by Robin Spring
Rupert Holmes reviews some of the key hazards to avoid while sailing at Aberdeen Asset Management Cowes Week.
Staying Safe Without Losing Speed
While Aberdeen Asset Management Cowes Week has an enviable safety record, there are a number of hazards that may be encountered during the event. Perhaps the biggest of these is commercial shipping in the Solent and in the approaches to Cowes harbour and the river Medina.
The sooner you identify a ship that may be on a collision course – even if that’s on the next leg of your course – the more options you have to keep clear of it with minimal loss of time. In doing this you can therefore often gain ground on competitors that allow themselves to be forced into making big course changes at the last minute. As with any other aspect of racing, it’s the crews that keep looking around to stay in touch with changes to the big picture of what’s happening around them – both in terms of other boats in their fleet and other Solent traffic – that get the best results.
Another possibility – though a surprisingly unusual one – is becoming unexpectedly becalmed in front of a big ship. However, this is one of the rare occasions that you can use the engine during the racing, providing it’s declared at the end of the race.
Given the Solent’s strong tides, there are always times at which you will need to sail in shallow water to gain relief from a strong adverse tidal stream. With the exception of Lepe Spit, most of the mainland shore is relatively gently shelving, so the depth sounder will give good warning of reducing depths, and the seabed there is generally either mud or gravel.
However, the Isle of Wight shore, particularly to the west of Cowes, has numerous rocky outcrops. Here the depth sounder may not give adequate advance warning of running out of water and grounding has the potential to be dangerous, particularly when running downwind at speed in a big wind. The Bramble Bank, a drying patch of sand and gravel in the middle of the Solent, midway between Cowes and Southampton Water also has potential to catch out the unwary, particularly towards low water.
At the risk of stating the obvious, the other aspect of staying afloat is avoiding sinking – this can be a challenge for some of the dayboat classes that don’t have buoyancy and will therefore sink if they become filled with water. It generally only manifests as a problem in very strong winds, often as the result of a broach, although one year a keelboat caught her leeward running backstay around a buoy, which then slid up towards the top of the rig, pulling the masthead down to water level as it did so. Fortunately the crew were wearing lifejackets – the boat sank within a few seconds – perhaps a salutary lesson for us all.
Fortunately, despite yacht racing taking place in a potential very hostile environment accidents are rare. The biggest dangers to crew – being hit by the boom in a gybe, trapping fingers in a winch and being washed overboard in a broach – can normally all be avoided with common sense and ensuring you’re not in the wrong place on the boat at the wrong time.
Cowes Week website