Following the success of the first two OSTARs, Blondie Hasler proposed to the Royal Western Yacht Club that there should be a two-handed race around the British Isles. No doubt he considered a single-handed race, but the weather conditions and proximity to land necessitated two crew.
The Club considered the proposal and agreed to organise the first Round Britain and Ireland race in 1966. The course, of about 2000 miles, would be split into five legs separated by compulsory stop-overs of 48 hours each at Crosshaven in Ireland, Castle Bay, Barra in the Outer Hebrides, Lerwick in Shetland, and Harwich on the East Coast. It would circumnavigate Britain and Ireland and, with the exception of the Channel Islands and Rockall, all islands and rocks would be left to starboard.
The character of the event was set by the rule which said “The race is a sporting event to encourage the development of suitable boats, gear, supplies and techniques for efficient short-handed cruising under sail, and also to test the speed and seaworthiness of widely different types of boats by enabling them to race against each other on equal terms.”
Early critics argued that a race of this nature is no place in which to find out if a boat is seaworthy or not. But Blondie responded “The only reliable judge of seaworthiness is the sea itself, and the seaworthiness of an individual boat depends to a large extent on how she is handled. Many popular features in the design of modern racers would have been thought quite unseaworthy forty years ago. It is reasonable for inspection teams to reject anything that is in bad condition, but very difficult to reject a hull or rig as being inherently unseaworthy, particularly when the skipper is at least as experienced as the inspector. To exclude a boat on a questionable point of opinion is not usual in yacht racing but creates instant bad feeling and leaves the opinion unproven. To allow the sea to eliminate a design feature is fair, unanswerable, and a useful contribution to the science of seafaring. One of the main points of our two races is to allow experimenters a free rein and to learn something from the results.”
The first race was a great success with multihulls making their mark for the first time in oceanic racing by taking the first 6 places.
The RB&I was established on a four year cycle (two years off the OSTAR cycle). Lowestoft replaced Harwich as the east coast port from the second race on. Thereafter the course remained the same until Kinsale replaced Crosshaven in 2006.
The race grew rapidly to a multinational entry of many boat sizes and types. In 1982 the 85 starters included an 80ft monohull, a 70ft catamaran, several 60 and 65ft trimarans, down to a 25ft monohull, and represented over a dozen nationalities.
The following race was sailed in 1985, since 1986 was given over to the second TWOSTAR so it could run two years apart from the OSTAR. The four year cycle continued with races in 1989 and 1993. The 93 race was sponsored by the Teesside Development Corporation and saw Hartlepool replace Lowestoft as the East Coast stop-over. The RB&I reverted to its original schedule in 1998, returning to Lowestoft, then in 2006 Kinsale replaced Crosshaven as the Irish stopover port.
The Round Britain Race has certainly produced an amazing assortment of yachts. We have seen the 70 foot purpose-built racing yachts, both monohulled and multihulled, along with family cruising boats of all shapes and sizes. We have seen young, athletic crews sitting out on quarter-tonners for long periods while others have chosen to go round comfortably in a 47ft cruising boat with a junk rig which they could handle almost completely from inside.
Although the 48 hour stopovers are intended for rest, replenishment and repair, they are very much enjoyed as occasions for socializing. A tremendous spirit builds up amongst the crews of yachts of like speed as they meet each other in successive ports.
To add to the interest, various handicaping systems were devised but the important thing has always been the boat for boat competition. Handicapping was not universally approved of by the competitors and in one race the only entry on one, daily, page of a yacht’s log read “wind northerly (from ahead) force 9 – HOPE THE HANDICAPPER DROPS DEAD!” For a while handicapping was, as in the OSTAR, replaced by the sub-division of the fleet into a number of classes based on length in which the yachts race “boat for boat”, but now both use IRC and MOCRA for handicapping. However, the winner is still the first over the finish line in Plymouth and elapsed times are still used to recognise records by length.