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Round the Island with Lively Lady 2004

Lively Lady almost sunk without trace in 2005 Island race

Richard Cowper joins the legendary Lively Lady to compete in the world’s largest yacht race, but after over 12 hours of intense competition is defeated by four seconds on out-of-date racing technicality

In one of the most closely run battles ever witnessed in the classic Round the Isle of Wight yacht race the famous ketch Suhaili, skippered by Sir Robin Knox-Johnston the first man to sail non-stop round the world singlehanded pipped his great rival Lively Lady to the post as a result of an arcane club rule.

The two legendary Indian-built yachts raced neck-and-neck along the 55 mile anti-clockwise course around the Isle of Wight in tricky wind conditions for over 12 hours before, finishing in the dark late on Saturday. Lively Lady completed the course over three minutes faster than her arch rival, but was disqualified due to a pre-war sailing rule, which almost everyone agrees needs to be rewritten.

With the slowest boats from the 1,692 participants starting the race last for safety reasons (so they do not run into each other while overtaking), Lively Lady the late Sir Alec Rose’s 36 foot yawl was given a more advantageous handicap and began her race at 09.50am under a dayglo green flag, ten minutes after Sir Robin’s Suhaili.

Folowing a false start at the Royal Yacht Squadron in Cowes under blue skies and bright sunshine, Lively Lady made up the 10 minutes difference and streamed past the 33 foot Suhaili on the first leg, well before rounding the great chalk pillars of the Needles. On the run to St Catherine’s Point lighthouse Lively Lady’s gamble of going out to sea in search of more breeze failed to pay off and Suhaili edged back ahead after getting a lift closer ashore.

Several hours later, in a moment of high drama, Suhaili ground to a virtual halt in one of the notorious whirlpools off the town of Niton and Lively Lady shot past within hailing distance of her rival to retake the lead and pushed ahead by what she thought was an unassailable 1.5 nautical miles.

As darkness fell the wind dropped and shifted to a dead run. With the lights of the finish committee boat in sight Suhaili put up her huge spinnaker and to the astonishment and consternation of all nine crew on board Lively Lady, including myself, she sailed right past and on into Island Race history.

In the private battle between the two British yacht legends Suhaili crossed the finish line first at 21.53.50pm in 12hrs 13min 50secs, but having started 10 minutes later Lively Lady actually completed the course in 12hrs 10mins 56secs at 22.00.04 - over three minutes faster than her great adversary.

Taking into account her more favourable handicap rating Lively Lady’s win on adjusted time should have been even greater.

But the Island Sailing Club’s out-of-date rules which go back to the beginnings of the competition in 1931 when the slowest boats started first and there were not so many competitors state that all yachts which finish after 22.00hrs will be disqualified. Lively Lady missed this target by just four seconds.

“Truly we were robbed,” says Alan Priddy, Lively Lady’s captain. “With so many yachts of all classes taking part in a fun race like this it is crazy over such a long course to have a finishing time of 10pm, even in normal circumstances. But this year’s race started 1hour and 10minutes later than usual due to light winds and still no adjustment was made to the finish time”.

“We completed the race after an incredible running battle against Sir Robin for the whole distance. But in the Island Sailing Club’s finish records there is no trace of us at all. It is as if we had never existed,” says Priddy.

Robin Knox-Johnston paid tribute to his key competitor after the race: “Although there were over 1,600 boats taking part my real interest was simply in beating Lively Lady. She overtook us first at Hurst Castle. But I had taken my secret weapon along, the Admiral of the Island sailing club, who has been in virtually every Island race since the end of the war. We got it back at St Catherine’s. Lively Lady overtook us again at Ventnor. We set the spinnaker at Bembridge and stormed past around 50 yachts, but only one boat really mattered and we passed that with minutes to spare”.

Lively Lady and Suhaili two of the most legendary yachts in post-World War II British sailing history raced against each other first in 1967/8 in the struggle to become the first yacht to circumnavigate the world singlehanded, without stopping.

Even then Lively Lady got round first on July 4 1968, to come home to Portsmouth to an adoring crowd of 250,000 when Alec Rose was knighted on the foreshore at Southsea. But Suhaili and Sir Robin were seen as the true victors as they arrived in April 1989 after sailing around the world without stopping at all, whereas Sir Alec had been forced to put ashore twice for repairs.

Some 36 years later in 2004 the two yachts picked up the baton again in the Round the Island Race, with Suhaili the clear winner for a second time. But by this year’s Round the Island on June 18 Lively Lady had undergone a complete refit in preparation for her second world circumnavigation this October and insiders were convinced she would win. Priddy is planning to take 58 young disadvantaged men and women around the world in Lively Lady going westward through the Panama canal to meet her former owner’s wishes of helping under-privileged youths to transform their lives in a scheme known as Voyage for Life*.

Says Priddy of the Round the Island Race: “We had new sails, we had a new crew. I was convinced we could outsail Suhaili. But the canny Sir Robin had Robin Aisher aboard the Admiral of the Island Sailing Club and veteran of at least 45 Round the Island races as his race tactician. Who then should steam past at the very last , but Sir Robin?” excalimed Priddy, with a wry smile of admiration.

“The great irony is that if we had had a less advantageous handicap for a faster boat and started the race at the same time as Sir Robin we would have beaten him. The sailing world has moved on in the last few years, but sometimes committees can put ordinary people off by sticking to outdated and inflexible rules.” Over the last few days the Island Sailing club, which organises the race, has received a host of such complaints about the unfriendly 10pm finishing rule and has pledged to meet soon to review it.

Even Robin Aisher, the club’s honorary admiral is sympathetic to calls to end the disqualification rule and allow boats finishing late to make their own declarations in the yacht club. “The committee finishing boat obviously can not stay out all night waiting for stragglers to sail home.

But the 10pm rule originated when the slowest boats started first. Today it is a huge event with many racing just for fun. They just want to come back and say ‘I have done the race’. I am very sympathetic to such a change,” says Aisher who has competed in most Round the Island races since 1945. Like Suhaili Lively Lady was built to sail the giant seas of Cape Horn and withstand the storms in the southern ocean.

Both have a maximum speed of around eight knots. Neither were ever going to offer a serious challenge to the fastest boats in the ISC’s annual event held this year on Saturday June 18. Nevertheless to be on the start line in the middle of the Solent surrounded by over 1,500 yachts of all sizes and shapes their great white sails and colourful spinnakers stretching to the horizon is one of the most thrilling experiences in the world of of sailing.

The ISC Round the Island is part race, part festival, with many yachts making it their only competitive outing of the season. But it is long and arduous with tricky tides and many obstacles. In light winds it is a serious challenge, as was shown by the 20% of participants who retired earlier this week.

The first boat home this year, unusually, was a monohull, the state-of-the-art New Zealand super-maxi Cityindex Maximus (Bill Buckley/Charles Brown) which completed the circumnavigation in 7 hours and 1 minute to take the Observer Trophy. Just 39 seconds adrift, and first in the multihulls, was the trimaran Nuvu Hiva 2 chartered from Brittany-based Team Ocean by Deutsche Bank.

The Gold Roman Bowl, the most coveted prize in the race, for the top placed International Rating Club (IRC) entry, was won by Tony Dodd in a 25 foot Hamble-based wooden quarter tonner called Purple Haze. Built in 1978 she was designed by the renowned David Thomas as the prototype for the Bolero class. Sareema (Robert McLeod), a traditional Westerly Fulmar family cruiser was runner-up just 1 minute and 40 seconds behind with Cloud Nine (Magnus Wheatley) a further 36 seconds adrift.

Many famous yachts have won the race since it was inaugurated in 1931. Sir Edward Heath, the former British Conservative prime minister, won it four times, three of them in consecutive years in the early 1970s on Morning Cloud II & Morning Cloud III and, in 1980, on Morning Cloud IV.

Neither Lively Lady or Suhaili are ever likely to win the race outright, but if they are to be allowed to continue their own epic battle on the water without arbitrary let or hindrance then the Island Sailing Club may just decide next month to alter its finish-time rule. Such a decision would also benefit many other competitors in what the ISC likes to refer to as the London marathon of sailing.

Even Sir Robin, after Ellen MacArthur, the most respected of British sailing racers, is in favour of change: “It was a lovely race, very, very close. It must have been heartbreaking for Lively Lady to lose like that. It’s such a shame. The current finish rule is ridiculous. It simply strengthens my call to allow people to declare themselves after 10pm. After all no-one at that time of the night is going to win anyway.”


Voyage for Life Ocean Challenge (VFL): email:
Meridian Trust (Lively Lady): 02392826429
Raleigh International:
Round the Island Race:
Island Sailing Club:; tel: 0198329662
Race sponsors: JP Morgan Asset Management
Race partners: Haven Knox-Johnston: Isle of Wight; C3 WGS84 1:52 500;
Imray Race Around the World in Robin Knox-Johnston’s Dubois 68s: www.clipper-ventures.comSail-race photographs:
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