The Solent came back to life this weekend with the Junior Offshore Group, one of Britain’s greatest best-kept-secret sailing clubs, arranging its season opener – The Lonely Tower Race – amidst ongoing Covid restrictions that are slowly easing in the UK as the vaccine roll-out continues apace. And what a glorious sight it was, beautifully captured by Rick Tomlinson. Seeing the Solent filled with racing boats once again is something to behold and something that we must never take for granted.
Starting just down the Green from the Royal Yacht Squadron, the JOG’s startline is from a starting box at the end of a garden set back from the beach and it’s a quintessentially British institution that was established in 1950 to give smaller boats a taste of ‘offshore’ sailing. The club runs a highly active season (www.jog.org.uk) around the Solent and English Channel and in more straitened times, has a brilliant social scene. It’s a club for those who know what good looks like – run by racers, for racers, it is possibly the most inclusive of all clubs in the UK – everyone is welcome.
And it’s highly competitive IRC racing. Lockdown hasn’t stopped the progression of IRC and there was some beautifully well-sorted out machinery on display with some expensive sail wardrobes getting an airing in just about perfect conditions. The Lonely Tower Race saw the boats beat to the east against the last of the ebb tide on Good Friday with the faster boats making the Nab Tower to enjoy a glorious tight reach back through the imposing forts guarding the eastern approaches of the Solent and back up to Cowes. And my goodness it was tight at the top.
Local sailing legend Kelvin Rawlings sailing his immaculate Sunfast 3, double handed, won on corrected time by just 7 seconds from America’s Cup Team Ineos UK designer Giovanni Belgrano’s Laurent Giles one-off ‘Whooper’ (pictured above). Whooper has been nigh on unbeatable under IRC for a handful of seasons in the Solent and has won pretty much every major trophy so Rawlings’ victory was especially sweet and could be an indication of a very tough season ahead for the major IRC contenders. The big test of course is the annual Round the Island Race, the London Marathon of yachting, when all the big IRC guns come out to play and around Cowes, hiding in the marinas, are plenty of boats quietly sorting themselves out for the season ahead.
It’s great to see Cowes buzzing on the water again. The high street is still quiet with all the non-essential shops closed but there’s a sense that things are about to gather pace quickly as the restrictions phase to an end. The estate agents in the town are having an unprecedented time. There’s a mini housing boom going on with professionals choosing the delights of the Island over a metropolitan life and now that the work-from-home genie is well and truly out of the bottle, more and more people are making the move. This can only be a good thing for the Island’s economy and will translate squarely into more activity and support for the racing. The pent up demand is clearly there and seeing nearly 80 boats compete in the JOG racing over the Easter weekend is a great sign of things to come.
If Ratcliffe and Co. can pull off the impossible and get AC racing in the Solent it would be the icing on the cake in 2022 but doubt hangs in the air like an acrid, toxic mist. Interestingly there’s almost a reticence amongst some to the very notion of the Cup arriving on UK shores – and that’s a new mood in the UK. The sense that buying the Cup is a somewhat vulgar expression of opportunism is prevalent in many that I spoke to in Cowes over the weekend – it would be far more welcomed after a hard-won, deserved British victory – and that’s fair enough.
English sensibilities don’t stretch easily to the thought of winning by default. It would perhaps, and I say this through gritted teeth, be a hollow Cup event although the increased revenues and prestige of seeing those magnificent AC75s blasting around the Solent would be a sight to behold and have the town rocking once again. Those glory days in the late 1980s of the town over-run by the pro-teams of the Admiral’s Cup were indeed heady times. The AC Jubilee regatta in 2001 had a very special air about it. Cowes would be a terrific host. Will it happen? I doubt it but in the America’s Cup anything is possible. Stranger things have happened.
But for now, the town is doing just fine and with top class, local IRC racing back in business, filling the Solent with sails and the marinas with tales, we await for the bars to re-open and the real gossip to begin. Welcome back Cowes.