On board the 160ft Herreshoff replica schooner Eleonora at the Westward Cup in the Solent

There were moments today when I felt as if I’d been transported back a century as four of what were once called ‘The Big Class’ yachts took flight in the Solent. It was a scene that might have leapt to life from a sepia toned print.

Today was the opening day of the Westward Cup, a Corinthian regatta for the owners of these graceful yachts: Mariquita, a Fife-designed 19 Metre, (125ft LOA), Mariette, a 139ft Herreshoff schooner, Eleonora, a replica of the 160ft LOA Herreshoff schooner Westward, and by comparison the littl’un Tuiga, a Fife 15 Metre, 92ft LOA.

The event, the billowing creamy canvas of the sails, the afterguard’s yachting caps with white summer covers, even the glorious summer weather were all somehow redolent of a long ago heyday.

I was lucky enough to be a guest on Eleonora. She is the newest of the four, launched in 2000 as a facsimile of what had proved in the early 1900s to be the fastest schooner in the world. The original was scuttled in the English Channel in 1947 in accordance with the will of her late owner T. B. Davies.

The Westward Cup was the idea of Eleonora’s Swiss owner Zybnek Zak and I’m sure he would have loved to have done better than finish last today. But it was a typical summer’s day in the Solent, and the long wait for the sea breeze to fill in meant that Eleonora was severely handicapped: a momentary mistake with one of the runners on a practice day at the weekend brought down both topmasts, leaving her with a sawn-off sail plan that requires a large heft of wind.

In this configuration, as Zak points out, Eleonora has only half of Mariette’s enormous sail area.

When you are on board you can imagine how small communication problems or mistimings can have such a catastrophic ripple effect: fully rigged it takes 40 crew to race Eleonora, and at the moment there are six different nationalities on board. Conversely, to get her efficiently round a race course is a feat of intricate teamwork.

Eleonora has eight or nine permanent crew – skipper, mate, stewardesses, chef, shipwright etc – supplemented by a group of volunteers. This week they are joined by a group of young sailors being trained by the Royal Yacht Squadron and 12 Irish businessmen and members of the Royal Irish YC in Dun Laoghaire for whom racing Eleonora is a regular ‘boys’ trip’ several times a year.

It’s a far cry from the professional crew circuit, which is Zybnek Zak’s whole idea with the Westward Cup. To be aboard a yacht as magnificent as this is an incredible privilege and that’s the overriding atmosphere on board.

Here’s a little video of a couple of today’s mark roundings.