The opening day of Aberdeen Asset Management Cowes Week was bathed in unbroken sunshine, with a fickle breeze that saw racing postponed for two hours.
Shortly after 1100 the first signs of a fitful east-south-easterly appeared off Cowes, but the big question was how long it would take to become established as a consistent sea breeze. With few signs of thermal clouds building over the mainland there was still a chance of a long wait and the Cowes coffee shops enjoyed a brisk trade as competitors took advantage of the opportunity to relax in the warm sun.
Shortly after midday, once the east-south-easterly breeze in the mid-Solent had built to 8-9 knots, race officials got the start sequences under way. The first Black Group was for the large yachts in IRC Class 0. Michael Bartholomew’s GP42 Tokoloshe ll led the fleet away from the southern end of the Bramble line, 10 boat lengths ahead of Bastiaan de Voogd’s Sydney 43 GTS Coin Coin. A second group, which had started to leeward in the middle part of the line was led by Sir Keith Mills Ker 40+ Invictus, which led Piet Vroon’s Ker 51 Tonnerre 4 by three lengths. It was this group that looked to have an initial advantage when they gybed towards the north shore to gain tidal relief.
Tonnerre was first across the line, with a margin of almost 18 minutes on Tokoloshe ll, who was second on the water. However, Vroon failed to save his time on the smaller boat, which took the first on corrected time by 57 seconds. Jonathan Bamberger’s Farr 45 Spitfire was third on the water and just 42 seconds behind Tokoloshe ll on corrected time.
Some of the busiest start line action of the day was seen in IRC Class 2. The first boat in the fleet to hoist a spinnaker, Jim Macgregor’s Elan 410 Premier Flair, realised he had done so too early. When a few big course changes failed to burn off enough speed, he gybed onto starboard, heading for the committee boat, forcing Adam Gosling’s Yes! and Ed Fishwick’s Figaro ll Redshift away from the line. Just before the gun Macgregor gybed back to port to clear the committee boat, sneaking past her bow while his foredeck team unwrapped the kite from the forestay.
After the fleet gybed towards the north shore, a couple of minutes after the start, Premier Flair, Yes! and Andrew McIrvine’s First 40 La Reponse looked to be best placed, with little more than a couple of boat lengths between them. Another First 40, Steve Cowie and Ian Marshall’s Zephyr was also clearly in the mix at this stage.
At the end of the 12 mile, three and a half hour race, Yes! and Premier Flair, which have almost identical ratings, finished just eight seconds apart, with the former taking victory both on the water and on corrected time. Zephyr crossed the line less than a minute after Premier Flair and saved her time to take third on handicap.
In White Group, the strong east-going stream had pulled the outer distance mark, Aberdeen Alpha, a few boat lengths over the start line, which caught out a few unwary competitors who found themselves starting prematurely. This was the case in the J/80 fleet, where Peter Cameron’s J-Spot Team Strathclyde returned to restart 45 seconds after the gun. It proved an expensive mistake, taking them more than two minutes to claw back to the line against the tide.
This therefore initially left Shane Armitage and Oliver Dunford’s Purple Haze, plus Douglas Neville Jones’ Jasmine as the best-placed boats in the 19-strong fleet. At the finish of the two-hour race Sproul’s JAT crossed the line first, just 10 seconds ahead of Purple Haze, with last year’s winner Betty taking third place almost two minutes later.
“Despite the lack of wind, it was a really exciting race – we knew that with Ben Vines on board Purple Haze would be really competitive,” says Sproul. “They led all the way round the course, two or three boat lengths in front of us. We did a couple of dummy gybes on the run to the finish and he stayed with us. On the third time, he went for the gybe and sailed for the finish line, but we sailed on another 20 yards inshore out of the tide, gybed and got him on the line.”
The Sportsboat class, which races under the IRC rating system, has grown over the past few years and now numbers 26 boats. These include new high-octane designs such as the Farr 280, as well as five J/88s, half a dozen Cork 1720s and a clutch of Vx Ones, Hunter 707s, Viper 640s and SK2s.
In today’s race, which started beating towards the east from the RYS line, a pair of VX Ones, plus a couple of Farr 280s – Malcolm Glaister’s Plus de Rhum and Nick and Annie Haigh’s So Steamy – were well placed at the start. As the fleet passed Prince Consort north cardinal buoy a few minutes after the start Glaister held a useful windward advantage on Stuart Hawthorn’s J/88 Ji Fi, while So Steamy was a few lengths back from Glaister and a little to windward. At the same time the Vx Ones were a few lengths to leeward, out in slightly stronger tide and maintaining good speed to windward despite their much shorter waterline length.
So Steamy was first across the line, two minutes ahead of Plus de Rhum, with James Neville’s Ino third on the water a mere four seconds later. However, none of the Farr 280s were able to save their time on four of the J/88s, with Ji Fi taking first place on corrected time in Sportsboat Division 1, David and Kirsty Apthorp’s J-Dream second and Paul Ward’s Eat Sleep J Repeat third.
In Sportsboat Division 2 Rob and Lucinda Mclean’s modified Cork 1720 Spider Pig emerged victorious on corrected time ahead of two of the Vx Ones – Howard and Tom Steavenson’s Abracadabra, and Nathan Batchelor’s Ovington Boats.
The Dragon class started cleanly, with the fleet tending to favour the middle or inshore end of the line. Eric Williams’ Ecstatic made a great start and pulled away to an early lead, with last year’s overall winner, Gavia Wilkinson-Cox’s Jerboa, also looking well placed a few lengths behind and to windward.
However, by the final mark Graham and Julia Bailey’s Aimee had ground out a three-length lead on Williams. “From there it should have been a straight-forward, pole forward reach to the finish,” says Graham, “but we were against the tide and the easterly sea breeze can just drop towards the end of the day. It turned out to be one of those days when a foxy move by Eric Williams at the end nearly got us.”
With the wind dropping Williams went inshore towards the high ground at Norris, risking losing even more wind, but gaining a tidal advantage. “One of our crew, Gilly Hamilton, kept saying neaps turn early. I felt that the tide should never have gone when it did, but sure enough she was right.” Bailey added. “We cut our losses and went in, but Eric had already got ahead of us. We just managed to do a couple of good gybes on the line, but we were nearly out-foxed. It was a great race and we really enjoyed it.”
It was one of the closest finishes of the day, with Aimee crossing the line just nine seconds ahead of Williams. Owen Pay’s Furious took third place two and a half minutes later.
Tomorrow promises another day of spectacular action for competitors and spectators alike, with more bright sun and the promise of a more consistent south-westerly breeze.
Entry numbers are up on last year, including a number of large yachts that have been in Cowes for the Royal Yacht Squadron’s Bicentennial Regatta and the Rolex Fastnet Race. These include three state of the art 72ft Mini Maxis, plus a Volvo 70 and Volvo 60 that will race in a mini series from Tuesday to Thursday.
Thursday will also see the return of the Artemis Challenge at Aberdeen Asset Management Cowes Week, with an impressive entry of 16 yachts, including ten IMOCA 60s, two Volvo 65s and three MOD70 trimarans.
Report by Rupert Holmes