On the crest of a wave

It be­gan decades ago as a bit of fun for 25 boats. Now, more than 1,600 of them will line up for the an­nual Round the Is­land Race, a jam­boree that’s caught the imag­i­na­tion of the world. Nick Ham­mond grabs his life­jacket

Country Life Every Week - - My Week -

The sea fret lifts and a shaft of light pierces the cloud above. It il­lu­mi­nates hun­dreds of spin­nakers on the hori­zon, bil­low­ing in the wind above the spume-spat­tered hulls of sail­ing ships of ev­ery hue and de­sign. This is the magic of the Round the Is­land Race.

It’s the fourth largest one-day sport­ing event in the UK, af­ter the London Marathon and the Great North and South Runs. This year, the young and the old, the se­ri­ous racer and the week­end splasher will once again brave the el­e­ments to sail around the Isle of Wight in the fastest pos­si­ble time on July 1.

Some will be home in lit­tle more than two or three hours, striv­ing against fel­low pro­fes­sion­als to take line hon­ours; oth­ers will hap­pily sail through­out the day on the So­lent’s choppy wa­ters, en­joy­ing the el­e­ments and the thrill of be­ing on the wa­ter with more than 16,000 other like-minded souls. They’ll still be in with a chance of win­ning the cov­eted Gold Ro­man Bowl and other prizes.

‘Most of my crew have never done a race be­fore, let alone a Round the Is­land Race,’ ad­mits Neil Mc­grigor, the ex­plorer who dis­cov­ered the pre­cise source of the Nile dur­ing a gru­elling ex­pe­di­tion in 2005—he’ll be lead­ing his own boat in this year’s race. ‘It’s a great op­por­tu­nity to get the fam­ily out to­gether as they mostly be­lieve that it’s all too high-pow­ered for the less ex­pe­ri­enced. We know that’s not the case; it truly is a race for all, which they will find out for them­selves.’

This year’s Round the Is­land Race, in as­so­ci­a­tion with Cloudy Bay, is the 86th

‘There’s sea spray fly­ing and boats, all go­ing hell for leather’

or­gan­ised by the Is­land Sail­ing Club in Cowes, with pre­vi­ous well-known en­trants in­clud­ing the likes of Lewis Hamilton, Dame Ellen Macarthur, David Dim­bleby, Sir Ben Ainslie and, last year, Prince Harry.

I taste just a hint of its flavour this morn­ing when I’m given per­mis­sion to step aboard Magic—a 12m (39ft) yacht skip­pered by Gra­ham Nixon, life­long sailor and Vice Com­modore of the Royal South­ern Yacht Club—on the banks of the River Ham­ble in Hamp­shire.

With a small crew for the day—in­clud­ing Com­modore Karen Hen­der­son-wil­liams— we sail out of the Ham­ble and into the So­lent. As we hug the coast, the sun breaks through and bathes the bank­side New For­est green­ery in gold. Oys­ter­catch­ers pipe over­head and, once the breeze has picked up enough to cut the en­gines, the bow knifes through the calm wa­ters with a hiss.

To­day, the waves may be benev­o­lent, sparkling gen­tly and barely rais­ing a rip­ple, but they of­ten reach more chal­leng­ing pro­por­tions—more than 200 vol­un­teers man the sta­tions dur­ing the race and the Coast­guard and RNLI are on standby.

We’re con­tent with a leisurely sail up the River Beaulieu to the ham­let of Buck­ler’s Hard, where ships des­tined for Trafal­gar were once crafted. I even man­age a lit­tle steer­ing from sea to river, man­han­dling the sur­pris­ingly sen­si­tive rac­ing wheel while keep­ing an eye out for other plea­sure­seek­ers mak­ing the most of a sunny day on the wa­ter.

A hot pasty and a cold beer later and we’re nip­ping back out of the Beaulieu on the tide, pass­ing just 6ft over the spine of a sand­bank. A dig­i­tal read­out on board

Magic shows how close the keel is to the riverbed; Gra­ham times the run care­fully to avoid mishap. There seems to be 1,000 ropes, pul­leys, tog­gles, switches, sails, gad­gets and ac­cou­trements on board, each with a very de­fin­i­tive pur­pose in mind—sail­ing caters for the ro­man­tic and the nerdy alike. We even have a spe­cific pen­nant fly­ing jaun­tily above us to hon­our the Com­modore, who’s fol­low­ing in her fa­ther’s foot­steps in lead­ing the Royal South­ern.

‘It’s a tremen­dous race, one of the big­gest in the world,’ she says as we sit in the sun and en­joy the flap of sails and the lap of the waves. ‘It’s a huge so­cial oc­ca­sion, too. The club will be heav­ing and many of our mem­bers will be rac­ing, some very com­pet­i­tively and oth­ers just for fun. After­wards, ev­ery­one will end up in the bars here and in Cowes for a drink and to talk the day through.’

Skip­per Gra­ham Nixon will com­pete in his 20th Round the Is­land Race this year. A youth­ful look­ing 70, cheeks burned by the wind and sun, he shows no sign of let­ting up on his love af­fair with the wa­ter. ‘There’s just no feel­ing like it,’ he tells me, eyes con­stantly on the hori­zon. ‘There are 10 or 12 of us, ev­ery­one with a job to do. There’s sea spray fly­ing, the wind’s blow­ing and ev­ery­where you look around you—ev­ery­where—there are other boats, all go­ing hell for leather. It gets the adren­a­line flow­ing, I can prom­ise you that.’

The race’s of­fi­cial char­ity is the Ellen Macarthur Can­cer Trust, which, this year, boasts four yachts on the start line, each crewed by young peo­ple re­cov­er­ing from can­cer.

‘I’ve com­peted in the Round the Is­land Race for many years,’ ex­plains Dame Ellen, ‘but my best ex­pe­ri­ences in it have been sail­ing with the in­spi­ra­tional young peo­ple from the trust. This is a very spe­cial race, open to any­one. The at­mos­phere on the morn­ing of the start is quite ex­tra­or­di­nary—the seascape is full of boats large and small.’

Thou­sands of spec­ta­tors will travel to line the coastal route, with van­tage points dot­ted along the cliffs, and thou­sands more fol­low­ing on so­cial me­dia and on­line, track­ing the boats live. See it for your­self. Bet­ter still, get on a boat and ex­pe­ri­ence it.

Round the Is­land Race (01983 296621; www.roundthe­is­land.org.uk)

The Round the Is­land Race is the fourth largest one-day sport­ing event in the UK

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