World and European Championship-winning professional navigator Tom Cheney gives his expert advice on how to race across the Channel


The UK has many active offshore racing fleets, spanning from the west coast of Scotland on the Clyde to Essex and Kent in the North Sea, but the largest and most competitive racing is undoubtedly based on the south coast in the Solent.

Both the JOG (Junior Offshore Group) and RORC (Royal Ocean Racing Club) calendars have a great selection of summertime coastal racing in the English channel, most of which start in Cowes on the Isle of Wight. These races are a perfect introduction to offshore sailing, and are a good proving ground for teams who want to build up to a bigger goal such as next year’s Rolex Fastnet Race.

These Category 3 and 4 races vary in length from the 35-mile Lonely Tower Race to the more challenging 175-mile Cowes-St Malo race. The shorter races are just a long day on the water, whereas the longer ones mean spending a night (or more) at sea and take up a whole weekend.

A west-bound start for the RORC Myth of Malham Race off the Royal Yacht Squadron line in Cowes. Photo: Paul Wyeth/RORC

The Start

Nearly all of these races start from fixed lines off the seafront in Cowes, with the landward end of the line being a yacht club flag pole ashore and a fixed outer distance mark (ODM). The ODM is sometimes not positioned on the line – there might instead be lights marking a transit and/or a bearing defining the line.

This might seem quite alien if you’re used to a classic committee boat starting sequence. As with all racing, being prepared and reading (and understanding) the sailing instructions is absolutely essential.

All modern electronics and navigation set-ups will have some kind of race start options, whether just a countdown timer, or something more advanced where you can ‘ping’ the ends of the line and get distance and time-to-kill to the line.

Compared to a committee boat start, pinging both ends of the line here will need careful consideration. For the flagpole end you ideally need to have a pre-saved waypoint. If this is not possible then you need to position yourself on the line (using the transit or bearing) as close to the shore as possible to get your ping.

The RYS and JOG start lines are from a fixed point on the island shore so ‘pinging’ the line needs careful planning

The ODM also needs careful consideration. You can repeat this procedure at the other end of the line. If the ODM does define the line rather than a bearing, for example Gurnard on the JOG line, then it’s a little simpler. However, you do still need to consider how much the mark might move if the tide turns between your ping and the race start.

Race start times tend to be driven by the tide: race officers are keen to try and get all the starts away such that the Solent exit is down tide – this is the fairest way to get a handicap fleet away without favouring faster or slower fleets.
Often you’ll end up in a situation where the tide is just turning as you start or as you arrive at the starting area. Make sure you know what time your start is in the starting sequence, and have a good idea of what you’re expecting the current to be doing at start time.

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Tidal information for the Solent is available in many forms, from digital tidal forecasts on PredictWind to the trusty Winning Tides book.

Current in the Solent is notoriously tricky and will hugely affect your starting strategy, both in how you approach the line and where you want to position yourself for the first leg.

Make sure you give yourself enough time to get to the start area and do all of your pre-start admin. It’s really easy to underestimate the time it takes to get the main up, choose your jib/kite, do some tuning runs, ping the end etc.

Some teams like to follow a strict pre-start timeline, with a checklist of jobs to tick off by specific times. Personally I like to get the race timer running as early as 30 minutes before the gun. Having this timer displayed somewhere obvious on deck keeps everyone focussed.

Heading east past the forts on a downwind first leg in the De Guingand Bowl. Photo: Paul Wyeth/RORC

A fixed start line is rarely going to be square to the wind, so choosing the optimum end will hopefully be obvious. If there is significant wind bias then this may override the influence of the tide – no point in starting in the best current only for the boats at the other end of the line to cross ahead of you minutes later because they started upwind of you.

During your final approach (hopefully to your chosen spot) make sure you’re confident about how far back you are from the line. Being on course side at the gun is going to be a significant penalty if you have to fight your way back against the tide. Have someone calling distance or time to kill, if you don’t have these numbers from your electronics, and make sure your bowman is feeding you information from his vantage point.

Solent Exit

Whether going east to the Forts or west towards the Needles, the first leg of the race is your opportunity to get the jump on your competitors and be in a commanding spot by the time you get to open water and your first real big picture decision points.

the Isle of Wight and south coast headlands can cause local wind bends

West to Hurst

When exiting towards Hurst and the Needles, the ebb tide strengthens earliest inshore on the island side, just off Cowes Green, so you will often see boats pushing to be close in. The tricky part is successfully getting out again on port tack on a busy race course. There are also some nice local left-hand shifts to be had around Egypt Point and Newtown Creek, where the wind funnels from the south.

Local land effects mean that the western Solent often ends up being a fairly true beat regardless of what the real gradient wind direction is a little further offshore.

Tidal strategy is fairly straightforward. Aim to stay in the deep water channel, the port lateral mark, West Lepe, is a good first waypoint and the north cardinal, Sconce is a good spot to aim at before Hurst Narrows.

East to the forts

In the prevailing south-westerly winds, heading east means a downwind start. This adds plenty of complexity to your starting procedure. Hopefully you’ll be able to start on starboard and set the spinnaker with 10 seconds to go before the gun.
As with the western Solent, the best current will be in the deepest water. Be careful, however, not to stray too far north as the main part of the route to open water (from Prince Consort to the forts) is likely to be a long starboard tack. If your boat sails deep angles then in any true wind direction right of 260° you will lay the forts without gybing.

Generally it is less windy in the eastern Solent than in the west. You also have the complexity of the wind coming off the land. This causes the wind to be much more variable, both in strength and direction. Races starting to the east on summer Friday evenings can be particularly tricky. As the sea breeze dies and it starts to get dark it is easy to get caught in holes in the breeze, particularly just after the forts before Bembridge. Keep an eye on boats around you and be ready to change gears.

Tides through Hurst Narrows can run at up to 3.9 knots on the flood and 4.4 knots on the ebb

Into open water

In both directions, the main decision you need to make as you approach the English Channel is how to position yourself against your competitors. I always try to have in mind what the true wind direction (TWD) is that I am expecting to see once we are out past the Needles or past Bembridge to the east.

The change in tidal current will also have a significant effect on the perceived wind direction, especially in light winds.

When going upwind if you think TWD will be left of what you are seeing on the beat then you need to set up to be to the left of your competition (and vice versa). This will mean you end up with a nice gain when you get that inevitable shift. You can apply the same logic if you are going downwind. Position yourself such that when you experience the shift any leverage between you and your neighbours puts you downwind of them.

Tidal strategy is fairly straightforward for a west-bound start – aim to stay in deep water. West Lepe is a good first waypoint, to Sconce before Hurst Narrows. Photo:

Medium Term Strategy

The races we are examining here are typically completed in 12-36 hours. Modern high resolution weather models do a very good job at this scale. By the time the race starts you should have a pretty good idea of what your route might look like, what sails you will need and how long the whole thing will take.

It is also now more and more common for smaller and lower budget racing boats to have access to good internet connectivity and route planning software such as Expedition and Adrena, which used to be associated with only the flashier, high budget teams. With the advent of Starlink satellite internet and its rivals in coming years this trend will continue.

An eastbound start is often downwind, and tidal strategy can be more complex. Be careful, however, not to stray too far north. Photo:

Decision Points

Once you have an initial idea of the course you want to take, break the race down into key stages and work out where you have to make important decisions. These might be to stay inshore/offshore at a headland, or to choose which side of an island to go.

Identify the decision point in your notes. Write down the factors that affect this decision. Then when you get to this point of the race and are maybe sleep deprived or feeling a bit seasick, it will be easy to remind yourself of how to make this decision.

The gradient wind in open water is a great example of this. Before the start, note the forecast TWD just south of the Isle of Wight. As you approach the decision point you can compare what you are seeing on deck to any local observations and weather stations that are available. Refer to your notes and execute the plan that you have made.

Photo: Paul Wyeth/JOG

Leg planning is also an opportunity to identify risks. The easiest way to lose a race is to fail to finish. These risks could be complicated navigation, bad weather, running out of food/water/appropriate clothing.

Forcing yourself to consider all of the problems you might face is vital to ensuring you are equipped to deal with them.

The Finish

When planning your race, it is important not to underestimate how tired or disoriented you might be by the time you get to the finish. Even returning to a familiar finish line in the Solent can be a completely different experience when you do it in the dark for the first time.

If the finish is in a port you haven’t been to before, make sure you’ve identified the harbour entrance, hazards and navigational aids on the approach. We take for granted having charts on our phones and on screens on deck, but it’s important to translate that information into the format you are going to use to feed it to the helmsman as you approach the line.

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