Matchstick masts

Sian Cowen reports from on board the Swan 55 yawl Gandalf White Sourcer

Sunday August 19th 2001, Author: Sian Cowen, Location: United Kingdom


Usually the start line for the big boats is the most exciting part of the race to watch. But today we found it difficult to concentrate on getting the best approach as there was too many magnificent yachts charging around that caught your eye.

It was also hard to get clean air when you have a wall of boats all over 45ft long - and many more than 100ft - and often with more than two masts carrying a huge amount of cloth. We started in around 20 knots of breeze and were sent off down to the western end of the Solent chasing the three giant J Class yacht Shamrock, Endeavour and Velsheda.

It was a long beat down towards Yarmouth and it was wet, wet and wet. The sea was lumpy and the wind building but our Swan 55 Yawl Gandalf Wight Sourcerer just loved it. Pounding through waves fully heeled over with a great wash running down the leeward side, these were the conditions for which she was built. Crossing yachts with bowsprits half the length of our boat was scary especially as most of these are very old, heavy and hard to manoeuvre.

When we rounded the first mark the breeze was up to 25 knots. We popped the kite up and settled down before hoisting our mizzen staysail and watched the boat speed pick up. Half way down the first run there was a loud 'bang' as the kite blew out down the tapes. This was not unique to us though and various other boats shredded their spinnakers including Shamrock and Endeavour.

After a small amount of panic we got round the East Lepe mark and reached back toward the Island shore to round the Elephant buoy. Up went another kite and before long she exploded too. The sail makers in Cowes must be able to all take a luxury break after the sailing casualties today and during Cowes Week. Once we had gathered up what was left our spinnaker one of the crew asked "shall I put it in its bag or in the bin with the other one?"

Back to the weather rail for more salt water saturation from one long run to the finish line. It was here that Gandalf Wight Sourcerer made the gains in what was some of the biggest waves I've seen in the Solent. We hugged the Island shore towards Gurnard flying our last remaining spinnaker. To seaward of us was Pascal Herold's unfortunate Open 85 La Folie des Grinders hard aground. We were inside of them and frighteningly close to the shore, but our trusted helm Tom Richardson has sailed these waters his whole life and assured us that this was going to be our winning call. We shot through with people on the shore waving to us indicating we should bear off but we stood fast and took about four places. La Folie was still on the mud this evening.

We crossed the finish line knowing we hadn't done badly. It transpired that we had won the day no doubt mainly due to Tom's local knowledge as it certainly wasn't our sails!

It was definitely great weather for big boat sailing but not for the wallets. As we headed back up the Medina river it was obvious there had been some major carnage among this epic fleet. Blue Leopard a 112 foot Ketch had its mizzen rig strapped to its side. Another classic The Blue Peter a 65 foot sloop snapped the mast off above the top spreader and we were very sad to see the splintered wooden mast of the beautiful 1937 53 ft Sloop Havsoernen. So for many yachts that have travelled thousands of miles to be part of this spectacle the week is already over on the water but certainly not over for the entertainment.

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