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An interview with Adrian Gray on the 2023 Round Iceland Race

by David Schmidt 12 May 2023 08:00 PDT May 14, 2023
Charlene Howard's yacht AJ Wanderlust - winner of the 2H RB&I on corrected time and RIR competitor © Charlene and Bobby Drummond.

It's the stuff of dreams: crossing a starting line on Plymouth Sound, racing a northwesterly course from the UK across the North Atlantic and then up and around Iceland, before swinging one's bow back towards the finishing line on Plymouth Sound. If this sounds like your cup of English Breakfast Tea (or pints of English beer), put the 2023 Round Iceland Race, which is set to start on Wednesday, May 14, on your radar.

The event is being organized by the Royal Western Yacht Club of England, and is open to sailing yachts (monohulls and multihulls) that measure between 27 and 65 feet, LOA.

Participating owners and sailors can elect to race singlehanded, doublehanded, or in fully crewed configuration, however all skippers (and, in the case of doublehanded teams, co-skippers) must complete a qualifying passage that's at least 500 nautical miles. (N.B., some bluewater races, including the Fastnet Race and the Newport Bermuda Race will satisfy this qualification—see NOR for more information.)

I checked in with Adrian Gray, Rear Commodore Oceanic of the Royal Western Yacht Club of England, via email, to learn more about this exciting high-latitude bluewater race.

Can you tell us a bit about the Round Iceland race, the inspiration for stating this event, and the kind of culture surrounding the event that you and the other event organizers are trying to create?

I came up with the idea as we were heading into the first of the Covid lockdowns. I had very recently been honored with a new role within the RWYC - as Rear Commodore Oceanic - this role was generated to reflect the importance of offshore, oceanic shorthanded racing.

Part of this role is to drive the races hard with a very focused approach. Besides catering and a club manager, the club is run by volunteers. It has no added source of income, such as marina berths and yacht storage. The only source of income apart from members is the yacht racing. Up until recently, we had the OSTAR and TWOSTAR, and the 2H RB&I race. They were held alternately every two years, so each was only offered every four years.

In 2020 when the epidemic hit Europe, we had to postpone the OSTAR and TWOSTAR due to travel issues. We were eventually to run both OSTAR and TWOSTAR races within a month of the 2H RB&I.

It was then that I saw the difficulty over entering the USA in such conditions. I did not want to be in a situation where we were unable to offer a race, and so this would mean effectively starting and finishing in Plymouth. It also needed to be of similar length as the OSTAR and needed to offer a similarly tough challenge.

I got together with the organizer of the Global Solo Challenge, Marco Nannini, who had previously completed the OSTAR and suggested that I wanted to organize a new oceanic race around Iceland.

This race takes competitors into the Arctic Circle, which he agreed would be a great opportunity for those entering his race to experience the arctic conditions with all the safety procedures that are in place with such events.

At 2,800 miles, this will become one of the toughest offshore races in the world.

Having been the very first club to introduce this sort of racing in 1960, the RWYC has always been synonymous with Corinthian shorthanded offshore [and] oceanic racing.

Whilst we are open to all, our focus has always been on the amateur sailor. We see the commercial space - full sponsorship, paid racers - as a well-represented area in terms of races available, this is very much for the sailing adventurers.

We are working on providing a 'diary' of races, which will see at least one oceanic race and one offshore race each season.

So, the RIR and the RB&I races will feature again in 2024, alongside another of our new races, the Fastnet 500 - Plymouth Fastnet rock - Plymouth.

How many boats are you hoping to see on the starting line?

With all these things, it will start small but will build. Similar to the very first Fastnet race, which was under the RWYC burgee in 1925, we would expect to have five to six entries for the very first edition of the RIR.

In years to come, we would realistically expect to see 20-30.

What kinds of yachts are you expecting to see racing? Are we talking about Class 40s, IMOCA 60s, and VO65/VO70s, or is this more for the J/Boats and Beneteau's?

We have been in talks with IMOCA and have their blessing to open the races we offer up to pre-2007 boats. IMOCA do not recognize these boats as IMOCA-rated, and so all those older Open 60s had nowhere to go. We now offer Open 60s their own start should there be the entry for it.

Other than that, we are open to the Class40s, two of which are expected to be on the start line, and yes J/Boats and Beneteaus right the way to Rustlers, Halberg Rassy's and whichever yacht that is able to enter based on the STIX / SSS number being sufficiently stable.

What's the story with ice above (and around) Iceland? Is there an ice-exclusion zone?

There is no exclusion zone. Whilst Ice is a reality, we are relatively late in the year to have much ice within reasonable distance of the course.

Are there any safety requirements regarding reinforced bows? What about emergency sat-comms gear or survival suits?

As with all races, the RIR is aligned to the OSR regulations - in this case it is CAT1.

There is a qualifying process where boats and crews are tested to ensure their experience is sufficient for such a challenge.

In terms of the actual sailing, can you please break the course down into "chapters" that describe the challenges that the competitors will face?

This race has a number of 'chapters':

Plymouth to Land's End. Fishing is prime along the Southwest coast. With it comes lobster pots, and lots of them! Unlike a passage from the Solent to Plymouth, there are no tide gates as such, but big gains can be made by navigating around the Traffic Separation Scheme in an efficient way.

Land's End to Ireland. The Irish Sea can be an intimidating place. It is well known for its unusual swell where waves come at you from three angles causing the seas to be unusual and choppy. Large marine life such as basking sharks and whales are commonplace in this stretch of water so added caution must be given particularly at night and in breeze.

Ireland to Iceland. The jet stream and prevailing SW breeze could equate to a quick leg, but will also include crossing weather patterns.

Around Iceland. This is going to be an unknown to most if not all competitors. There will of course be much colder conditions. Water temperature will be in favor at this time of year in terms of ice, but as the fleet round the top of Iceland they do officially enter the Arctic Circle. There are a number of run-off points on the south and west of Iceland, but these become sparse on the east coast.

Iceland to Ireland will tend to be close hauled so we expect this leg to be slower than approaching Iceland on the way out. Once past Ireland the race becomes much more familiar as it essentially follows the 'Lonely Rock Race' course back to Plymouth. By now the excitement of seeing the finish will set in, although still a couple of days away. The key here will be managing sleep to ensure the competitors are alert and able to take advantage of the shifty conditions often noticed once past Lands' End and on the southwest approach to Plymouth.

Including the finish being off the RWYC Club Line, this race effectively has seven segments. Good practice for each competitor will be to ensure that they finish each leg in a strong position to start the next. This will include tidal advantages, best pressure and how to gain any leverage on the rest of the fleet.

All in all it makes for a very demanding but exciting race!!

What kind of safety net is in place, should racers get into trouble? Also, are there any escape routes/ports that people can take if they get into trouble?

The main safety net is the qualification process. It is there to show that the sailors can cope with sailing in the chosen configuration (short-handed or fully crewed) and to ensure that all courses are completed, the boat is safe, and the equipment is all in date and in working order.

From there it is down to the sailors if they wish to compete or not.

The decision sits squarely with the skipper as to whether their boat starts or indeed finishes the course.

Escape routes are plentiful up to the west coast of Iceland. There are several ports along the southwest coast of England and the southeast around to the west coast of Ireland. Reykjavik is also a friendly port and is pretty much the first point for Iceland. Then you have eight other facilities as you pass around the top of Iceland.

All regional coast guards and emergency services are informed of the race and are given all entry data we have in case of a call out.

Whilst safety is of course paramount, this is not a race for the inexperienced.

In terms of the sailing, what kinds of conditions do you expect that the fleet will encounter?

There is no telling from this far out. Indeed, it is tricky to tell within 48-72 hours.

It's a well-known fact that Iceland has cold, wet, windy, and changeable weather. Subarctic, oceanic, and tundra characteristics form the climate and landscape.

Thanks to the Irminger Current, which is part of the warm Gulf Stream, Iceland is still the mildest of the Arctic countries. However, the mild Atlantic air that the current brings mixes with the cold Arctic air coming from the north, resulting in plenty of wind, rain, and sudden changes in weather. You can wake up to sparkling sunshine, but by the time you're dressed, there could be a raging blizzard outside. In just five minutes, the blue sky might return like the snowstorm never happened.

This is especially true in the spring and autumn.

The prevailing winds are from the south and to see sea ice is a rarity, but it is possible the further north you go. The ice is more a response of global warming than formation closer to Iceland. With the scope of temperatures and gradient winds it's unlikely that the boats will see sea ice on their route around Iceland.

May is the real month of spring in Iceland. Temperatures remain over freezing and, on some good days, can climb up to 10 degreesC (50 degreesF). As the driest and the least windy month of the year, May brings a huge amount of relief to the locals after the long winter.

Although the averages are very promising, the weather can still be unpredictable. Snowfall isn't unheard of in May - especially in the north - but the snow doesn't stick around for longer than a few days. The landscape steadily becomes greener with flowers starting to bloom around the end of the month. The nights are completely bright and the sunsets last for hours.

Can you please tell us about any steps that you and the one event organizers have taken to reduce the environmental impact of the Round Iceland race?

Throughout all our races we no longer use race/sponsor branding on the boats. We also have all registration duties and briefings online to reduce the requirement of visiting the club several times before the race as well as reducing material.

Is there anything else about the Round Iceland 2023?

Only that this is the first Round Iceland Race and we intend to make it a regular feature on our race offering.

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