With crews changing every day, the Sunsail fleet takes a different look at one-design racing

One design racing at Cowes usually conjures images of Etchells and Dragons, XODs and Darings, but one of the largest one designs to take part is the Sunsail 37 fleet, with entry numbers second only to the Laser SB3s. They may also boast the widest variety of crews, from dedicated sailors who return year after year to boats who change crew every day, or from committed racers to those simply out for a fast cruise.

In charge on the dock this week is Roddy Blair, a long term Sunsail employee who over the last eight years has come from instructing in Greece, through setting up a charter base in Croatia to his current job title of Product Delivery Manager. With his seven-strong team, he supervises crew pickups, docking, damage repair and any other requirements his clients may have during the week – a tough call when 30 knots over the deck is the norm. Asked about the options for participating at Cowes with Sunsail, he explained: “There’s three ways to do Cowes. We’ve got six hospitality boats, who aren’t racing but just give people a chance to come out and see the spectacle and feel a part of Cowes Week. Other than that, there’s normal bareboat charters, usually corporate – there aren’t any this year with private individuals going out for fun – and these groups have often been doing it for years and keep coming back. The third group form the majority and take a Sunsail skipper on board.”

Corporate charters often take advantage of Skandia Cowes Week to treat their clients, but it’s hard work for the skippers as Cowes veteran Nick Hodshon observed. “I’m approaching 70,” he said, “and this is my tenth Cowes Week with Sunsail, and my fourth with the Bank of Scotland. Racing with corporate crews is a challenge – often you have a completely different crew every day, and have to start from the beginning with a safety briefing and how to put the spinnaker up – we didn’t do many gybes today. By the end of the week, I’m knackered.”

In a big fleet with such a variety of experience, sub races are bound to form, but surprisingly it’s not so much between boats chartered by the same company as between Sunsail skippers. Hodshon said: “There are about six skippers that are very competitive, and it doesn’t matter too much what crew they have.”

Add to this group the experienced crews who have raced before and the result is a divided fleet, explained Hannah Harwood, who is skippering one of two boats chartered by the ferry operators Red Funnel. “The top ten boats are very competitive – as you get down the fleet it gets a bit more relaxed. It definitely turns into ‘them’ and ‘us’.” That said, Harwood finished tenth in the last race, and when challenged as to whether a derby existed between them and the other Red Funnel boat, said “they wish – he’s never beaten me yet.”

One of the most successful corporate boats so far has been Sunsail 11, chartered by filtration specialists Pall Europe. Their Sunsail skipper Nick Willis has been chartered by Pall for three years, and with two first places in three races so far has shown himself a force to be reckoned with. Backed up by XOD sailor and Pall Compliance Manager Guy Partington, they usually reckon to have a 50/50 mix of novices and sailors on board, although most are inexperienced. “There are very few racers,” said Willis. “Some just say ‘I went on the Channel ferry once,’ but they often make the best crew – they do exactly what they’re told.”

Corporate boats certainly don’t steal all the glory. Close on the heels of Nick Willis and Pall is David Jarrett and the team on board Sunsail 47. “This is a treat to myself after 20 years of hard graft,” he said. “I took a cancellation before Cowes Week, and my crew have joined by hook or by crook in the last ten days. We’re all from completely different places – privateers.”

Jarrett’s team won second place on Sunday, and would have stolen Monday’s race had it not been for a penalty incurred by a course error. Although this is Jarrett’s first Cowes since the 1985 Admiral’s Cup, he has a strong sailing background in 470s and puts his success down to “getting the basics right.” He explained: “If you get the start right, the speed right and the course right, you’re away. It’s like golf – just hit the ball straight up the fairway faster than anyone else.” Easier said than done.

Asked whether he would recommend the experience, he showed no doubt. “The boat sails nicely and she’s not vicious. It’s great for people like us to be able to get together at the last minute and safely sail in 30 knots. The cost isn’t bad when you factor in mooring fees and all the other expenses the charter covers, and as for the atmosphere, it’s very friendly and the whole thing is well organised – I’m loving it.”

Bareboat charter this year cost £7,500 per boat for the week, with an additional £125 per day for a skipper. Hospitality boats cost £1,750 plus VAT per day.