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
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