You don’t have to be big and fast to win the Round the Island Race, just sail well and be tactically aware. Mark Chisnell takes a look at how best to set yourself up for victory
The exact nature of the error that led someone to share the wisdom of the ‘5Ps’ with me has grown hazy with time, but I’ve never forgotten the advice: ‘Proper Preparation Prevents Poor Performance’ (other versions are available). It’s the perfect adage for the Round the Island Race. Run by the Island Sailing Club in late June every year, this famous 64-mile lap of the Isle of Wight off the south of England is an excellent test of the navigator and tactician (this year’s event takes place on 1 July).
The distance is long for an inshore race, but you’ll be racing in close contact with hundreds of other boats for much of it. The tides are strong, the coastline rocky and the British summer weather is… well, the British weather. No one gets to sail a Round the Island Race perfectly according to plan – the unpredictable is always going to happen. So be ready for it.
Everyone approaches their preparation differently but mine has always focused on an equipment list. It’s a long day, with an early start, so you need to know everything is aboard the boat well ahead of start time. This is my list in chronological order of what a navigator should be doing in the countdown to the start.
T minus months
Now’s the time to check your navigation equipment, most of which should always be on the boat:
- Binoculars: My favourites have an internal compass so I can get a bearing on distant objects without juggling binoculars and a hand-bearing compass.
- Hand-bearing compass: A fundamental tool for the navigator, a hand-bearing compass has so many uses from checking waypoint approaches in a cross-current, to measuring performance against the opposition.
- Protest and penalty flags, protest and declaration forms and a rule book: No one wants to spend the evening of the race in the protest room, but at least having the right flags, a rule book, and the paperwork already on board will reduce the stress as much as possible.
- VHF radio: A handheld or built-in VHF must be on board. The race rules require one with Ch16, Ch22, Ch65, Ch69 and Ch72. Ch22 is usually the primary Race Committee communication channel.
- Wetnotes and several pencils: It may seem old fashioned in this age of smartphones and tablets, but the fastest way to take a note of a number or detail you need to remember is still paper and pencil. The race can be wet, so a waterproof notebook or wetnotes are ideal.
- Polar table or target speeds: Any boat with a paddlewheel, or some form of accurate speed-through-water sensor and an anemometer should be developing a polar table. Your boat’s designer can often provide a good starting point if you don’t already have one. Display the numbers where the driver and trimmers can see them, on a display, printed and laminated, or both.
- Next leg calculator: A quick way of calculating the true wind angle for the next leg is essential if the boat’s going to have the right sail up. When there is no tidal flow this is easy – it’s the difference between the heading for the next leg and the wind direction. This is the Round the Island Race though, so there will be lots of tide. There are plenty of apps out there if vector maths isn’t your thing – Nick White’s Expedition is the gold standard these days.
T minus weeks
Sailing instructions and Notice of Race: The Notice of Race (NoR) has already been published and is available at roundtheisland.org.uk but the Sailing Instructions (SIs) won’t be available until Wednesday 21 June. Both are essential reading not just for Round the Island Race navigators, but for any helmsman, skipper, tactician, or boat captain doing the race.
Download the PDFs onto a smartphone or print them out and either laminate them or put them in a waterproof folder. The Declaration and Tracking instructions are also worth taking with you.
Rules compliance: The NoR and the SIs set many different requirements, and the night before the race is not the time to be trying to fulfil them. Most boats must comply with modified versions of the World Sailing Offshore Special Regulations for Category 4, so check well in advance the boat has everything required of it.
The NoR also requires the boat to carry a race mobile with the number logged with the race office – and either that phone or another must be running the race tracker app. The NoR requires that at a minimum you fly the Fleet Flag (provided by the organisers) and the Class ID flag (provided by you). Most chandlers in Cowes and nearby will have sold out of the flags for the bigger classes by the afternoon of Friday, 30 June (I know this from experience!).
Charts: This might be blindingly obvious, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t check to make sure all the right charts are on board, be they paper or digital.
Waypoint: list Make sure you create a waypoint list well before the race day – it’ll be hard to calculate the next leg information without the course, and calculating the next leg distance and bearing on the fly as you go around shifts your focus from strategy and tactics. Each waypoint should be a safe steering bearing from the previous waypoint. On the RTIR that’s largely a list of the headlands, but make sure you have enough waypoints in the right places to make a tidy and safe rounding.
Tide: and local information The Round the Island Race is one of the most tidally influenced races on the planet. Good tide charts are essential – and you’ll need to know that Portsmouth High Water will be at 09:22 and 21:44 BST. There are lots of good resources: search ‘Solent tidal streams’ and make sure it also covers the south of the Island.
Winning Tides is the go-to book these days and includes detailed half-hourly tidal data for the central and western Solent, plus hourly for south of the Island. There’s also a free spreadsheet download to calculate high water references for the book at winningtides.co.uk
Admiralty Tidal Stream Atlas: Solent and Adjacent Waters – NP337 is the ‘foundational text’ you should have.
Roberts Round the Island Tidal Flow Chart is clean and simple.
Solent Tides by Peter Bruce is still in my nav bag, though since replaced by Solent and Island Tidal Streams. And I always have a flick through Peter Bruce’s Wight Hazards and Solent Hazards the night before this race.
Onboard weather forecasts and data: The three I always have saved as a favourite on my phone when racing around the island are:
- Predictwind.com – specialist sailing forecast website, lots of forecast sources (even on the free service) and easy to use.
- Windguru – lots of forecasts from different sources, great free service.
- Windycator – excellent live reports from along the south coast.
Calibration: No one should go racing with instruments that aren’t calibrated properly – it would be better to take them off the boat altogether. At a minimum, that should include boat speed, compass, apparent wind angle and last, but definitely not least for this race, depth.
T minus days
Keep checking the weather forecast: In the week running up to the Round the Island Race, follow a few of the weather forecasts to try and get a handle on their accuracy. It may be that one of the forecast sources can model the specific conditions better than the others, and this will be the one you want to use for race day.
Check the electronics: If you have the chance, switch on all the boat instruments in the week before the race and check the data is appearing everywhere it should be.
T minus hours
Final weather forecast: By now you should have a really good idea of the weather you’re expecting on race day, so this final forecast check should be just that – there should be no surprises, just a solid understanding of all of the possible ways that the forecast can play out.
VHF radio: Make sure your handheld is charged the night before, then on board, set to the race channel, the volume is up, and you have locked the keypad on the morning of the race.
Ping the start line: If you sail in the Solent regularly then this can be done in the days or weeks before the race. If not, then make sure you get out there early enough to check the line properly. The bearing is around 169° from the transits on the Royal Yacht Squadron.
Check your calibration: If you’ve calibrated your instruments in advance, pre-start is the time to do a few practice tacks and gybes to check the true wind direction is accurate.
Tide and wind: Track the wind shifts – in a small keelboat this might just be a matter of taking the course on each tack or checking the head-to-wind bearing. If you have calibrated instruments and a chartplotter or nav app, then make sure you are collecting the data and plotting a graph. Check the tide, look at what you can see on the buoys and assess if it agrees with the predictions on your tidal charts. If not, then try and figure out if it’s running early or late, and by how much – then you can compensate.
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