The Rolex Commodores’ Cup took on a different complexion today both in terms of the racing and the weather. The offshore race set sail at 10.30 from the Royal Yacht Squadron line off Cowes, but rather than the welcome sunny 10-20 knot conditions of the past two days was in three to five knots of southwesterly breeze under a grey sky. The start coincided with a building ebb tide to take the boats west out of the Solent.
Under the Rolex Commodores’ Cup rules, the offshore race is aimed to be of 24-36 hours duration. The course for the three classes is mostly in Poole Bay and to the south of this, initially with 20 mile long legs out to marks in the English Channel.
After this the boats must sail west and here there is variation between the courses the three classes take: the big boats sailing two legs, the first towards Portland Bill, the other to a mark off St Alban’s Head (a total of 191 miles), Class 2 sailing two laps to St Alban’s Head (a total of 173 miles) and the small boats in Class 3 sailing just once to St Alban’s Head (a total of 137 miles). All classes finish at the North Head mark at the western entrance to the Solent.
'I think it will be interesting, because we haven’t taken the boat offshore yet and we don’t know how it will work in waves. It will be a learning experience for everyone,' says Mike Richards, the Cat3 sailor who is providing the tactical expertise on board Tim Costello’s Ireland Green big boat, Tiamat/Alfa Romeo. 'We are looking forward to it, but it will be pretty miserable for part of the race. It should be a building breeze in sunshine towards the finish, so we can dry out on the way home!' According to Richards, weather forecasts for the offshore race differ with one showing the wind disappearing overnight in Poole Bay, another showing more breeze over this period. Personally Richards expects the latter, with the crews in for a blast tomorrow morning with the wind picking up to 25 knots.
Ironically after two days of sailing windward-leewards in the Solent, the offshore race may provide more of the same – the wind will be southerly over the course of today as the boats sail south out into the Channel, veering southwest as they sail in this direction down towards Portland tonight.
Tide is another major feature of racing offshore in the English Channel where getting a tidal gate right or wrong usually represents the difference between winning and losing. This is potentially even more significant this week with powerful spring tides running. Fortunately, most of the racing today out into the Channel and back will be across the tide, with the biggest tidal influence being towards the end of the race on the legs between Portland and Poole Bay.
Significant also is that the boats will be racing overnight. More food will have been brought on board each boat to feed the crew, who at night time are obliged to wear lifejackets. The question is will there be the opportunity to sleep? 'Sometimes it is an advantage,' says Richards. 'If people are down over the keel it does reduce the pitching of the boat. I tend not to sleep, because I have two small children, so I don’t sleep anyway!'
Prior to the start former ABN AMRO One crewman and Volvo Ocean Race winner, Rob Greenhalgh, sailing on board Antony O’Leary’s Antix Eile in Ireland White, gave his perspective of the offshore race: 'It is going to be quite a long race – certainly 30 hours I think, 190 miles. And it could be quite light tonight. There are going to be some fairly chunky shifts early on which hopefully we can get on the right side of: southerly then southwest, as the front comes through.' At around 15:25 BST this Wednesday afternoon, Antix Eile was leading Class One on handicap at the first mark out in the Channel, while John Shepherd’s Fair Do’s VII, in the leading GBR Red team, had been first around on the water but was second on handicap, ahead of John Dean’s Poppy of Portland Marina in GBR White.
At the same mark, Kees Kaan’s ROARK/Claus en Kaan Architecten in Netherlands Red was first in Class 2 with a 7.5 minute lead over the Army Sailing Association’s British Soldier in GBR Black and almost 10 minutes in front of Jerry Otter’s Erivale III in GBR Red. The Dutch Red Class 2 yacht is putting in an outstanding performance this week, the lowest scoring boat in the entire Rolex Commodores’ Cup fleet. In addition to Kaan’s young crew is former Whitbread Round the World Race skipper Arend Van Bergeijk.
In Class 3 Andrew Allen’s No Naked Flames in Ireland Green was holding a slender lead over another star of the Dutch team, Frank Policky’s Slainte from Netherlands White and Tim and Sophie Harrington’s Vortex from UK Blue.
These positions are only 35 miles into the race and there is still a long way to go. Should they pan out for the remainder of the offshore race (which carries a 2.5 points co-efficient), then it will result in a break-away lead for GBR Red. The present tally would put them on 67.5 points, ahead of Ireland Green on 91 with France Blue on 102 and Hong Kong fourth on 116. Top Five Teams - Provisional Positions at the start of the Offshore Race:
Team / Points / Place
GBR Red / 40 / 1
France Blue / 42 / 2
Ireland Green / 43.5 / 3
Hong Kong / 66 / 4
Ireland White / 67/5
Netherlands Red / 91 / 5