Bright sun and a brisk east to south-east wind averaging 15-20 knots, but with gusts above 25 knots, provided exhilarating conditions for the first day of racing at this year’s Aberdeen Asset Management Cowes Week.
With the strongest gusts forecast to be in the Eastern Solent, the dayboats in White Group classes starting from the RYS line were sent on a downwind leg to a course in the western Solent, before beating back to finish on the RYS line.
The early White Group classes to start had the last of the ebb tide sweeping them over the line, with most competitors taking a very cautious approach. In the Daring class almost the entire fleet was heading away from the line with only 20 seconds to go. Roger Marwood and Mike Bilbo’s Audax, skippered by Steve Sleight, looked as though they planned to make a break from the pack, starting to hoist the spinnaker early, but were forced to luff by a boat below.
At the gun, David Christie and John Mulcahy’s Finesse, Robin Richardson’s Division Belle, and Giles Peckham’s Dauntless were almost abreast of each other at the outer end of the line, just ahead of the pack. The fleet soon spread wide across the racetrack as they headed towards Cowes Radio, their first mark, off the Beaulieu River.
Division Belle was unable to maintain her initial advantage, but it was a good opening day for Peckham, who has won the class four times in the past five years. He took the winning cannon, more than two minutes ahead of Finesse, while Jeremy Preston and Mark Fear were third in Defender, another 32 seconds later.
The Dragon fleet includes a number of world-class sailors and the leading boats were pushing as hard as they dared at the start. Although already close to the line, Gavia Wilkinson-Cox’s Jerboa was first to hoist a spinnaker, 10 seconds before the gun, and was swiftly followed by Graham and Julia Bailey’s Aimee. Sandwiched between the two was Chris Brittain’s Bear, which gybed onto a parallel course between them before hoisting, but a wrap round the furled genoa cost a few valuable seconds.
Initially the advantage went to Jerboa, which led round the first mark, Cowes Radio. However, she overstood the layline on the approach to the Gurnard Sailing Club mark at the end of the first windward leg, allowing Brittain to get through.
At that stage Graham and Julia Bailey’s Aimee was very close behind Bear, but their spinnaker was damaged on the drop and exploded on the next run, giving Bear an easier run into the finish. Yet she crossed the line only 16 seconds ahead of Eric Williams’ Ecstatic. 80-year-old American Edward Sawyer, who’s back in Cowes for the first time since breaking his neck during the Dragon Edinburgh Cup six years ago, took third place in Clairvoyant, crewed by Martin 'Stavros' Payne and Pedro Andrade.
It was an intensely close race throughout, with only 86 seconds separating the first four boats. Brittain, who now lives in Bermuda and was sailing a chartered boat with his wife Jilly, said afterwards: “It was a really great race – a bit more hairy than we were expecting, but really exciting. It was also fantastic to finish on the RYS line and get a gun – that’s what Cowes Week is all about.”
Thirteen RS Elites are racing this week in advance of the national championship that will be hosted by the Royal Yacht Squadron. Although the fleet was all clear at the start, a fraction of a second before the gun Martin Wadhams’ Kiss swerved away from the line to be sure of not being over, allowing Jono Brown’s Aeolus to take an early lead. Chris Preston’s Limelight, just to leeward of Kiss, also pulled away as the fleet sped downwind under asymmetric spinnakers.
This class has often posted some of the closest racing at Cowes Week and today was no exception, with five boats, representing places three to seven, crossing the finish within 50 seconds. Crauford McKeon’s Kandoo lll was first home, one minute 42 seconds ahead of Wadhams. Third place was taken by Freebie, sailed by Tom Montgomery, Sonny Mallet and 1968 Olympic gold medallist Iain Macdonald-Smith.
High speed rivalry
There were spectacular conditions in the eastern Solent for the yachts in Black Group, with even the smallest boats surfing downwind at double-digit speeds, aided by the wind against tide induced short, but steep, waves. The big boats saw much greater speeds, with the TP52 Toe in the Water that’s crewed by traumatically injured servicemen hitting 21.9 knots.
Classes starting from the main Black Group line started heading east from a much shorter line than in previous years. With the tide in the deep water still ebbing, the northern end of the line appeared slightly favoured, offering useful tidal relief on the south side of the Bramble bank as they beat upwind to the eastern Solent.
At the start of IRC Class 1, Jamie McWilliam’s Ker 40 Peninsula Signal 8 appeared to be in pole position close to northern end of the line, followed by Mike Greville’s Ker 39 Erivale lll, and another Ker 40, Nigel Passmore’s Apollo 5 and Mike Bartholomew’s King 40 Tokoloshe.
These were also the top four boats on corrected time at the end of the three and a half hour race. Apollo 5 took line honours, just over two minutes ahead of Peninsula Signal 8, with the two boats also taking first and second on corrected time, with Tokoloshe third.
In IRC Class 2, Duncan McDonald and Phil Thomas’ J/111 Shmokin’ Joe, Andrew McIrvine’s First 40 La Response, Richard Göransson’s Corby 36 Inga from Sweden and Joe Bottomley/Oliver Heer’s First 40 Sailplane led the fleet away, all starting towards the northern end of the line. Shmokin’ Joe, Sailplane and Inga from Sweden were the first three boats to cross the finish line, but all had been among the seven in the class that were OCS at the start.
This left Peter Rutter’s Grand Soleil 43 Trustmarque Quokka to take line honours, 58 seconds ahead of Steve Cowie’s First 40 Zephyr. However, Rutter was not able to save his time on Zephyr, who took first on handicap, with Rutter second and another First 40, David Vines' Carpe Diem third.
The strong winds meant some gear damage was inevitable, including torn sails and at least one dismasting, however few classes saw more than one or two retirements. The main exception is the 83-strong 101-year-old XOD class, which struggled in the strong wind against tide conditions. Competitors will remember the opening day for sun, the exhilaration of fast downwind sailing with the occasional spectacular broach, and some really close racing.
Photos from Rick Tomlinson/www.rick-tomlinson.com