Sailing with the Royal Navy
Sailing ships may be long gone, but sailing under canvas is still going strong, reports Theo Stocker
Tacking in five…’ Tom called. Jamie jumped to the mast to help the large overlapping genoa round the shrouds. Alex and Vince made up the winches ready to sheet in on the new tack, I tailed while Vince got ready to grind in whatever I hadn’t pulled in by hand, and Tom steered a smooth curve through the wind, from the middle of the crowded cockpit.
I was sailing with the Royal Navy, and doing my best to keep up. On a sunny Saturday morning in early summer, I had found myself hurrying through Gosport. Civilian ‘on time’ is five minutes late in the Navy and I didn’t want to get off to a bad start. I made it to the gate of Hornet Services Sailing Club at 0800 sharp. Home to many members of the Royal Naval Sailing Association (RNSA) and the Joint Services Adventurous Sail Training Centre (JSASTC), I was here for the annual Yarmouth Rally.
After the torrential downpour overnight, things were forecast to brighten up, but for now the skies were overcast. Having met my skipper for the day, Royal Navy Offshore sailing team manager, Leading Engineering Technician Tom Gigg, we made our way down Fieldhouse pontoon to the fleet of Victoria 34s, a familiar sight to Solent sailors, where we joined our boat, Trochus.
On board were five young members of the Royal Navy. The fact that all but one of them were ratings, rather than officers, and all under 30, is proof that Royal Naval sailing is benefitting from a grass-roots effort to encourage and train up new sailors from across the ranks. Sailing doesn’t have to be a ‘Wardroom only’ affair.
We would be competing in the Royal Navy Inter-Command Regatta, a low-key competition over a long weekend between different Navy bases, serving as a warm-up ahead of the Inter-Services Regatta. My crew were representing HMS Sultan, where the Navy’s engineers are trained, and would be competing against crews from the new HMS Prince of
Wales aircraft carrier, Portsmouth and Plymouth naval bases and the Fleet Air Arm. Some on board were seasoned offshore racers. For others, this was their first time yacht racing.
With a westerly Force 3 to 4 and the tide flowing east until after
‘ The sun sparkled while busy flocks of yachts scurried around the Solent’
midday, it was going to be a long slog upwind, with a premium on finding a way out of the tide. We sailed out of Portsmouth Harbour past a Type 45 destroyer and the new leading lights for the huge new aircraft carriers, soon to arrive in the harbour, the largest ships the Navy has ever owned, by some margin. Our 0930 start time was approaching fast and we still had a way to go. As the countdown began, we lined up amongst the fleet.
Suddenly the last few seconds arrived, and I was tasked to sheet in the genoa. I promptly got a riding turn on the winch, costing us valuable seconds at the crucial moment. Sorry chaps. We crossed the line in fourth place and set out across Stokes Bay. To the south of us, RORC and JOG race fleets streamed downtide in a colourful procession of spinnakers. Gradually, we eased off onto a fetch towards Calshot and headed for our first mark, before the course took us south across the Solent to Ryde Middle. The tide set us badly to the east, forcing us to put in a couple of extra tacks, but we made it up to third in the fleet, briefly, before a boat higher up tide overhauled us again.
Vince and Tom took turns on the helm, continually searching out ways to avoid the tide, and finally found a back-eddy along the shore between Calshot and Beaulieu, holding our tacks as close inshore as we dared, relying on neat teamwork to get about promptly. Another racing fleet followed and overtook us, before peeling away for a different mark. We still weren’t catching the two lead boats, but we were a solid third.
The sun sparkled on the milky green water as the clouds dispersed over the Isle of Wight. The mottled green of the New Forest lined the opposite shore and racing yachts flocked around the Solent. It felt good to be afloat.
Sitting on the rail, Jamie, Sam and Alex told me about their careers in the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines reserve, while flurries of activity punctuated our conversation.
Gradually the movements of racing came back to me, and the crew got slicker with every tack. I hadn’t yacht raced in years, and I was enjoying myself. With clearer skies, the wind continued to build and white horses capped every wave as the tide began to turn in our favour. We reached a buoy that marked the start of a short run down the centre of the Solent, our first turning mark for a while and so chance to see how we were doing against the other boats. Third, still. Given the conditions, spinnakers had been vetoed, but we goosewinged the number two jib opposite the genoa in search of extra sail area, though it made little
‘Junior rates chatted happily to retired warrant officers and commodores’
difference to our position. The lively breeze shot us back towards Cowes, against the now west-going tide, and we were soon rounding the bottom mark hard onto the wind sailing for the Solent’s southern shore as we lined up for the finish off Yarmouth.
With a fair tide at last, Yarmouth drew rapidly closer. In the last few feverish moments, there was some panicked discussion about exactly where the finish line was and whether the boats ahead of us had really crossed it. With this tide under us, there would be no turning back to re-cross it. Fortunately Vince made the right call, and we finshed in a respectable third.
Yarmouth harbour was rapidly filling up with the combined RNSA and JOG fleets, but luckily space had been reserved for us to raft up three deep.
These are military boats, and putting them to bed at the end of the day was an orderly affair – lines made off and neatly coiled, headsails crisply flaked down. With everything ship-shape, drinks soon appeared and crews relaxed into the evening. Competition between the crews melted away and the banter flowed.
Cleaned up and in shore clothes, proceedings moved to the Royal Solent Yacht Club. On the club’s terrace in the warm evening sunshine, the Inter-Command Regatta crews mingled with the RNSA Rally crews. Junior rates chatted happily to retired warrant officers and commodores; a shared love of sailing and stories of ships, overseas deployments and foreign ports overrode the formalities of rank. Old friendships were stoked and new ones kindled. This was the familial camaraderie that is particular to the Navy, and was continued late into the evening. I retired to the hospitality of Dusty Miller’s Jeanneau Sun Odyssey 40 that was acting as committee boat for the weekend.
The next morning brought gentler winds as crews emerged blinking into the sunlight. The Victoria 34s would be racing in their own class again, and the RNSA yachts could opt for the racing or cruising class.
I switched boats, joining RNSA general secretary Mike Shrives and his family for the day aboard Swordfish, a Starlight 35 chartered through RNSA for the weekend. Mike has sailed all the way through a Naval career that has included time as a helicopter pilot, a submariner, and commanding a ship in the first Gulf War.
‘Chartering a boat for the Rally is a good excuse to get the family together,’ Mike said, introducing me to his wife Sarah and three adult children, Hannah, Sam and James. The youngest, James, a helicopter pilot at HMS Culdrose in Cornwall, was skippering.
To allow for a leisurely sail with the tide, an early start was set for the cruising division of the Yarmouth Rally, an hour ahead of the IRC-rated racers who would be competing for the Yarmouth Trophy. We may have been cruising, but passage times were recorded for the Golden Bough cruiser trophy; smart boat-handling and best speed were still the order for the day. We pushed up tide from Yarmouth to create enough sea-room to set in the spinnaker in the weak breeze before crossing the start line. We were on our way.
James may have been skippering but Mike was still keen to galvanise his crew into race-like action. He enthusiastically discussed the course with James, and briefed everyone on marks to be rounded. Family friend Lizzie Farrington was an experienced hand at the helm; her parents had set sail from Yarmouth to Guernsey that morning on the first leg of their long-awaited circumnavigation. Sam was trimming the spinnaker sheet. Not everyone was convinced, however, and holiday-mode reigned over at least some of the cockpit. Mike’s wife Sarah was enjoying the sunshine and Hannah threatened the crew with a book of puzzles. A happy medium soon prevailed as coffee and snacks emerged from below, along with memories of holidays on RNSA boats.
‘Do you remember the teddy bear overboard incident, Dad?’
‘How could I forget? That nearly ruined the holiday! Luckily we got it back on the first attempt,’ recalled Mike. The bear was ceremonially renamed OBB (Overboard bear).
Lizzie, who had been a member of the Bristol University Royal Naval Unit as a student and sailed the RNSA’s J80 and SB20 in regattas, kept the boat powering downwind, while I did my best to remember how to dip-pole gybe a spinnaker. Having rounded our mark in mid-Solent, we hardened up for a reach to the Norris port hand buoy. The black, yellow and green kite strained above us, but we just about held it before gybing for our final leg towards Gilkicker Point.
I took the helm as we crossed Ryde Middle, but in an effort to keep the spinnaker full, I headed too far upwind. A more competent helm took over to make up the ground downwind. Sorry chaps, again.
As we crossed the line, our time was noted down; we came second behind Arthur Baldwin's Fidra. Astern, the rest of the Yarmouth Rally fleet was eating into our time. For us though, race over, we slipped back into Portsmouth, home of the Royal Navy, and the peace of a sunny Sunday afternoon quietly reasserted itself.
Vince and Alex listen out for the start signal and check the course
The afterguard battle with a lively breeze
Victoria 34 Callista powers up for the start off Gilkicker Point
Placuna tacks across Ryde Middle on her way to victory
Our crew add their weight to the rail while crossing tacks off Stansore Point
Wild Blue leading the RNSA racing fleet, hot on the heels of the cruising division
A happy crew relaxes in the cockpit