Around the Island to Improbable Victory

What are the chances that you’ll stand on the podium after competing in a race against 1700-plus sailboats?

22nd October 2009.
By John Burnham

For at least 30 years, I’ve wanted to compete in a race around the Isle of Wight, the course made famous by the schooner America some 158 years ago. My chance came at last, earlier this summer, and although our result wasn’t quite as stunning as that of the yacht for whom the America’s Cup is named, the idea of winning looked completely out of the question about two hours into the nine-hour JP Morgan Round Island Race.

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Ian, John, Dan and Sam head out on their J/80 for the start of the Round the Island race.

The island lies along the south coast of England, has a shape somewhat like a diamond, and requires close to sixty miles of sailing to go all the way around. On its northern tip sits the well-known port of Cowes, and the race starts in front of one of the oldest yacht clubs in the world, the Royal Yacht Squadron.

For me, the race really began about 4:30 a.m. when my alarm rang and I forced myself to get moving towards the docks on the Hamble River where I would meet my boat, one of hundreds if not thousands of sailboats parked along that tidal river just north of Portsmouth. I was joining the crew of a J/80, skippered by the boss at YachtWorld.com and Boats.com, Ian Atkins, a top racer, who had just finished third in the class’s 2009 UK Nationals. His right-hand man and sail trimmer, European Boats.com sales manager Dan Brown, was chief trimmer. Ian’s son, Sam, was the third experienced member of the crew, and I was the guest strati-guesser, visiting from the States. As I met the others in the parking lot at 5:30 am, Ian issued me a set of foul weather gear, and it started to rain.

The first start lines up.  The Boats.com team started third.

The first start lines up. The Boats.com team started third.

Within half an hour, we were on our way down the Hamble amidst a growing fleet of sailboats and picked up a pre-arranged tow to ensure that we were on the starting line some five miles to the south in plenty of time. A very light northwesterly wind stirred our mainsail, and the rain let up; with luck, the gathered clouds would be pushed off to the east and a better breeze would fill. Otherwise, we faced a very long drift around the racecourse.

Our start, at 7:50 am, required some careful planning. The line extends on a transit from the Yacht Squadron for about 1.5 miles to an outer limit buoy. Which end would prove favoured? The current was due to turn fair first at the south end, under the ramparts of the castle-like Squadron; but the fickle northerly breeze would more likely be stronger at the northern end. We had to make our choice at least twenty minutes in advance of the start so we could get into position – and right or wrong, our selection would have a dramatic effect on the rest of our day.

We chose the south end, jostled for advantage amongst 20 or 30 other boats and popped to the front as the starting gun sounded. Our auspicious beginning soon took an unfavourable turn, however, as we were passed by competitors when we sailed too close to the shore, and then more competitors when we tacked too far away from it. And gradually, as the morning progressed, we began to see that the boats a mile or more to the north of us were carrying more breeze than us and appeared to be half a mile or more ahead. Then, off Yarmouth, a healthy sea breeze began to fill in, and it seemed that we were the last to get it. By the time we set our spinnaker at the Needles, on the western point of the island, the gloom aboard was palpable.

But a J/80 has a great turn of speed with the wind aft, and our asymmetric spinnaker began to jet us along under the cliffs in fine style. We spent the rest of the morning jibing inshore to stay out of the adverse current and gradually gaining on a couple of other J/80s close ahead of us.

We might’ve pressed for advantage a little too far at one point. We jibed inshore, watching the depth gauge, then jibed back and proceeded to run into a thin spot of water over Athol Ledge. We were gaining nicely on two nearby boats when suddenly we had two jarring collisions in quick succession with submerged objects. Fortunately, we didn’t get hung up nor spring a leak, but neither did our skipper choose to sail a safer distance from the beach as we began to approach St Catherine’s the southern tip of the island.

That’s because we were gaining: With the wind directly behind us, we were continually jibing in toward the shore to avoid the worst of the west-flowing current, then back out to clear the next set of rocks. On the sheets, Dan and Sam were working hard to trim in the big spinnaker on each turn, and Ian did a good job steering; the result was we usually accelerated out of each jibe, which helped us continue to pass other J/80s. I have to admit, at one point we allowed an Irish maxiboat to help us out by creating a pick which allowed us to sail by two more competitors, but that was an extremely minor incident compared with what was to come.

On the third leg of the course, we flew the spinnaker on a reach across Sandown Bay in a gradually dying wind. Ahead of us, what seemed to be a few hundred bigger boats had run out of wind entirely, and we soon realised that we would be parked with the rest of them in short order. Which way should we try to get around them? It all depended on where we thought we might find a little patch of wind.

Concentrating downwind, after the Needles

Concentrating downwind, after the Needles

We were close ahead of two other J/80s and didn’t realise it at the time, but we’d moved into the lead within our class. If we’d known, it would’ve been much harder to make the decision we did, which was to ignore the hard-and-fast rule of staying between your competitor and the next mark, and jibe away from the shore in what seemed to be fresher breeze. Having encouraged the idea and only having joined the team at Boats.com and YachtWorld.com a few months earlier, I admit to harbouring some concern for my future employment over the next fifteen minutes, but the breeze held for us and, miraculously, we sailed right around what may have been as many as 100 bigger boats. We then jibed and took aim at the Bembridge Ledge buoy, Ian squeezed between a couple of boats when it didn’t seem possible, kept us moving at all times, and found an opening to fit around the mark, passing another thirty or more boats in the blink of an eye. Looking ahead and behind, as we worked our way north again into the Solent, we couldn’t see any other J/80s, and we kept our fingers crossed.

A crowded mark rounding in light air.

A crowded starting pin in light air didn't look so different from the Bembridge Ledge rounding several hours later, albeit not nearly as crowded.

Tacking the final miles toward the finish line, back at Royal Yacht Squadron, everyone on the boat became a little bit grumpy. First, the afternoon was getting on, and by the time we finished we’d have been afloat for more than ten hours. But equally, we kept getting passed by bigger boats. We avoided running aground again, even as we tacked close along the mudbanks off Ryde and, as we approached the finish, we double-checked the finish procedures, which with 1,779 boats racing, are complex. There are two finish lines, and if you go over the wrong one, you might as well have not been racing. You also have to clearly display a number pennant and send the race committee a text message by mobile phone recording your finish time and the numbers of the boats just in front and behind you. All of this we did and were delighted to hear the sharp report of a cannon shot as we crossed the line. Unless some mistake had been made, we had won our class!

The final results show that we finished half an hour in front of the next boat in our class. That’s a margin of victory that only a racecourse with great wind and tide fluctuations such as the Round Isle of Wight could provide, and any of our competitors could’ve done the same. But this long June day in 2009 was ours: We worked hard, we had a good break or two, and most important of all, we didn’t give up when we fell behind in the first half of the race. Maybe it’s just as well that we didn’t start at the north end of the line after all.

Editor’s Note: John Burnham is the editorial director of Boats.com and YachtWorld.com.


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John Burnham

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John Burnham, Editorial Director, lives in Middletown, Rhode Island, on the East Coast of the United States and would rather be sailing, or afloat on any boat, whenever possible.
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