The Round the Island Race is not just a compelling spectacle, but is a racetrack with wind shadows, tidal eddies, rocks, wrecks and sandbanks to contend with, writes Peter Bruce

The actual Round the Island Race course is quite straightforward, but negotiate it well and there are gains to be made at around 20 different hurdles all the way round. Strategically the trick is to break down the track into four parts and focus on the major tactical issues on each leg.

Initial strategy

Plan to aim for Sconce buoy where you can make the most of the ‘tidal slingshot’ just to the west of Yarmouth. Then continue in the fast moving current towards Hurst Castle. If you are beating into southwesterly winds, work the area of best current close to the Shingles, prior to peeling off and aiming for the Needles.


A bit of geometry

The actual start line is 1.2nm long (from West Bramble to the Royal Yacht Squadron). In simple geometry terms, the shortest distance to Sconce is the perpendicular (rhumb line) to the buoy and is not in the middle of the line, but just a quarter of the distance up the line from the RYS.

Starting close to West Bramble is a whole 200m further than at the perpendicular point. There are often good reasons to start else where, depending on the wind, tide and the main body of the fleet, but always remember that extra 200m if you are aiming for Sconce and starting near West Bramble buoy. If the wind direction is to right of the axis of the Western Solent, then the north shore is often a winning place to be.

Osborne Court top window

The RYS start line transits and high intensity lights are never more difficult to see than on the Round the Island Race in the final 25 seconds to the start gun, as they invariably get obscured by other boats. Brief your bowman to also be aware of the transit of the RYS Flag Staff, in line with the top window in the tower of Osbourne Court apartments.

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This transit is usually visible above the height of other boat masts. With a simple GPS, consider making each end of the line a way point/route and you can read off your distance to the line (when it is difficult to gauge due to the sheer number of boats) prior to the start, as cross track error.

The best tidal stream

Look for ‘Micky’s Tidal River’. On the ebb, this is a local ‘river of water’ that looks brown and flows between 0.8 and 1.4 knots faster than the rest of the ebb. It is actually a layer of ‘fresh water’ that is usually only 400m across and sits on top of the more dense salt water.


Cowes Race Village is the heart of the action before the Round the Island Race. Photo: Paul Wyeth

It runs west, just north of Gurnard buoy, prior to swinging over towards West Lepe buoy and then swinging back towards Yarmouth and merging with the strong tide off Sconce. Note the local mini tidal race just inside Black Rock buoy, as the tide sluices round a mound on the seabed (don’t hit Black Rock itself, 200m south of the buoy).

Clear wind versus dirt

Never is it so critical, than on the Round the Island Race with so many other boats around. Pick your lanes carefully and avoid having to tack too often and getting ‘buried’ in a pack of boats. Beating into a southwesterly along the Cowes Green, works well for the leading boats, but in such a large fleet, those a little further back, end up ‘eating dirt’ for along time.

If necessary, forego a little of the tidal advantage if it means sailing for longer in clear air. Generally the further north along the starting line you start, the more time you will have in clear air.

Beware the escape route

Beating against a southwesterly along the Green with a close fleet can easily end in tears! You may be in great shape, as you race in on starboard tack, in clear air, with the fleet lined up on your starboard hip, but you have to be able to plan your escape.


Photo: George Mills

If you have larger faster boats inside you, it can be very tricky and if you have a poor tack, you could well end up dipping a lot of sterns as you exit on port tack. If the fleet is close up to you and you approach the shore and have to call for water, start the dialogue early. The boats close by inside may also be trapped on starboard by other boats on their hip.

It was here that one Fastnet Race favourite ended their race damaged after only 200m, whilst another boat sailed the whole course, thought they had won, and later got disqualified for an infringement after only 55 seconds of racing.

Winds bends and shadows

The river valleys in the western part of the Isle of Wight have a marked effect on the wind in the western Solent. With a wind left of 250 degrees, the valleys such as the Newton River create relatively large lefthanders over a local area, as the wind funnels out of the estuary and then fans out, creating significant gains on port tack.


Totland Bay is best admired from afar

In east/west winds, there is a wind bend around Egypt Point as well as an area of lighter winds close into Gurnard Bay. In an easterly wind, this is created by the hill directly inland, whilst in westerly winds, is created by the wind detaching from the surface to get over that same hill.

Avoid Alum and Totland Bays

View the great scenery from afar! There is less tide to help you here and most significantly a lot less wind caused by the high cliffs and hills (140m high) close on the shoreline, that create huge wind shadows.

The Needles

Plan ahead for your manoeuvre

The tightest ‘hairpin bend’ of the course, requires early preparation for sail handling and headsail changes. Make sure the team are all briefed early, so that you can concentrate on the pilotage. There always seems to be a wind change here and you are about to turn a ‘blind corner’. Check out the wind for the next leg, through the gaps in the Needles as you head for the lighthouse.

IRC Division 3B competitor Nanna II rounds The Needles in the 2018 Round the Island Race. Photo: Paul Wyeth

The Varvassi wreck: inside or outside?

Several boats get badly damaged on the remains of the wreck each year, if in doubt, go outside and don’t change your plan half way through because you see others getting away with it, this will certainly attract the wreck to your keel.

The depth at chart datum to get though the gap between Goose Rock and the remaining boilers of the SS Varvassi is between 2.4m and 3m nearer to Goose Rock. Note that the tidal range at the Needles is only about a half of that, of the Portsmouth tidal range, so depth is not a problem for most yachts. The boilers are about 150m west of the lighthouse and lie roughly on a heading of SSW and extend about 2.5m above the seabed, hence about 30cms below the surface at MLWS.

The recommended technique for the inner passage is to identify Goose Rock (usually by the breaking water) and leave it about 10-15m close to port. Make sure you don’t hit Goose Rock itself (keep the old coastguard station in sight as you line up to round between the boilers and the rocks off the lighthouse).

One well-known Maxi recently managed to avoid the wreck, but hit the Isle of Wight itself and ended up in big trouble. Make sure you brief your helmsman well prior to this corner, if in doubt take a conservative route outside the wreck.


Photo: Paul Wyeth

Tidal strategy

Having made the most of fair tide to the Needles, you now have the ebb stream against you. Getting out of the strongest counter stream is important if you can’t make it to St Catherine’s Point in one tack, and vital if the wind is light.

Cheating the foul tide is essential in smaller/slower boats, where the adverse tide is relatively a greater negative percentage of your forward speed vector. Generally speaking, going inshore, you will experience considerably less foul current, however you need to be conversant with the various ledges and rocks close to the shore, though there can be slightly less breeze.

Beware of going inshore too early after the Needles

Again the high cliffs each side of Freshwater Bay can have the effect of stealing your wind. Irex Rock is an important hazard to watch out for a third of a mile SE of the Needles in Scratchell’s Bay. Sticking up like a pinnacle above the rest of the seabed (depth 8m) this rock is awash at Chart Datum and lies outside St Anthony’s Rock named after a treasure ship, that was wrecked on it in 1691.

Chale Bay

The great eddy

This is the place to invariably aim for. Here the stream runs south east for 8 out of 12 and can give you one knot of positive current, whilst those half a mile out to sea can be in two knots of foul tide, as well as being caught on the outside a large wind bend.

Chale Bay covers the last three miles of the leg to St Catherine’s Point, between the Atherfield Ledge and the point itself. One word of caution, watch out for wind shadows caused by the high cliffs around Blackgang Chine.

Rocks: Don’t push your luck!

There are two significant rock ledges that need to be taken seriously when working close to the shore to pick up the tidal advantages. Brook Ledges are a series of parallel rocks running out to sea that are awash at chart datum.

Feeling your way in on an echo sounder alone, may work for the Lee-on-Solent shore and then tacking with less than a metre under the keel, but is not recommended when negotiating the rocks off the south of the Island. Be more cautious, as these rocks protrude vertically in relation to the surrounding seabed.


Photo: George Mills

Atherfield Ledge

This probably creates the greatest menace for yachts along the south west of the Island and has proved the graveyard for several ships over the years. Sticking out between Brightstone Bay and Chale Bay, it is easy to get attracted by gains close to the shore and over look Typet Ledge, The Mexon and The Bench that together form the worst of Atherfield Ledge, that extend 500m offshore. Each year these rocks get a bashing on Round the Island Race Day.

Whilst trading tacks close to a Farr 40 in this area a few years ago, the gain was always to be had for the boat that ventured closest to the shore in the 12-knot SE wind. Just prior to the Ledge, we tacked off a little early; whilst the Farr 40 continued inbound another four boat lengths on starboard tack. I was just starting to answer the question as to why we had wimped out early, when there was a huge bang.

We turned around thinking our neighbour had broken her mast. The mast was in tact, but the rudder was momentarily out of the water as her keel struck Typet Ledge, stopping her dead from seven knots. She had already tacked, but got caught on her exit.

Monitor the opposition

Get the crew on the rail working for you whether it is looking for a particular mark, or keeping an eye on the opposition. Get one of the crew to take bearings of the opposition, with a hand-bearing compass.

Monitors boats both sides of you and get the person taking the bearings to report just the relative trends, of whether you are gaining or losing. If you are losing out, do something about it; is the problem, weed, sail trim, tide or less wind etc?


St Catherine’s Point is the halfway mark in the Round the Island Race

Chale Bay to St Catherine’s Point

You can sail quite close to the shore past Blackgang Chine and onto Watershoot Bay, just short of the Point. There are several rocks in Watershoot Bay, though close in. Shag Rock is the largest of these, though is pretty obvious and close to the shore. It is here that the favourable eddy runs out and you hit the full brunt of the strong tidal stream running south of St Catherine’s Point.

It is usually here that the tacking/gybing action is about to begin in earnest as you work to cheat the tide. If you are lucky enough to get here in favourable tide, aim for about 600m offshore, where the tide is very strong, though often kicks up a nasty sea.

Cheating the tide

There is a large tidal stream differential, in terms of strength, between 50m from the shore and a quarter of a mile out and is usually worth the effort of routing as close as possible without hitting the bricks.

Keep a sharp eye out for lobster pots, each year there always seems to be a couple of pots with a long trailing rope, waiting to ensnare the unwary. Lobster pots always give free information of the tidal stream, which varies so much in this area, so take heed.

Monitor the progress of the boats around you; check if you are losing out by going too far out to sea on each tack. Also consider if you tacking too often? Some boats take along time to get back up to optimum speed and tacking to often can be a killer.

If there is a lot of traffic in this area keep a sharp eye out and consider leaving the trimmer to leeward, as collisions happen in this area each year. One final point, as you approach the shore, start looking for a clear lane out, to maintain clear air well before you have to tack.

Stand by the shrouds

When tacking close to rocks, it is often possible to look down into the water and spot them as you approach. The water around this part of the Island is usually quite clear, and rocks can be spotted if the sun is overhead. This technique is not recommended on a cloudy day…

Church Rocks

Watch out for the infamous Church Rocks just to the east of Ventnor Pier. There are actually two sets of rocks here, Wheelers Bay rocks just south of the church with a spire at Bonchurch, with the highest being Cat Rock and Church Rocks themselves half a mile east of the pier. A decent clearing bearing is 255m on the end of Ventnor Pier.

Sandown Bay

In or out?

If in doubt, go out! Unless you can make it directly to Bembridge, my strong advice is to avoid the bay, due to the lighter winds. The high ground on each side of the Bay, Nansen Hill at Dunnose (221m) on the south side and Culver Cliff with its day mark on top at the north end do a good job in reducing the wind in the bay itself.

Also westerly winds are slowed by the friction of the land and hills, prior to making it over the town of Shanklin. It is often shortly after Dunnose, that those boats going offshore and finding the new seabreeze have made big gains.

Always take a free ride

Usually, there is a reach on one of the legs of the Round the Island Race. In windy conditions, there is almost always a free ride to be had on the quarter wave of a larger yacht. The gain can be huge in windy conditions for the smaller yacht and it is well worth sailing aggressively to manoeuvre to gain the free tow. It is best to get in close, i.e. on the first of the quarter waves.

Wind shadow

In winds from the west or southwest, beware going too close to Bembridge Ledge. The wind shadow from Culver Cliff is significant, even in strong gradient winds. By just tracking a little further our to sea, there are big gains to be made when the wind is from west. In easterly winds, the area can also experience light patches as the wind detaches from the sea to make it over the top of Culver Cliff.


Photo: Guido Cantini / Panerai

Go near to No Man’s Land Fort

Sailing against a foul tide, always keep away from the middle of the gap, when heading between the Forts. The tide is considerably stronger midway between and it is best to route a little to the south of the rhumb line to No Man’s Land Fort (southern most Fort) when approaching from the SE, then curve north at the last minute, to pass the Fort close to port.

Once through the shadow created by the structure, head off to the west for a mile to make the most of the tidal shadow to the east of Ryde Sands. The strong tide that flows between the Forts (gap one mile), extends in the shape of a tongue for about two miles in the direction of Dean Elbow buoy. The Island Sailing Club, as a safety measure, recommends staying away from the middle of the gap, to keep away from shipping.

The sand bank with the steepest sides

When sailing against the tide it is usually worth routing south of track, across Mother Bank and Peel Bank in the shallower water and less tide. Ryde Sands is a definite hazard for the unwary and right on route to the finish. There is not normally enough water to sail over it.

Shaped by the strong tides, the northern side of the bank is steep to so beware if resorting to an echo sounder to feel your way in (the depth goes from around 13m to 2m in about two boat lengths in places). Rather than just use an echo sounder, use the useful limiting line between No Man’s Land Fort and SW Mining Ground.


Beware the sandbanks around Bembridge. Photo: Rupert Holmes

Local winds

In a southeasterly wind, right hand shifts remaining local to the Ryde area can be experienced on the south side of the eastern Solent. Winds from the same direction create a stronger wind band on the northern side, due to the coastal convergence as the wind sweeps towards Lee-on-Solent.

Whilst in a southwesterly, the breeze is less close into the Island from Ryde to Osborne Bay. The hills inland reduce the wind, as well as the trees along the coast, that do a great job at creating friction to slow the breeze.

Osborne Bay

This is a great anchorage for lunch, because it offers good shelter – exactly the reasons you should avoid it when racing, particularly in a light west/southwest wind. The area of calmer winds can extend quite a way to the east (further in the lighter winds).

However, there are two reasons to carefully route around the edge of this calm zone. Firstly if the tide is against you, and secondly in the prevailing southwesterly wind, the wind bends around Old Castle Point, generating gains for the sailor that heads for the inside of the bend.


Norris Castle is one of the last landmarks you’ll pass during the Round the Island Race. Photo: Guido Cantini / Panerai

Norris Rocks

As you route around Old Castle Point, beware Norris Rocks if you are close into the coast. They cover an area about 30m wide, extending about 80m out from the western part of the gap in the trees, on the shoreline next to Norris Castle itself. Watch out for the Shrape sandbar that extends south off East Cowes just prior to the finish.

Read the sailing instructions

Highlight your finish line and declaration procedure if you are not joining the party in Cowes on Saturday evening. Have a safe and enjoyable race!