they are clear of the shadow and accelerate again while you are left there checking no one is going drive into your transom. Once the fort is cleared it's back onto the wind for the beat up the Eastern Solent to the finish off Cowes.
By now the tide had turned and was against us once more, this meant tacking up the shore along the edge of Ryde Sand, making sure we didn't run aground. Once past there we headed in towards Osborne bay before popping out round the headland and into the big tide for the finish. We didn't perform very well on this leg and slid down the fleet a bit.
After just short of 7 hours racing we crossed the finish line securing 4th in our class and 44th out of the 1800 odd yachts that eventually started, a good result but we were slightly disappointed at letting a couple of places slip away on the final leg.
Anyway once across the line it was engine on and sails down to admire the sight of over 1000 yachts tacking up the Solent towards the finish as we headed for home, not to mention a well earned beer. We eventually moored up at Port Solent just after 1700 Hrs satisfied and tired after a hard but fun Round The Island Race, roll on 2009.
Next up for us is Cowes Week 2008 at the beginning of August and we will keep you posted via the blog
Below is some footage to give you an idea what this race is about