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Round the Island with Suhaili 2003

Richard Cowper joins Robin Knox-Johnston in his legendary yacht Suhaili to compete in the world’s largest yacht race

As we rounded the mighty Needles in choppy seas, several yachts were dismasted in front of our very eyes and then suddenly we seemed to be in danger of losing our own mast when one of the wire shrouds holding it up came adrift.

For a short while our continued participation in the world’s largest yacht race was touch and go.

But thanks to the skill of our skipper, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston the first man to sail around the world non-stop singlehanded* a lightning running repair was made and the incident did not prevent us from sailing over the finish line ahead of our foremost rival.

I was among six crew members sailing in Knox-Johnston’s famous ketch Suhaili in this year’s Round the Island Race. Ostensibly we were competing against 1,681 other yachts, but in our mind there really was only one opponent: the late Sir Alec Rose’s Lively Lady, an equally legendary record-breaking craft, which in 1966/8 had circumnavigated the globe with only one stop, just a year before Knox-Johnston’s own great voyage.

The Island Sailing Club (ISC), which organises the race, uses a complex handicap system that takes account of a boat’s type, length and sail area. This allows all yachts to compete against each other for the coveted Golden Roman Bowl. But boats also race for dozens of prizes in separate specialist classes rom historic Cornish luggers to so-called sports boats and the latest multi-million dollar super-modern trimarans . Our 32-foot Bombay-built teak-decked ketch was placed, along with Lively Lady, in the ISC’s amateur ‘purple flag’ class.

Starting from Cowes on the first stage of the 55-mile anti-clockwise course around the Isle of Wight, we managed to push ahead of our main rival and though we usually had her in our sights, more often than not she was to be seen over our stern.

Suhaili was built in 1964 to withstand the giant seas of Cape Horn and had a maximum speed of around 8 knots. She was never going to offer a serious challenge to the fastest boats in the ISC’s annual event held this year on Saturday June 26.

Frenchman Bruno Peyron’s monster Orange II, by far the quickest multihull on the day, averaged three times our speed, narrowly missing the record when she stormed over the finish line in 3hrs 20mins, more than six hours ahead of us. The trimaran even went round a second time in 2hrs 54mins, lapping most of the entrants in a time which would have secured her the ISC record of 3hrs 8mins had she done it during the race itself.

The much sought-after Golden Roman Bowl (top race prize on a handicap time-adjusted basis) was won by Whooper, a racing yacht 25 years older than Suhaili and sailed by Giovanni Belgrano from Gurnard, Isle of Wight. The conditions favoured this classic Laurent Giles-designed sloop’s fast reaching capabilities. But she was chased to the finish by Rosina of Beaulieu, Jeremy Rogers' Contessa 26, which had taken the Bowl the previous two years. Just over three minutes separated the two on corrected time.

Suhaili was never in this sleek racing league. But from the start it was clear Knox-Johnston, though 65 and white-haired, had lost none of the grit and determination he had shown in 1969 when he sailed into Falmouth in Suhaili having spent 300 days alone at sea without stopping.

Just prior to our 7.30am start from the Royal Yacht Squadron start line he briefed us on his two main aims: the first was to ensure that Suhaili finished within the specified time (anyone arriving after 10pm would be disqualified) and the second was to cross the finish line ahead of Lively Lady. Lively Lady is 39 feet in length and therefore theoretically faster than Suhaili. But on board Knox-Johnston’s recently refitted ketch there was a brand new suit of sails and a secret weapon: a gigantic spinaker.

We might never have had the opportunity to employ this powerful and temperamental racing tool had we not avoided a number of serious accidents. These took place right in front of us as the crowded contestants battled for position in tricky seas around the Needles the three chalk cliff blocks at the westernmost extremity of the island.

At about 9am with the wind gusting to Force 6 I saw Aurora a Verl 900 smash into the trough of a huge wave and watched in horror as the force of the impact broke the 26-year-old cruiser racer’s mast in two. Her race was over and the question in my mind was would she sink in the heavy seas. "We were pretty well on the Needles point," said owner and skipper Graham Jones.

"It was choppy: wind against tide. We were fully pressed and I was thinking of putting in a reef, when I heard a crack, bang, crack. The mast had come crashing down. I was gobsmacked. It had snapped right in the middle. It must have been its age combined with the shock of the chop."

"The lines, mainsail and genoa went right under the boat. The mast fell to leeward. It was chaos. If anyone had been under it when it went it would have been very serious"

Within minutes a fast coastguard speed boat raced to her rescue and put a man aboard with wirecutters to tidy up the mess. She was then towed into Allen Bay and later made her own way to Cowes.

The most costly and dangerous incident of the race had occurred less than an hour earlier when David Walters’ J-39 Jackdaw hit the submerged boiler of the 1946 SS Varvassi wreck, close to the Needles Lighthouse, while she was attempting to make the hazardous inshore passage. With her keel seriously damaged and splits in her hull, she was lucky not to sink and the ocean racer returned to Lymington with £20,000-£30,000 worth of damage.

"It was just after 8am and we were trying to make the inside passage between the Varvassi and Goose Rock, just as we had done in 1993 when we won the race,"said skipper David Walters.

"There was an almighty thump and the bows went down and the rudder came right out of the sea. Water started to come in. The keel was moving about. If it had dropped off we would have turned right over. As it is we were lucky to get away with just one of our nine crew members taken off by the Yarmouth Lifeboat for medical treatment."

Suhaili had never been tempted to take such a risk and with her sturdy four-sail configuration (mizzen at the back, mainsail, staysail and jib) she showed all her pedigree as she took to the rough waters round the Needles like the ocean-going professional she was.

The most fateful moment of her race occurred shortly after 10.30am when she was doing about 7 knots on a reach. I was looking towards the shore underneath the mainsail when to my dismay I noticed that one of her main portside wire shrouds was hanging adrift in the sea, having come away from the deck when a bottle screw had come loose.

Had someone not noticed it in time her main mast could well have come down as we switched to the port tack in choppy seas. Within minutes Knox-Johnston had made a running repair, fixing the wire shroud to the deck with a complex and elegant rope attachment that only a highly experienced sailor could manage with such swiftness.

Said Knox-Johnston: "If we had not made the repair in time it would have been extremely dangerous. We would probably have lost the mast on the next tack."

The weather now began to improve, but the drama was not over when just ahead of us at around midday, Flying Glass, a Sadler 26, was dismasted near St Catherine’s Point. Her owner Ross Stewart later told how the boat’s 21-year-old mast split at the point at which the lower shrouds joined the mast.

"We were close to the shore, the wind had been gusting about 22 knots when there were two crashes. On the first crash the mast came down, with the second it hit the deck and bounced overboard. I was as sick as a pig," he said.

Without doubt Suhaili’s most thrilling moment took place when the wind shifted behind her just after Bembridge and we got our spinaker out. I was lucky enough to be given the delicate and sometimes hair-raising task of trimming it. By the time we got to the forts we had powered past 16 boats, leaving Lively Lady for dead.

The annual ISC Round the Island event is part race, part festival, with many yachts making it their only one of the season. But it is long and arduous with tricky tides and many obstacles. Even in a medium blow it can be a serious challenge, as shown by the number of incidents this year.

To be on the start line in the middle of the Solent amid over 1,500 yachts of all sizes and shapes their great white sails and colourful spinakers stretching to the horizon is however one of the most thrilling experiences in the world of of sailing.

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. We had no such chance, but nevertheless acquitted ourselves with distinction. Suhaili finished at 17.11pm in 9hrs 41minutes, coming a highly creditable 226th out of 822 boats in the ISC’s amateur category on a handicap basis. Lively Lady finished half an hour behind us in 542nd position. Suhaili’s captain and all six of his crew were pretty chuffed at our victory and the celebrations lasted long into the night.

*See A World of My Own (The first ever non-stop solo round the world voyage) by Robin Knox-Johnston. Adlard Coles Nautical 2004. £9.99. Entries for next year’s round the Island Race: Race Around the World in one of Robin Knox-Johnston’s Dubois 68s: Sail racing photographs: Wet weather gear: