6X goes Round the Island

Happy crew back at Haslar after a challenging weekend

Lightweight 26 foot boats go best in a force 3 with a flat sea. Call me a fair weather sailor, but those conditions suit me perfectly too. So I'd been watching the forecasts carefully in the week running up to the 80th Round the Island race and keeping my fingers crossed for a drop in the wind strengths which were dominating the weather systems across southern England.

The weekend before the Round the Island Race the skipper of a racing yacht was tragically lost overboard and died in high winds and big seas. The Wednesday before there were reports of a yacht in trouble on passage between Lymington and Poole being towed off the Shingles bank by the Yarmouth lifeboat, which had reported gusts up to 47mph (Force 10). So it was with some relief that I saw the navigator's print out of the Wind Guru charts that predicted around a force 5 to start with on race day moderating to 10 knots by the afternoon. Well, they got that wrong then!

To Gins Farm on Friday
After the preparation day on Thursday the crew were due to join me and the boat at Haslar to get away by 0800 on Friday 24 June. We had to sail to Beaulieu for Friday evening at the RSYC clubhouse, Gins Farm. Unfortunately it would be an upwind and uptide passage so we wanted to catch the last of the morning's favourable tide. We got that wrong too. I got down to the boat at 0700 and started brewing coffee and flasks of hot water, while setting up charts for the race day and tidying up a few last things. The crew arrived sometime around 0830, then we realised we were a lifejacket short and had to call my parents to bring another one down to the boat. The day was sunny, not too much wind so we had the middle sized genoa rigged and full main.

Friday was a day to settle down into working the boat. We had only sailed together as a group once before and sailing experience varied widely, with Chris (the navigator) being a seasoned racing man, Giles having sailed and raced dinghies since a young age, and Kim who was the least experienced but had sailed a bit with friends. We tried out different variations of tacking strategies, and settled down to a routine where Giles was always on the winch-in side, whisking in the sheet to avoid the slog of winching. Kim was on the letting off winch. Chris started to familiarise himself with the Yeoman chart plotter and the GPS system.

We headed over towards Ryde and tried to get out of the tide to make our way up to Beaulieu, the wind was increasing steadily and we decided to perfect our reefing technique by putting one reef in the main. With Kim on the helm, Chris on the reefing line, me on the halyard and Giles at the mast, we accomplished the reef with some style. We weren't quite so stylish when we decided to practice changing the headsail as the roller reefing system didn't allow a second sail to be set without dropping the first.

The wind was steadily building on Friday afternoon and we were glad of the smaller headsail and reef. Off Cowes we clocked the starting line and headed up to Beaulieu, where we moored alongside a Contessa 26 which was rafted up to a large boat with a much earlier start time than us. So much for that extra hour of sleep, we'd be up early to let them slip out and get away an hour before we needed to leave.

Gins is  a relaxing place to stay before the Round the Island, away from the hubbub of Cowes, especially with a record entry of 1908 boats this year. We ate in the clubhouse, drank some wine, broke out a whisky nightcap, turned in fairly early. The wind increased a bit more, the rain swept across the mudflats. The rigging rattled. I lay awake hoping all this 'weather' would have died down by morning.

Race day
My alarm went off and I went up on deck to see whether the bigger boat was ready to leave. No sign of life from anyone. That's because I'd accidentally set my alarm an hour early. Must have been the whisky nightcap. It was wet and miserable on deck in the grey dawn with a fine misty drizzle. Not the best conditions for a 26 footer. It was the sort of day that if you were cruising you'd decide to stay in port and go for a walk, or visit a museum, or have a long lunch. Revised strategy: two reefs in the main, smallest headsail, sail safely, keep crew clipped on, probably not take the inshore passage between the wreck and Goose Rock as the seas would be big.

First drama of the day was when the crew of the Contessa 26 arrived and we tried letting the big boat on the pontoon slip out. With 6X on the outside under engine the wind caught the two small boats and we had to power full ahead to try and get back to the shore, even with several beefy men on the shorelines. After brewing up coffee to wake the navigator and making tea to calm down the rest of us, we slipped our lines and started motoring down the river, munching bananas and the navigator's homemade foccaccia, pastrami and egg sandwiches.

Towards the start

Even with the tide against us, there was enough wind behind us to do 4 knots with just the headsail. Looking over the Solent the forest of sails at the start of the Round the Island Race is an awesome sight but this year the grey, damp, windy day was more intimidating than exciting. A couple of boats were being towed past us back up to Cowes having been dismasted early on. One of the big green can buoys in the Western Solent channel had been pranged and its top cage was hanging off. I hate to think what the boat that had hit it looked like. There was a flag Yankee flying, lifejackets obligatory. I had a dodgy moment when I could only find two lifelines, but luckily remembered where they were stowed. It was not the day to go sailing without a full complement of safety gear.

We headed down to the South waiting area and motor sailed up and down. The key here was not to be pushed over the line by the tide before our start. A recall for crossing the line before the gun would ruin our race, better to go over a few minutes later than too early. After all, it's a 51 mile race....

The Start
With the 10 minute gun for our start time we switched the engine off. There were a few calls of starboard, but being the last group to start we had less boats to contend with than most. As the countdown started we rolled out the jib and came onto the wind to reach over the line on starboard tack. It was a well timed start, no recall and the navigator kept us heading into the shore to gain maximum advantage before going onto the give way port tack. I now understood what he meant by getting 'in a lane'... you need to be on the same tack as most of the others in your group to avoid having to keep ducking under the transoms of boats on starboard. Our pack was surprisingly small, but that's because many of the small boats had decided the conditions were going to be too much for their boats and crew, so either did not start or retired early on.

Tacking down the Western Solent with around 20 knots of wind was hard work. Kim sat up on the rail acting as a waterbreak and saving those of us in the cockpit from a soaking. She looked rather damp. On port tack we adopted a position of having one person on the leeward sheet as spotter and trimmer, even though we could have done with more weight on the rail. The rudder had lots of weather helm on it and I decided we should roll in a bit of the jib. That made steering a bit easier. We bounced through the narrows off Hurst Castle, forcing some boats to tack ahead of time and having to do the same ourselves. The Needles were in sight and the seas steepening. Beken of Cowes was taking pictures so we gave a cheery wave and I was glad the bottom of the boat had been scrubbed as the picture would show a good amount of hull. We came onto the crest of one wave, probably 3 metres from peak to trough, and slammed off the back of it. The boat shuddered but stayed intact and Kim gave a reassuring yelp of exhilaration, many would have been freaked out by the experience.

The Needles
There weren't many boats shooting the gap between the rock and the wreck and I decided it was too big a risk. In fact we probably played it more dangerously as we didn't go far enough out to be clear of all the wrecks strewn along the Needles ledge. But we got away with it.

Round the corner and still with some adverse tide, despite it being well after 1040, we dropped inshore slightly and started rolling towards St Catherine's Point. It was a reach rather than a run and there were very few spinnakers in sight, we later heard that only 10 per cent of boats had managed to fly a spinnaker due to the gusty conditions. It was more like the Atlantic than the English Channel, with big rolliing seas picking the boat up and pitching her around. We could have done with changing the foresail to give more effort forwards but decided that because we would need the smaller one back on later, it wasn't worth the exhaustion.

St Catherines
The rolling motion made me queasy and the navigator sleepy, he had a doze down below while we surfed the waves to St Catherine's touching 9 or 10 knots at times. Through the overfalls round St Catherine's point with a few waves breaking over our heads and headed in towards Dunnose Bay, where with protected seas all calmed down a bit and we shook out the reefs in the main. We should have put a reef back in before getting to the Bembridge Ledge cardinal, as we would be coming back onto the wind. With Kim on the helm we started pushing past a neighbouring yacht called Summer Girl, which turned out to be a fellow Hardway boat.

Round the cardinal and onto the wind and indeed we needed that reef. Our practice the day before had stood us in good stead and with Kim helming it was a slick operation as we pointed up towards the edge of Ryde Sands. Good call.

The Eastern Solent
Coming back into the Solent you can see the finish ahead of you and it feels like the home straight. But the wind is on the nose again, the tide is against you and we had another two hours to go. By this time the sun was out, the wind had moderated and all was a little easier. We tacked right into the island shore to escape the adverse tide and worked our way up towards Cowes. Everyone was tiring and it was important to keep things together and not make a mistake now. The last few tacks and we came down to the line on starboard, needing to tack onto port to lay the line. Oh well... the navigator asked me whether I could lay the line and I made a poor call which meant putting in another tack to finish.

We made a note of the boat number in front and behind, and clocked our finishing time as 17.50.53, 10 hours and ten minutes elapsed. With the engine on, the declaration made by text message, sails furled we motored into Cowes to try and find a space in one of the marinas.

Squeezing in
The trouble with being a small boat in the last start group is that by the time you finish Cowes is crammed to the rafters. Summer Girl were also looking for a berth and we were told to head up to the Folly Inn, not ideal. On the off chance we called up East Cowes marina and were directed to Alpha 9, a bay which already contained around 9 boats. We sucked in our breath and squeezed in to raft up ahead and behind. It was like Glastonbury on water (replace the tents with boats).

We'd done it. The boat looked like a bomb had gone off below, with water sluicing around the floor mixed with a sprinkling of diesel. Charts and nav books were sodden. With the sun out we hung lifejackets and oilies over the boom and cracked open the beer and champagne. Of the four Trapper 300s that had entered the race in ISCRC only two had finished. Out of the 1,908 entrants nearly a quarter had retired or been disqualified. We had managed to sail, finish, were tired but happy and the boat and crew were intact. It felt like a big achievement.

Elapsed time: 10.10.53. Corrected time: 09.09.52. 30th in class, 500th overall.

Postscript: Sunday was another rude awakening as the boat closest to the pontoon needed to leave at 7am to get back to Weymouth. With warm sunshine in Cowes, I was hoping for a gentle sail home with the wind behind us. Wrong! The wind had shifted to north east so was on the nose again and the Solent was full of fog. We had a challenging passage back keeping our eyes peeled for other vessels and ships in the Solent and trying to keep out of the shipping channels. We dropped in at Haslar for a clean up and putting the cruising gear back on board before taking her back to her mooring. My Dad (co-owner of  the boat with my Mum) had come down to meet us and congratulated us on "Using the boat, and so vigorously".

For a video taste of the event, watch the End of the Day video on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9oXItwWi4Jw&feature=player_embedded

Thank you everyone who has sponsored us, we have raised over £1000. It was a great motivation. You can still donate to The Prostate Cancer Charity at: http://www.justgiving.com/Rachel-Hedley

Rachel Hedley, 27.06.2011 | More from Rachel Hedley’s blog