Meerkat's Round the Island Race

The fleet tacking down to Hurst narrows (TH Martinez/Sea&Co/onEdition)

The weather forecast was looking "interesting" at best for Saturday. A brief foray on Friday afternoon to check everything worked and get the start line transit only reaffirmed the belief that Saturday would be windy and rough. Luckily we did not know how rough!

Whilst out on Friday afternoon we heard over the VHF that a sailing boat was sinking on Ryde middle which only made me feel more nervous. An early-ish night and a few beers were the order of the day. Big rain squalls over night did not make for the best night's sleep.

We awoke at 05:00 on Saturday to a nasty wet mist and drizzle and 20Kts + of wind. Swanwick Marina did not look a terribly inviting place.

My boat Meerkat is a Beneteau 25.7 with a lifting keel and is pretty
light. Crew of four (me, Ian, Paul and Ewan) in total, with weight on the rail being the order of the day I guess. We started with one reef in the main and 3/4 genoa, which seemed about right.

After a motor out and hearty breakfast of porridge things did not seem quite as bad as Friday afternoon. It was still wind over tide but at least it was not raining and the fog apeared to be lifting. That was until we were nearly run over by a 40 footer motoring around and not looking for boats that were sailing on Starboard! Clearly hadn't heard of the IRPCS or the pre-start holding areas. This served to wake everyone up properly as there was less than a metre in it, as he swung away and I tacked his stern got nearer....

Meerkat was in ISC 7 D (flag day glo green) starting at 07.30. Our strategy was to try and start on starboard in the middle of the line and get into the stronger tide asap. The line bias did not help and port was clearly favoured. I was not brave enough to start on port with 2000-ish other boats around, lots of wind (oh and a few waves as well!)


The crew had a bet on how many people I would have a few words with on the way up to the line. Only three as it turned out. We managed to get a good lane off the start and stay in clear wind. The first tack on to port (the lifting tack) was exciting as the whole of the rest of the fleet now seemed to be coming at us. Things soon calmed down a little, but at 6.5-7.5 kts of boat speed, things happened very quickly especially when bearing away to take people's sterns on port tack. Tacking was also interesting in the eastern Solent due to the one metre (and over) steep waves stopping the boat if the tack was poorly timed. These waves turned out to be nothing compared to later.


The beat to the Needles was full on - consistently 20-25kts winds with some big gusts and large shifts. Trying to stay in the tide, in the wind, in sequence with the shifts and geography was hard work. Lots of working the main and trying to keep a good lane saw us catch up with some boats from the two fleets ahead.

Not sure how long it took to get to the Needles, but visibility was
reducing as there was a low hanging mist / fog on the island shore, maybe 0.5 km of visibility. The waves were getting big by Hurst Narrows - maybe three metres - which from a 26 ft boat looks big, when beating into in a confined channel with lots of other boats around. Ewan can vouch for how difficult it is to visit the heads in these conditions and has sworn never to use the heads on a boat again!

We took the safe route round the Needles well offshore, and then headed inshore a bit. Most boats near us seemed to be reaching offshore on a white sail reach, the waves were smaller out there. We tried to keep out of the tide but in the wind, and play the waves. I think the wind was backing during this leg. Seeing 8-10 kts of boat speed. The waves were still large here (maybe getting larger) and were making boat handling challenging, but we got through it. I took a break from the helm as I had steered and done the mainsheet all of the way up from the start and I was a little tired physically and mentally.

This leg was going well and the sun had even come out, although the island shore was still in the mist. Over time the wind seemed to moderate down to 15-ish knots and the waves drop, eihter that or we were getting accustomed to them? I was back on the helm and made the wrong sail choice - as the wind had dropped and shifted astern I considered the asymettric spinnaker. Seeing another 25.7 go past us with spinnaker up confirmed this decision. After some foredeck faffing by Paul the spinnaker was up and drawing well. Fun in the waves seeing 12-14kts with material surfing. However the wind and waves were putting us on a more inshore course than we would have liked as the tide was now turning. Lots of DSC alarms, Mayday and Pan Pan calls going on, kept us all entertained and very aware of the conditions. After 20 mins or so spinnaker was down, reef was out of main and full genoa was also out as we were now on a two sail reach / run. 

St Catherine's Point saw a capsized catermaran, which everyone seemed to then want to call in to Solent Coastguard, even though it had been anchored by the lifeboat and a navigational warning issued. We then headed offshore and picked up the stronger tide which had recently turned. We seemed to lose places when the spinnaker was up but were now over taking a load of boats by really playing the gusts and waves. Ian was steering and doing a great job. Our minds were turning to the Solent leg and the conditions and wind as well as some rough tidal calculations. We reckoned the minimum tide height was 2.5m above datum, as we only draw 1.7m this would allow us to hug the shore line back up the Solent and keep out of the adverse time.

Bembridge Ledge buoy came and went without any problems, now back on a beat initially with full main then a quick reef as 23Kts constant was too much. Full genoa, reefed main, all crew working hard on the rail and lots of playing of the main sheet seemed to be working. We were holding or catching boats ahead of us at 7kts+ of boat speed. We managed to miss Ryde Sands this year, although the RNLI inshore inflatable lifeboat was telling us there was not enough water, which made me a bit stressed! (a lifting keel gave me a bit of comfort). But we did not touch and after nearly visiting Ryde Pier we held an inshore port tack for a long way in four metres of water. There were not many boats around this close inshore. Ian was navigating from the rail and found us a great lane up out of the tide.

Osborne Bay came and went, the inshore line was still paying although the windy was getting gusty and shifty. The finish line did my stress levels no good with a large sailing fishing boat making life interesting - it had a large wind shadow and did not really go to windward very well. After a final two tacks we crossed the line at 16:46.59. It had taken us 9 hours 16 mins and 59 seconds to circumnavigate the Isle of Wight. Corrected time was 8 hours, 41 mins and 20 seconds, placing us 310 overall and 23rd in class, not a bad result given the conditions and number of boats racing.

The day had been long and I ached in lots of places, we had all had plenty of salt water jet washed at us, but we had fun. We had travelled over 75 miles since leaving Swanwick at 05:30 at a GPS average of 6.3kts, considering this included the motor down the river and pre-start faffing it shows how quick we must have gone. Peak speed was 14.3 kts!

Sorry no photos as we were a bit too busy with the conditions.


Roland Emmans, 27.06.2011 | More from Roland Emmans’s blog