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Ben Clothier's Solo WindFoil Round the Isle of Wight

by Ben Clothier 29 Jun 01:25 PDT 19 June 2022
Ben Clothier's Solo WindFoil Round the Isle of Wight - at the start © Ben Clothier

I've been warming up to this for the last couple of years by testing kit and endurance, making trips around Hayling Island (13.7Nm in 54min, the current record is 49min held by Guy Cribb on a windfoil in 2020), sailing out to the Nab Tower and back to Hayling Island (15.4Nm in 1hr 0mins) and around the East Solent forts with fellow windsurfers James Dinsmore and Sandy Ramus 35Nm in 2hrs26mins.

All have been great fun, very memorable and incident free! However, the big goal was always to Windfoil around the Isle of Wight which, to my knowledge, hasn't been completed before. I should be clear this is windfoiling, the foiling variant of windsurfing, as opposed to Wingfoiling where the rider holds an inflatable wing above their heads whilst balancing on a smaller foil board. All these new foil sports have done a great deal of good for watersports in general, increasing the number of days that are worth sailing as less wind is needed for a good time, and lowering the loads needed to sail at speed. Its much easier to make ground upwind and downwind, improving the over VMG.

The sensation of floating or levitation of a foil never really wears off, it actually improves the feeling of connection with the water and not a detachment that is often suggested. The leap in feel of foiling is what planing is compared to displacement. In waves or current the foil gives the rider 3D feedback of the water movements and turbulence under the water surface. Once the foiling technique has been mastered it's possible to sail in a much wider range of conditions and locations, whether launching from the beach, a sailing club or a yacht. This all makes longer distances much more attractive, and there is great satisfaction in going somewhere and seeing the scenery change in a short period of time.

There are many records for Circumnavigating the Isle of Wight. The prominent sailing records, official and unofficial, are:

The various factors required to make an attempt were looking as though they could align on Sunday 19th June.

The plan was an anti-clockwise circumnavigation, launching from Lee-on-Solent, starting and finishing the loop on the Squadron line transit. Tidal charts suggested starting at about 3 hours to 4 hours after high tide to benefit from the push of the remaining ebb through the Western Solent and to avoid any adverse tide around the rest of the Island. Safety gear included handheld VHF, mobile phone (using RYA Safetrx app), Garmin InReach Mini satellite messaging device, navigation using Garmin Fenix 6 watch, tools, tape, spare line, orange flare, glow stick, a pair of wetsuit boots - in case of bail out on a rocky shore, a CamelBak drink bladder and of course a helmet.

Having arrived at the Lee-on-Solent launch location there was some deliberation on the right sail size to rig due to a light breeze in the Solent at 7am. The choice was either the 9sqm sail we use for racing or the smaller 8sqm equivalent. Online data from Hurst and the Lymington starting platform suggested the wind was building to a forecast of 20 knots, so the decision was made and 8sqm it was to be. The wind is notoriously variable around the Isle of Wight on any given day, especially in a northerly. This was to be a key decision.

Setting off just after 8am, the wind soon built to 15kts making it a 10-minute broad reach to the Prince Consort North cardinal off Cowes. Heading up slightly I passed the Squadron transit at 8:28am (the start) with Hurst in clear view and apparently hovering on the horizon. Great visibility, sun, a fresh breeze, and a flat sea state was a good way to start, building speed up to around 20kts as I got settled in. Passing Beaulieu, the wind began to build further, and I was grateful for the smaller sail choice. Approaching Hurst, the sea state became rougher as expected and the strengthening gusts made holding a line and height above the chop a challenge, resulting in a few wipe-outs. The problem with being on one tack is holding the stance in a fixed position for a prolonged period. The isometric contraction eventually weakens making ideal position, even more crucial for foiling and the required control, increasingly difficult to hold. Spare a thought for two windsurfers who sailed from Cherborg to Poole across a stormy English Channel in 25kts on one tack.

Now a dead run, with the wind veering to the Northeast, a few welcome gybes were needed to round The Needles. Good progress had been made, arriving at the SW Singles channel marker in 1hr 5min. But the wind had started to drop, causing concern that there wouldn't be enough to foil past the white cliffs of Compton and Brightstone bay on the Southwest of the Island. After the final gybe the breeze dropped completely to below 5 knots, so I took the opportunity to grab an energy bar and send some messages to the remote support team informing all was well.

Despite a lack of visible breeze to the East, the wind was building from the land. It wasn't long before I was back up on the foil at 18kts on a close reach bearing straight for St. Catherine's point. Perfect. There was a gentle long swell from the south-east, but otherwise flat enough to maintain good speed. This would be the fastest stretch of sailing, averaging 16kts for 12 Nm.

As the breeze started to drop again the question was how close to round St Catherine's. As the point approached the first of the overfalls came into view. These shorter, steeper metre-high waves along with the lighter breeze slowed progress dropping the average speed considerably. Opting to continue on port tack I headed offshore to find more wind, but to no avail, so tacked back towards St. Laurence.

A rain squall over Hayling Bay caused the breeze to increase. The areas of overfalls were becoming more frequent as the north easterly tidal flow built in strength. Off Ventnor the breeze gusted force 6 and it all became a bit more of a battle with the sail back winding, despite maximum outhaul and the foil refusing to stay in the water. Tacking was a ragged affair too, however, I was grateful to be going upwind as it's much easier to control these foil boards upwind than downwind. One can feather the sail upwind and slow down. Downwind in breeze, even fully born away, there comes a point where there seems little you can do to reduce the speed and regain control other than to come off the foil completely. However, if maximum speed is maintained off wind with the sail sheeted in, the apparent drops to a gentle breeze, the rig feels light in the hands, and it's all a lot more controllable and unnervingly calm, albeit on a 25kt twitchy knife edge. In short steep waves, judging and reacting to the rapidly changing ride height and avoiding the foil launching out the back of a wave is a real skill, as any Nacra 17 sailor will know.

I took a five minute break in Ventnor Cove to inspect a broken bottom batten, grab another energy bar, and consider my options for Sandown and Bembridge. The flatter water at this stage was a big attraction and it was a relief to be up to speed and beating across Sandown Bay towards Culver Cliff and Foreland. The sun returned off Bembridge, and wind moderated again. With the bottom batten broken more effort was required to maintain pointing. Having rounded St Helen's Fort, thoughts revolved around not running aground in front of Seaview Yacht Club and Ryde.

On a foil, running aground doesn't happen with any subtle pre-warning no matter what is on the seabed. Once you've come to your senses having gone from 18 to 0 knots and been catapulted clear of the board, there can often be a long and time-consuming walk, hopefully in mud for the sake of the equipment, back to enough water to sail away. Locals will know Ryde Sands is famous for catching weary sailors unawares by its crescent shaped sand bank.

Clearing the Seaview outer moorings at around 1pm (4hr30min), and now reaching to the Middle of the Solent, I was confident that with the rising tide I had enough water. In any case, as with so many races or regattas I was conscious of how often it comes down to the small margins between you and the result you want or could get. With Ryde Pier abeam I decided to bear away, the wind was back up, providing a perfect broad reach in the sun past Osborne Bay and back towards Cowes. I made a few short gybes to clear a ship moored outside the Cowes Harbour and the wind shadow it projected up-tide, caution from previous lessons learned, and went through the finish line at 13:37pm, 5hr and 9mins.

Before the beat back to Lee-on-Solent I took a short break sitting on the board in the water off Cowes Green, soaking in the sun and some satisfaction whilst munching the final energy bar. Although I didn't know it, the time was fast enough to take the all-time record for windsurfing around the Isle of Wight, aided of course be a huge jump in windsurfing technology. The gauntlet has been set for fellow windfoilers to have a go at this record and this legendary circumnavigation that continues to capture our imagination. Perhaps we should make it a race.

Many thanks to the remote team: Ollie, Mike & Mike, John and Sandy. Who kept an eye on their mobiles during father's day, prepared to launch a rib if called. Many thanks also for all the support and encouragement I've had along the way.

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