when things don’t quite go to plan

This a long and really interesting article about  how a most improbable project ended up winning big…

When first asked to write a piece  on my participation in this year’s Round the Island race  which after 23 years of trying led to winning the coveted Gold Roman Bowl for 1st place overall, I wasn’t sure how I was going to approach it.

Unlike some I know (Mike Holt, Matt Rainbow to name but two) I do not have a photographic memory for every tack, wind shift or decision taken throughout the day, especially a long one like this years was. So before returning to the race itself I thought I would fill in some of the background about how I, an average club sailing dinghy racer from Benfleet Creek ended up crewing for an Olympic medallist, multiple world and national champion, Admirals Cup winner, Americas Cup yacht and dinghy designer Jo Richards, sailing on a converted 50-year-old bilge keel Alacrity 18 named Eeyore!

Part 1 – How did it all begin. I met Jo 21 years ago, by pure chance through a close friend. A classic right place right time moment. Jo needed a last-minute replacement Bow Man to crew on his then yacht Full Pelt, in Cowes Week. Having not actually met him prior to this I turned up at his house in Gurnard on the Friday night beforehand and found myself in the company of various sailing personalities, feeling a bit like a square peg in a round hole. Ok I had done 21 Burnham weeks in a row and for the previous 4 years crewed for the Hyde Sails works team on a Melges 24 and Mumm 30, but this was going to be a whole new level.

Full Pelt was a 36-foot, super light water ballasted flying machine, crewed by 8/9 depending on wind conditions. Anyway, the first race dawned the next day, luckily perfect conditions in the Solent and to be the only opportunity to get to know the boat and just as important other members of the crew. Things went ok, although without realising it at the time, the Bow Man I was to replace had a knack of making the position look incredibly complicated which although it was I realised it didn’t have to be quite as chaotic.

An example of this was at one point we were peeling from the asymmetric to the symmetric kite when we managed to capsize to windward with both sails still drawing and half the crew in the water whilst the other half fell about laughing. Anyway, without boring you too much (assuming you’ve got this far) the rest of the week went ok and I manged to convince Jo and the yachts owner Stephen I was a thoroughly nice chap to have around and a slightly younger and not so chaotic person to have on the Bow.

Since that first Regatta I’ve not looked back and can claim to be Jo’s longest serving regular crew member. This has come with the good fortune through knowing him of being able to travel Europe sailing various Full Pelts in exotic places including St Tropez, Lakes Geneva and Garda, Cork, Ireland and Lock Fyne, Scotland. I’ve also been lucky enough to sail further afield travelling to both East and West coasts of America, Thailand, Antigua and St Martin.

Part 2 – The mighty Eeyore. Though some question the validity of her heritage as a 50-year-old bilge keel Alacrity 18, the truth is she is. Admittedly this is on the same basis that if you can claim a Spitfire or Hurricane flew and fought in the Battle of Britain when all that remains of them is a nut of the engine or half a wing strut then she is what we say she is.

To be honest all that is left of the very old and un-loved yacht that Jo rescued from the shadow of a power station in the Midlands is the hull mould. Everything else is new including deck, rig, bilge keels, rudder and obviously sails, ropes and fittings. Jo is the master of yacht building and renovation and to look at her now you would never guess her humble beginnings. The reason Jo decided a 50 year old small boat was a good idea is simple, you get an age allowance on your rating and history shows that any light air RTI is usually won by something small.

And although he has had a lifetime of success in the sailing world, being a resident of the Isle of Wight the one he really wanted to win was the RTI Gold Roman Bowl, not least to do it in something small and relatively cheap when compared to the multi-million pound yachts and professional crews who also have this one on their wish list of achievements.

Eeyore with new “Americas Cup old style keels – two of em!

Part 3
– The course. Circumnavigation of the Isle of Wight leaving it to Port. The only actual mark is Bembridge Ledge Buoy also to port. I always view the race as a course with 4 legs, each with their own vagaries and challenges to overcome. Leg 1 – Start line of Cowes to the Needles. Approx. distance 13 miles, all with tide and probably the most congested, and therefore dangerous part of the whole day, especially negotiating Hurst Narrows which acts a bottleneck. Leg 2 – The Needles to St Catherine’s Point, 13.5 miles.

Usually punching tide and the longest and quite often the hardest bit. Sometimes it feels you’re never going to get there and even with the Jurassic coast to look at it can be tedious. This year it took us just over 5 hours (I’ve previously completed the whole race in 6!) so a genuine snail’s pace, you can walk it in under 4!

Leg 3 – St Cats to Bembridge Ledge, 12 miles. Unlike leg 2 you can gain tide relief in Sandown Bay but this is a high-risk strategy depending on wind conditions. I usually like this bit, lots to look at off Ventnor, tactical and you’re over half way so feels like you’re on your way home. Leg 4 – Bembridge Ledge Buoy to the finish, 12 miles. Always good to be back in the familiar water of the Eastern Solent and if it’s been a slow one the tide is under you, if not, on a boat like Eeyore drawing less than a metre you get close in over Ryde Sands (much to the consternation of the local “volunteer” safety boats).

Part 4 – The competitors. I’m guessing on average 1200/1300 boats start the race and equally guess on average more than 75% complete it. This year was different, due to the very light winds, of the 1210 starters only 257 completed within the 10.30pm time limit. Those that take part represent the full spectrum of yachting, from weekend club racers to fully professional race crews. I also believe for a lot it’s not a race at all, just a chance to have an adventure with some mates and use that boat they forgot they owned once a year.

This is certainly the case demonstrated by their knowledge of the racing rules and in some cases basic safety!
Part 5 – and finally the Race. Our start this year in Group 3 IRC was at a respectable 8.30am. This was a big improvement from when we used to race in Class 0 IRC and had to leave the dock whilst still dark. Being the smallest, and slowest “on handicap” boat in the whole race the priority is always to maintain free air and momentum. For this reason and unlike anyone else in our group we chose the mainland shore end of the line. This not only meant we could sail as we wished without being bullied by bigger yachts but also gave us the best approach with our largest sail, the asymmetric spinnaker to “ghost” our way down the Solent in the light breeze.

After a slow but uneventful passage to the Needles, however all was about to change. No one knows the Solent better than Jo and we always try and cheat the tide gate at the Needles by shooting the gap between the Needles and the Varvassi wreck. All went perfectly well this year until we put the tack in to tuck ourselves under the cliffs and the Lighthouse itself. It soon became obvious that our bilge keels were not giving us quite the lift we were used to and that, compounded by a couple of bigger boats tacking on our breeze, meant we slowly but surely crept closer and closer towards the chalky object called the Isle of Wight, until, assisted by the gentle surf we gave it an almighty whack!

A quick dive below for the sweep oar we carry as our emergency steering gear, a big heave and we were soon off and on our way slowly again. The whole time this was going on an RNLI Atlantic 21 stood 10 feet of us offering a tow, we politely refused stating “we know what we’re doing”!

The Mighty Eeyore – acquainting ourselves with the Needles

The trip to St Cats as stated earlier was slow and uneventful, cross tacking with bigger boats who although going through the water a lot quicker than us always seemed to be in our way on the return. By the time we reached St Cats we had been racing for about 7 hours and starting to feel a little jaded. Eeyore, although a “cruiser” is basically a big dinghy, requiring constant trimming, balancing and sail changing.

However due to the light conditions we were at least able to make a brew, several in fact, and eat some sandwiches. By the time we got to Bembridge Ledge around 7.30pm the sun was slowly sinking and the only worry of the day was coming in to play, the time limit of 10.30pm. We calculated at the pace we were achieving here we weren’t going to make it. Also by this time large numbers of yachts were calling it a day and motoring past with little regard for those still trying to complete the race.

This was never a choice to us, as although we carry a 4hp outboard we only carry enough fuel for about 3 miles motoring and we still had 12 to go. Luckily for us two things saved us, the tide turned in our favour just after rounding the buoy and the breeze filled in for one of those lovely early evening sails home. The long and the short of it we finished at 10.07pm, 13hrs 37minutes racing and more importantly 23 minutes inside the time limit.

As we sailed in to the marina we had no idea how well we had done, whilst we were stuck round the back of the Island in no breeze the bigger, faster boats could have been romping up the Solent. But this was not to be the case, the slowest race on record meant the slowest boat on handicap won. The Mighty Eeyore.

Jo and I – receiving the Gold Roman Bowl for 1st overall

A footnote to this tale: A lot of people maintain a big boat will win the windy races and a small boat the light ones and although there is some truth in this the reality is you need to know where to go, when to go there and how to do it. The one thing about Jo, and our other crew member Dave is they never give up, no sail change is ignored, no tack not taken. Yes, you need luck, huge amounts of it, but as some also say, you make your own luck.

And lastly, when I got off the boat and told we had won my first reaction was “thank god” I don’t have to do it again. Trouble is we now have to defend our title!

As a postscript to all this 7 weeks later I was back sailing Eeyore at Cowes Week. Day 1 was blown off, day 2 and 3 went fine and then days 4 and 5 came. On 4 we ran aground off Beulieu entrance, being a bilge keeler and in spite of all three of us jumping in and pushing we couldn’t shift her and luckily received a tow off a waiting Rib, retired.

On day 5 we were sailing dead downwind in approx. 30 knots of breeze, in trying to drop the kite an almighty nose dive took place and we capsized. Fully inverted, mast and spinnaker in the water and about to turn turtle. Nothing for it but to get on the keel and right her aka “dinghy” style, retired. Not always glamorous but always fun.

The Mighty Eeyore – when things don’t quite go to plan.
Cheers and hope you’ve enjoyed. Duncan.