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Round the Island Race

On the 15th June 2024, the OMSA took on the Round the Island Race, challenging the team more than they’d initially anticipated. Crew member, Billy Buxton (C1 1986-91), shares his account of the day.

Boat: Aspiration – Sigma 38 (Ex. Yeoman XXVIII that Prince Philip regularly sailed on).

Skipper: Mike Orange (Jaffa) (PR 1986-91)

Crew: Karen Hill (B2/MM 1988-90), Seb Katkhuda (C2 1985-90), Ed Gregg (C2 1988-93), Angus McNab (SU 1986-91), Jim Harding (TU 1987-92), Andy Halliwell (C3 1988-93), Billy Buxton (C1 1986-91), Alex Findlater and Ben Sturges.

To those of you who have competed in a ‘Round The Island’ race (as a number of the crew had) one might be forgiven for thinking it is more a ‘knees up’ after a 60 mile race. To those who are less familiar with the race, it is one of the largest yacht races in the world and one of the most well attended sporting events in the UK after the London marathon, pitting Olympic sailors against OMs!

Previously I had sailed it 3 times in varying wind conditions, from almost nothing to an encouraging force 4-5 where we lost our spinnaker off Ventnor.

None of this however prepared us for what we experienced this year.  There was a huge range of experience and miles sailed on board and whilst we were fully aware of the outlook, we didn’t expect the forecast to be quite so wrong.

We had a practice sail on Friday afternoon where we experienced some fine sailing conditions, 20 knots of wind with the sun keeping us warm and happy.  We prepared for a spinnaker hoist however with it blowing over 20knots at the time we took the view that Saturday was going to be even windier and therefore there was little point in hoisting it.  With Jaffa happy the crew knew their respective jobs we returned to Cowes for a debrief and some pre-race planning in a local hostelry where upon we learnt the race organisers had cut a number of classes from the race in anticipation of some ‘strong winds’.

We developed our plan for the race: leave Cowes and turn left!  The Skipper was less convinced that planning and prep was complete.  By now we had returned to Jaffa’s house in Bembridge where some excellent supper was provided, after which we were put to work. Everything from sandwich making to sail repairs!

And so, to bed by midnight.

A rude awakening at 4.30am, quick breakfast and back to Cowes.

On the water by 6am.  The weather at this point was rather deceptive. We were expecting the wind to build up to 40knts by midday and thus hoisted our no.3 jib with a triple reef in the mainsail. Others around us had various rigs from no reefing to fully stormed up.

We crossed the start line at 7am on the dot and almost immediately began to think we were ‘under-canvassed’ (too little sail) as others in our class were pulling away.  Half an hour in and Skip gave the instruction to change the headsail up to no.2 jib. Duly completed we started to make much better headway. Then the rain started.  No doubt we have all used the term ‘biblical proportions’ when referencing rainstorms in the past but add to that winds gusting over 30 knots and it truly become an interesting experience.

Shortly after the rain started, we started to see boats turning round and heading back to Cowes.  We came across a boat that lost its mast, more boats heading back. Jaffa lets us know we’ve just gusted 37 knots. We pass Hurst castle though given the rain you could hardly see it. More boats turning back. There’s a call for tea (as a joke one hastens to add) but Al (boat owner) jumps down in the galley and soon after tea is being served with our boat over on its ear (heeled over at 45 degrees).  As the first cup is passed to a crew member Jaffa shouts ‘40 knots’ followed by ‘big wave’.  The tea was consumed with our boom in the water yet not a drop was spilt!

We arrived at the Needles…holy smokes batman…that is some swell. Bearing away as we change direction around the back of the Needles the sea state becomes genuinely fearsome. There is then a debate amongst crew – not about turning back but how one correctly measures wave heights!  So are these swells 30 feet or 60 feet. One moment you can see other boats then they all disappear from sight.  Someone shouted out ‘are we having fun yet’…Thankfully shortly after the Needles the rain abates.

Like a lemming, Al kept popping out through the hatch with fresh brews despite the water pouring down the galley each time a ‘biggy’ (large wave!) hits the boat.

Jaffa and crew were all in good spirits at this point.  I say ‘good spirits’ but the crew sitting on the rail getting slapped in the face by the waves might disagree a little with my view. Suddenly one of the crew (me) hurls his breakfast over the side of the boat (rather out of nowhere).  It was suggested I sit aft and look at the horizon.  I suddenly found myself in uncharted territory…sea sickness. Not much to laugh about (and unusually for OMs no one was laughing at me either).

Although there was no visible evidence on deck of what had just occurred Jaffa decided to ‘wash the deck’ by embracing the sea conditions… next thing we take a decent wave over the port rail which greets me like a welcome lover. BANG, my self-inflating life jacket thinks I’m in the drink and auto inflates.  When the ringing in my ears fades all I hear is laughter from the crew – to be fair it was hilarious!

It is often difficult to calculate with simple line of sight whether one boat is gaining on another given points of sailing and proximity to marks etc. In the sea state we were sailing it was often difficult to see other boats, there one minute, out of view the next.  We did however witness the coast guard plucking someone out of the water by helicopter with the RNLI racing towards the scene. Thankfully the reports back were that all was well.

All was not well on board, however. Following in my footsteps three others took it in turns as sea sickness took hold (some less accurate with their direction).

With the wind still gusting frequently over 40 knots we were all delighted when the sun came out, not only did it warm us up it lifted spirits too – the banter picked up. We overtook Jaffa’s son, Monty, on another boat and one by one the visible markers were sighted Ventnor, Shanklin, Sandown, Bembridge – each one getting us closer to finishing. When we rounded the most easterly marker, we were in a race with a number of visible boats all beating furiously upwind. Whether it was Jaffa’s sailing competitiveness, our ‘improved sailing skills’ or simply our 40 year old boat being better at upwind sailing, we were soon putting distance between them and us.

Passing Ryde pier and knowing we only had a few miles left to the finish brought on a sweepstake for our finish time (note to self never let the helm join in!). We crossed the line at 15.22 (two minutes off Jaffa’s prediction).

At first, we were simply pleased to finish then the information started to feed back. It turns out that 8 hours 22 was ok. Certainly good enough for third in class. After eight hours of racing just 61 boats had completed the course.  939 boats were originally entered but only 153 successfully managed to circumnavigate the island.

Reported in the press on Sunday, the weather station at the Needles registered 54 knots of wind (that’s 100 kmh), which is storm force 10, with continuous winds in the range 35-45 knots. The forecast had been almost as wrong as Michael Fish.

As one observer mentioned ‘the winners wore helmets to sail’ yet a motley crew of middle aged OMs managed a feat, in a 40 year old boat, that eluded so many on this particular day. On further reflection 8 hours 22 minutes was ok. It was an epic adventure in race conditions not experienced at Round the Island this century.  As to whether we are having fun yet – I doubt there was a crew member on board who wouldn’t volunteer to tackle the same conditions again.

Our huge thanks to Jaffa for getting us round in one piece and having so much fun along the way.