Jerry Freeman’s (QII) Review of RB&I

The 2010 edition of the Shetland Round Britain and Ireland race was the best in living memory; it had everything a sailor could wish for in a short-handed ocean race.

For a start there was a very big fleet comprising 56 hot boats with keen crews.

The classes were closely matched, from the first cohort of class-40 ever to contend this classic event right through to the Corinthians in class 4.

The weather was exceptionally kind, dominated by light winds on most of the legs and the only gale, which was from the north, blew when the majority of the fleet were parked in the exposed harbour at Lerwick. Although it caused mayhem for them it gave a fast ride south for leaders though had a less welcome effect on the back markers, still battling up from Barra.

The final slow beat along the south coast was torture for the Class 1 fleet that had to anchor for two or three foul tides in staccato progress and fate decided the outright winner in class 40 with a cruel twist at the end.

The tracking and race coverage was first class allowing a large audience to follow the progress of the entire fleet for the first time and to help convey some of the excitement of the race. The sponsors can only achieve good publicity with a modern web site and they got one.

The race booklet was exceptionally good with a lively layout and plenty of information on the boats and the course, the cover picture of QII being especially relevant for Mary’s 6th start in RBI.

The slick organisation by the RWYC at Plymouth under Peter Taylor’s experienced eye was unobtrusive, friendly and efficient.

The host ports and the port officers did a great job as usual.

Kinsale was bathed in sunshine for much of the time, except, ahem, for the BBQ evening on Wednesday.

Barra was wonderful with crisp visibility across to the summit of Vatersay in the light NW breezes and with three boats rafted on each mooring buoy in Castlebay the lack of space was largely overcome, save for a few who had to anchor and who were cursing loudly.

Lerwick was overcrowded with the Bergen fleet arrival coincident with a chilly northerly force 6 to 8 wind and the mid summer festival. LBC have a great new shower and laundry facility but so much time was spent fending off in the harbour chop that personal hygiene was a low priority.

Lowestoft was a nice surprise with a wonderful welcome from the club members in the RIBs, helpful staff, great food and happy hours and, of course, sunshine and warming breezes. Sue and Jo did a great job at this the most protracted of postings.

The best-kept secret is that the RBI race is contested against the most spectacular background scenery of all the oceanic classic events and the crews have a very rare privilege to enjoy the dramatic seascapes and cliff views that very few people ever have the chance to see.

The Fastnet Lighthouse is an iconic tower set on a fairy tale rugged islet, the ocean swell constantly breaking on its sheer walls, add to this the eerie sweep of its pencil beams, every five seconds, against a cloud wracked sky and along the back ground cliffs and you have the opening scenes of a Hitchcock movie ready made for the ’star’ to appear.

Ireland’s west coast is remote and dramatic, and every island or rock is a mark of the course taken ‘close enough to pick of the daisies’. Several even have the ruins of deserted monasteries on top of steep cliffs with implausible access paths hewn from the rock. Bull has his Cow and Calf, Great Skelligs is straight out of Lord of the Rings, Inishtearaght guards the Dingle peninsula has it has for centuries.  Leaving Ireland at its northwest extremity of Tory Island the fleet is sailing in sea area Malin for over 90 miles of open ocean, few yachts visit there in a normal year.

The sailor’s first view of the Outer Hebrides is the steep cliff of Barra Head, its vertical face topped by a green cap that takes the sting off the bleak geology. The string of islands leading north to Barra provide welcome protection from the ocean swell over the 12 miles to the finish, glimpses of deserted white sand beaches and the fin of a single basking shark are etched in the memory.

St Kilda is the most significant of the Atlantic island marks, towering over 400 metres high and un-lit as ever, the remnant of the volcano’s verdant caldera is concealed from the racers by the towering black rock walls to the south and west. Next come the Flannan Islands, then Sula Sgier and Rona, all un-in habited rocky outcrops standing defiant in mid ocean. The most northerly point of the British Isles is the island called Muckle Flugga, and its outlying Out Stack, looming out of the fog at less than a mile distant and still there are over 60 miles southward to the finish at Lerwick, Shetland’s capital and home of our generous race sponsors.

The character of the North Sea changes as you sail south, from clear open ocean to shallow turbid sea in 400miles. Rigs and platforms are everywhere, the scale of the offshore oil and gas industry is truly impressive and you can almost hear the money being made.  Platforms of every conceivable shape seem to form an impenetrable wall of steel and concrete around the horizon, from the single column with the accommodation balanced precariously on top to the multi legged structures striding across the surface like the creatures from War of the Worlds complete with orange flaming weapons.

The combination of open ocean, dramatic scenery and unpredictable weather provide an intensity of experience that is unique to the Round Britain race, magnified this time by the close competition between boats on all the legs and in all the classes right through to the very last tacks off the Mew stone.

And this intensity is available at all levels of the competition, the sailors, most often single-handed, work tirelessly watch and watch about for 2 to 4 hours of trimming, steering and navigating for three or four days. From the class 40’s at the front to tail enders that restarted together from Lowestoft all with one goal; to complete the Shetland Round Britain and Ireland Race.

Jerry Freeman, QII, 8th. July 2010.