Sue Pelling joined four Olympic medallists and a couple of Volvo Ocean Race skippers aboard the Swan 70 Volvo for Life, during the today's Britannia Cup.
Three gold medallists, two Volvo Ocean Race skippers and a host of top yacht racers were just part of the crew that made up today’s team on Volvo for Life, the 70ft Swan Serano, during the fifth day of Skandia Life Cowes Week.
With a crew comprising gold medallists Ben Ainslie, Shirley Robertson and Iain Percy, Volvo Ocean Race skippers Neal and Lisa McDonald and Olympic bronze medallist Ossie Stewart, it was hardly surprising that photographers and film crews were out in force, circling the boat, waiting to capture on film the superstars in action as the yacht ghosted her way up the Solent in preparation for the start of the IRC Class 0 Britannia Cup.
Following an hour-and-a-half delay to wait for a 3-5 knot northerly wind to back and give in to a sea breeze, the race finally started on a course that took us along the western Solent as far as Hurst Narrows.
A mediocre start on the northern end of the Squadron line was recovered somewhat when helmsman Ainslie, under the guidance of Iain Percy on tactics, sailed a good course down the central Solent under a favourable tide using the shifts to their best advantage. The key crew including Ossie Stewart, who joined yours truly on the runners, and Mike Richards, the navigator, relayed a constant stream of information about tide and winds, while the balance of the not insubstantial number of people aboard concentrated on squeezing every inch of speed from the big Swan.
Off on the southern end of the line, the two Farr boats, Bear of Britain and Team Tonic (Skandia Contribution), started well and worked the shifts along a more southerly route. Kit Hobday’s Bear of Britain, with Chris Law on tactics, took the best start and sailed an excellent first beat. However, it was Jeremy Robinson on the helm of Team Tonic and Paul Brotherton on tactics who made the most of the second half of the beat. Although they crossed tacks with us onboard Volvo for Life for the duration of the leg, it was the Skandia-sponsored boat that rounded the first mark at the Shingles in pole position.
An unfortunate positioning after the mark left Bear of Britain pressurising Team Tonic. But it wasn’t long before Robinson and Brotherton opted for a different course, leaving the Bear to play games with us instead. A close race ensued but it was Law calling the shots on the Bear, who decided to head south to hug the shore in an effort beat the tidal stream. Team Tonic stayed out of the foul tide in the north, while we seemed to suffer with lack of speed on the long downwind leg. “The conditions are not optimum for us today,” commented Lisa McDonald from the pit, “and there’s not really enough reaching for our big, heavy Swan. A few more reaches and we may have had the opportunity to pull away.”
Law’s decision to head for the shore was a cool move, as the boat at first excelled and seemed to have the race sewn up as she headed for the Squadron finish line. But the super-hot Team Tonic crew had sailed a good line and ended up neck and neck with the Bear, which had got sucked into a windless hole, close to the shore. Team Tonic, flying in from the left, was able to seize the opportunity and sail over the Bear to trigger a second gun just nine seconds behind, giving a one second win on handicap.
Unfortunately, while Team Tonic and the Bear were taking the plaudits, the superstars aboard Volvo for Life were experiencing possibly the most embarrassing moment of their sailing careers with a grounding right in front of the RYS and its assembled throng of spectators. “I’m really sorry,” commented Ainslie as we wriggled free and took the finish, “I really thought we were on the same line as the Channel mark and kind of thought it would be fine.”
Unruffled by the incident, Ainslie threaded his way through the hoards of camera boats and headed back to the Swan’s mooring off Cowes where the team relaxed in the sun and had a jolly good laugh about creating one of the best news stories so far this week.
Back on shore, Jeremy Robinson from Team Tonic was clearly delighted with his best win of the week and chatted about the team’s tactics. “We needed to beat the other Farr 52s to win but we tried not to race them boat for boat . However, having said that, we had a really good battle with Bear of Britain before splitting and heading for the north shore and coming back for the final showdown.”