RB&I 1970

The Second RB&I – The Observer/Express Two-handed Round Britain & Ireland Race

The second Round Britain Sailing Race was again sponsored by The Observer and the Daily Express. The fleet had grown to 25 starters and of these 20 finished. For the first time there was an overseas entry, in the shape of Philip Weld from the U.S.A., in his Kelsall designed Trumpeter, a 44 foot trimaran. There were 13 multihulls and 12 monohulls. Toria was back, re-named Gancia Girl, and Derek Kelsall entered a brand new 51½ foot proa of his own design, called Sidewinder.

A feature of the entry list was the strong Naval and Royal Marine component. Ocean Spirit, at 71 feet, the longest yacht in the race, was sailed by Lieutenant Leslie Williams, RN and Lieutenant Robin Knox-Johnston RNR, Gancia Girl had a mixed RN/RM crew with Chief Petty Officer Dave Butcher and Lieutenant Mike Shuttleworth RM. Speedwell was sailed by two Royal Marine Officers, Captain Ewen Southby-Tailyour and Lieutenant Roger Dillon. Commander John Lawson skippered Rinaldo and Lieutenant Guy Hornett crewed for Mike Perry in Blue Smoke. Lieutenants Mike McMullen and Martin Read, both Royal Marines, sailed Binkie, the smallest boat in the race, and two Chief Petty Officers, Mike Wigston and Bill Davies sailed the 36 foot Electron of Portsea. Snow Goose was back again, still with Don Robertson and David Cooksey, and amongst the monohulls was a dark horse in the shape of Michael Pipe’s 48 foot Slithy Tove, a yacht with narrow beam designed, among other things, for building on a slim budget.

The yachts started from Plymouth in quiet conditions and they ran out of wind and into fog off the Lizard. The leaders found better visibility, and a gentle south westerly breeze, after rounding the Bishop Rock lighthouse, off the Scillies, and these gentle conditions prevailed till Crosshaven. Trumpeter, Philip Weld, led the fleet into Crosshaven, with a time of 1 day 19 hours, Ocean Spirit followed only 15 minutes later. From then on Ocean Spirit was to keep ahead of the fleet until the finish, although, on the Lerwick to Lowestoft leg both Snow Goose and Minnetaree achieved better times.

On the first leg the back half of the fleet were left at sea in calms whilst the clock had, so to speak, stopped for the leaders who were enjoying their 48 hour stop-over in Crosshaven. Speedwell, who had not so long ago overtaken Binkie, was overtaken by her, rowing towards the finishing line, which she crossed ahead of Speedwell. (This was not against the rules but 25½ feet is easier to row than 49!).

After Crosshaven the weather deteriorated for the leading boats and, whilst Tehini found it too much for her and retired, Trixia was almost dismasted when her weather backstay parted and she narrowly avoided losing her mast. She retired to her home port. The leading boats went on to have some very hard weather up the west coast and again in the Channel on the last leg, whereas Speedwell’s log records only two days above force 6 and nothing above force 7, the latter being on the Crosshaven to Barra leg. Ocean Spirit arrived first in Castle Bay followed by Slithy Tove and then came the first multihull, Apache Sundancer. Despite the rough weather, Minnetaree managed the fastest time for the leg, except for Ocean Spirit, and this brought her up to 6th place at Castle Bay. Snow Goose lost a rudder in the gale off the west coast of Ireland and this proved a particular handicap as she approached Castle Bay, where she, Trumpeter and Minnetaree found themselves cross tacking after some 700 miles of sailing since the start.

Writing after the race, Mike McMullen said: “The leg from Crosshaven to Barra was, certainly for Binkie, the most alarming. Once round the south west corner of Eire a westerly gale blew up which lasted the whole way up to the Hebrides. In winds gusting to force 8 we ran up the Atlantic coast of Ireland before frighteningly large seas at a very high speed. At one stage we were knocked flat by a sea which gave us both unfavourable impressions of the whole proceedings and in a moment of weakness I almost (not quite) wished I was with 45 (Commando) over in Belfast 130 miles away.

“Added to rotten weather was the dangerous factor of very poor visibility and distinctly inhospitable shore under our lee. It was with distinct feelings of relief that we came alongside our comfortable RFA [Royal Fleet Auxiliary], Speedwell in the pleasant, land-locked harbour of Castle Bay, Barra. She had had an eventful passage too and her self steering gear had been smashed by a heavy sea. Fortunately this proved repairable and worked well (or the rest of the race.

“It was the luckless Gancia Girl who had really suffered on this leg. First, her self steering broke irreparably, followed shortly by the teleflex cable connecting the wheel to the rudder. Mike and Dave were then steering her with the emergency tiller (a very arduous business on a trimaran) when two of the three pintles (hinges connecting the rudder to the main hull) sheared. This meant that the yacht was very nearly unsteerable and, with the rocks of Barra Head getting closer, about a mile at this stage in thick fog and gusting force 9, prospects could hardly be deemed encouraging. It was with the greatest of skill and good seamanship they weathered the headland and coaxed her into harbour, still wearing the Mae Wests they had put on in preparation for shipwreck. This damage cost them four days in port and spoilt any chance they might have had of winning.”

On the next leg, from Barra to Lerwick, Mike remarked on the bird life: “One of the most enchanting things during this phase was the bird life. St Kilda is the largest gannetry in the world and the sight of these beautiful birds diving, in their thousands, is simple unforgettable. Puffins abound and create great amusement by their pathetic efforts to take off. Panic-stricken by the sight of the yacht bearing down on them, and bloated with fish, they flop along the surface only to get “goffered” by the breaking crest. We also saw Fulmars, Skuas, Guilemots, Shags, Cormorants, Kittiwakes, Storm Petrels and a very large shark. Porpoises abounded.”

Approaching Muckle Flugga they were not too busy bird watching to steal a march on some of their rivals. Whereas they had given the outer rocks a wide berth to avoid the tidal race, Mike McMullen and Martin Read cut in close to the Out Stack, the most northerly piece of land of the British Isles and inside the tidal race, thereby gaining themselves four hours. The principal lighthouse keeper, Mr Tulloch, was so impressed by this tactic that he rushed to hoist, and dip, his ensign in tribute. He said later, “It was a grand piece of sailing: I had to admire those lads for their daring”.

The leading boats found the wind still at gale force, and from the north west, when they came to re-start on the leg to Lerwick. Slithy Tove sprang a leak and was forced to go into Stornoway, on the Isle of Lewis, for repairs. This was of course allowed by the rules but she was never able to make up the time she lost. When they reached Lerwick they had dropped from 2nd to 19th place. The order at Lerwick was Ocean Spirit, Apache Sundancer, Trumpeter and Snow Goose.

After the 1966 race the east coast port was changed from Harwich to Lowestoft, so it was to Lowestoft that Ocean Spirit later set off with a gaggle of multihulls in hot pursuit. Trumpeter had to return to Lerwick for further repairs to her leaking floats which had been a constant problem since leaving Plymouth. However Sundancer and Snow Goose kept on, sometimes in sight of one another and sometimes not. Snow Goose beat Sundancer into Lowestoft by three hours, but neither had caught up with Ocean Spirit. The last leg could be expected to be a beat to windward, but the leaders had another gale and the later boats had calms. By the time Snow Goose had reached the Isle of Wight, the sea was very rough and the wind rising to force 9. Don Robertson and David Cooksey decided to duck in under the lee of the island, and came to anchor off Shanklin Pier where they were able to enjoy six hours well deserved sleep. Trumpeter and Minnetaree were not far away doing the same thing.

Sundancer, however, not knowing that her immediate adversaries were sheltering, pressed on hard until, when they were about 8 miles southeast of Ventnor, Isle of Wight, disaster struck. They went up the side of a very steep wave and became airborne at the top. By the time they landed back in the water they were already over to about 45 degrees. The boat never recovered an even keel and they went on into a capsize which laid them over with the mast flat on the water, held from going further by the masthead float. The float became detached but not, mercifully, before Peter Ellison, who had been asleep in the cabin, was able to get out and join Mike Butterfield. Together they managed to get the life-raft launched and boarded it. Some hours later a passing ship saw their flares and rescued them. Meanwhile Snow Goose had got under way again, although the wind and sea had not abated. They fought their way westward for some 36 hours before reaching Plymouth to be second yacht to finish.

The gale in the English Channel had deprived the multihulls of any chance of catching Ocean Spirit who powered her way through the gale to finish nearly two days ahead and thus amply save her penalty of 12 hours which she carried, like a millstone round her neck, all the way round Britain. It would be ungenerous, and indeed foolish, to attribute her win entirely to the size of the yacht. It was a tremendous achievement for two men to sail a boat that size around that course in that weather. There must have been many times when they were approaching exhaustion, handling gear that size in those conditions.

Bob Harris, Phil Weld’s crewman, said ruefully in defending the performance of the multihulls in the race, “Sure, a monohull was first to finish, but she had to be 71 feet of the latest and best design, crewed by two supermen”. He went on to remind us that Snowgose who came second was “a 36 foot, ten year old, Prout catamaran”. He could have added “sailed by a 62 year old skipper”.

Anyway his comment was, in passing, a very valid tribute to Leslie Williams and Robin Knox­ Johnston and to Don Robertson and David Cooksey.

Behind Snow Goose came Trumpeter who had managed to claw her way back up the fleet after having to return to Lerwick for repairs. This was a tremendous achievement and shows that, had she not had all the troubles she had with her leaking floats, she would have been a very real threat to Ocean Spirit, gales or no gales. Only four hours after Trumpeter, came Minnetaree to win the prize for the first under 35 foot yacht. A prize she richly deserved. The leaders having had a gale to contend with on the last lap, the tail enders had the opposite and Mike McMullen and Martin Read rowed from the time they were off Salcombe until they arrived in Plymouth. (This Mike later described as “Readpower”). They were rewarded by winning the Daily Express Trophy for the first yacht on corrected time (handicap), a surprise in the circumstances of the weather pattern.

All the other competitors who made it to Plymouth could, in a sense, be declared winners. They had beaten the course and all the weather which had been thrown at them. The race was a particular triumph for the multihulls because at that time they were considered quite unsuitable for ocean racing, indeed that opinion is still widely held even today. But they had shown that they could keep going, and going to windward, in very severe conditions, and see off monohulls of similar length or bigger. Certainly Sundancer’s capsize was picked on as evidence that multihulls are unstable, but it could be argued that, some years later a top flight, fully manned, ocean racer, Morning Cloud, was lost in the same place in much the same conditions, and she wasn’t racing.

The race organisers came in for a word of praise in an article in Multihull International written by the owner of Snow Goose when he said: “I do not think it has been appreciated how much we yachtsmen owe to the flag officers of the Royal Western Yacht Club of England. This must be one of the oldest and most respected and, one might expect, most conservative of clubs, but they had the courage and foresight to give their support and to organise two of the greatest events in the yachting calendar, the transatlantic and round Britain and Ireland races.”

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