Racing the distinctive Bembridge Redwings is a very lively experience

They say 25 knots of wind is a yachtsman’s gale. Make that 20 if you’re racing a Redwing in the Solent.

I had a very boisterous and exciting race yesterday with Caroline Peel and her crew Amanda in Redstart, one of 20 Redwings racing at Cowes Week. The majority come from the Bembridge Sailing Club, where the design originated way back in 1896, but a handful of the older, wooden designs were sold when the club had glassfibre boats built in the late Eighties and return to Cowes to give their newer counterparts a run for their money.

The Redwings are one of the last classes to start at Cowes and by the time we got away around 1230 the fitful breeze was rapidly being replaced by a south-westerly sea breeze. That meant we had to short tack round Egypt Point on the island shore.

You had to be on your toes. Caroline, who has sailed with her friend Amanda in this class for about 30 years, certainly was. Amid a chorus of overlapping shouts of “Starboard!” “Water!” “You tack!” “Tacking for water” etc Caroline hemmed the shore expertly.

Behind, there were some near misses and one Redwing that got a bit close, with two crew up to their armpits in the water trying to get her off.

The Redwings are a distinctive sight, with a long, elegant hull topped by red sails in an unusually high aspect ratio. Originally a gaffer designed by Charles Nicholson, they were completely overhauled in around 1937. The hull was elongated to 27ft and made narrower and the rig replaced by a bermudan plan.

The very high aspect ratio plan was an innovation from the 1980s of British Olympic sailor and Redwing aficionado Vernon Stratton.

The class limits sail area to 200ft2 and over time this has become standardised as the tall, thin rig seen today. Because the 200ft2 of sail can be set in any fashion the Redwings have a name for experimental ideas, and in the 1980s sailor John Cleave came up with a swing rig. But this was so successful it was banned.

“There was nothing to do on board but light a fag and open a can of beer,” Caroline tells me.

Our course involves a couple of windward leewards across the Bramble Bank. By then the wind has reached Redwing Gale Force. In the gusts, Redstart buries her lee sidedeck right in and water sloshes into the hull. It’s choppy with the wind over the tide.

There’s not that much to do on the downwind legs as the Redwings don’t have spinnakers and all you can do is pole out the tiny jib. But the boat slews occasionally on the waves and buries her bow. Water cascades over the teak coaming.

Many years ago a colleague raced on a Redwing during a very windy Cowes – probably the last time we reported from the class – and as the third man remembers doing almost nothing except pumping the whole way round. Nowadays most have electric pumps, which eject water from a hole just abaft the tiller so Redwings in rough conditions sail round spouting like whales.

However, I notice a crew ahead of us bailing vigorously with a large black stable bucket.

The racing, as you’d expect from a one-design is close. And because everyone seems to know each other in Bembridge and boats stay in the family a long time, I get the feeling there are set rivalries that have been playing out for decades.

With all the high profile side events at Cowes Week and big new boats it’s easy to forget the dayboats and one-designs, but it is at the heart of Cowes Week. It’s certainly the annual showdown for this historic class.