Our guest crew on the IMOCA 60 Artemis included the hard working newly wed Zara Phillips
The gigantic asymmetric spinnaker cracked open as it was sheeted on and Artemis surged forward and over the start line of the annual Artemis Challenge race round the Isle of Wight.
Yesterday we headed clockwise and doing the sheeting on and toiling at the grinder pedestal were the two smallest guests on board, newly married Zara Phillips and TV and radio presenter Natalie Pinkham.
The 50-mile race round the Isle of Wight for IMOCA 60s has become one of the staple sideshows of Cowes Week, contested between some of the top British and French teams for a £10,000 cheque to a charity of the winner’s choice. It’s a big media draw and a flotilla of RIBs churned the water around us as their cargo of photographers watched for the unguarded expression, the money shot.
Our three female stars, Zara, Nathalie and guest skipper Dee Caffari were too professional to let anything slip. Throughout the race threw themselves into work, smiling for the cameras and afterwards Zara and Nathalie did their bit hauling down and bagging the genoa, dragging sails on deck, grinding and getting thoroughly soaked.
Our downwind start spooled away fast behind as we hit 16 knots. An early leader, Vincent Riou’s PRB streaked away. Hugo Boss, Bernard Stamm’s brand new, month-old Cheminées Poujoulat and we gybed down the eastern Solent whereas Riou’s crew stayed on one hand and reached No Man’s Land fort with an impressive lead.
On our close reach out to Bembridge Ledge the wind began to freshen, as forecast. At Bembridge we were hard on the wind. PRB continued to stretch its lead. This was one of the first competitive outings against others in the class for Alex Thomson as skipper of his latest Hugo Boss. His boat and Artemis are ostensibly the most powerful IMOCA 60s ever built, with tall rigs now outlawed by the class rule, but from the start we trailed in 3rd and 4th and the gap kept getting bigger.
One tack cleared St Catherine’s, where the crew put in a reef as the wind consistently rose about 20 knots true, and onwards to the Needles. In a choppy sea, Artemis often banged and shuddered when the forefoot caught the slab face of a wave, and waves continually showered over the windward bow.
Our star guests on board kept smiling and we all kept thinking of reaching the Needles, where we could bear away and make some serious speed.
The wind continued to build. At the Needles, we finally bore away and up went the huge asymmetric spinnaker again. Artemis tore off at 23 knots on a deep angle. Keel fully down, kite pulled to windward and running at speed ay 150-160° in a very narrow channel, this was potentially dicey stuff.
We prepared for a gybe and the crew were just sheeting in on the new side when a panel ripped. Down it came, and Hugo Boss stormed past us at maximum velocity, bow out of the water under the pulling power of her biggest A sail.
A smaller asymmetric was hauled up on deck and prepared. Up it went, the sock was hauled up and as the sail snapped fully open Artemis took off with such a burst of speed me back on our feet. The bow wave ripped back….23, 24, 25 knots. Exhilarating.
With the tide under us we were hurtling down the western Solent into a wall of racing yachts. Then Zara spotted a small triangular tear in the kite, and that had to be socked. As crewmember Mikey explained, apart from preserving the sail, a ripped A sail can flog itself into the mother of all wraps.
We all tried not to look glum. There was our much anticipated high speed run back to the finish gone in two sails, our reward for the long upwind bash round the back of the island and our only chance of catching back our 3rd place from Hugo Boss.
But even so, plain sails were taking us easily at 22 knots in the gusts towards the finish off Cowes. Looking on the bright side, Dee Caffari said it was slightly less scary taking the careering bus through different racing fleets.
It was also a chance for Zara Phillips to drive for a while which she did, as you can probably imagine, confidently and well.
So, last place for us, and 3rd for the mighty Hugo Boss. That must have been disappointing, though Alex Thomson didn’t admit it. “We hoisted the A3 at the start,” was all he would say. “Wrong. Spectacularly wrong.”