This Round Britain Race achieved 61 starters from six different nations, three times the number in the previous race, and saw multihull success and lots of wind.
The formidable combination of Robin Knox-Johnston and Leslie Williams, who had driven Ocean Spirit to victory in 1970, separated, to other boats. Robin Knox-Johnston teamed up with Gerald Boxall to sail the 70ft catamaran British Oxygen while Leslie Williams and Peter Blake sailed the 80ft Burton Cutter, a yacht normally with a crew of fifteen. She had competed in the 1973 Whitbread Round the World Race and had the fastest time on the Portsmouth to Cape Town leg of that race. Philip Weld was back with a new 60 foot trimaran, Gulf Streamer, and Alain Colas entered the 70 foot trimaran Manureva, built by Eric Tabarly for the 1968 OSTAR, as Pen Duick IV, and sailed to victory in the 1972 OSTAR by Colas. After that race Alain Colas took her on a record-breaking round the world voyage with only one stop in which he covered 29,600 miles in 168 days. He pointed out that the yacht was a direct result of the Round Britain Race because Tabarly, having seen what Toria could do in the 1966 Round Britain, ordered her for the 1968 OSTAR in preference to a monohull. He went on to say “these two races have done everything for the development of multihulls”. Mike McMullen entered his Newick designed Three Cheers, which Tom Follet had sailed so successfully in the 1972 OSTAR, and there was a new Kelsall designed 35ft trimaran called F.T. sailed by David Palmer (then news editor of The Financial Times). This boat was built not only for this race but with the 1976 OSTAR in mind in which David had his sights on the Jester Trophy. Nick Keig had a new Kelsall designed trimaran called Three Legs of Mann which he had built himself. Also in the fleet were the old faithfuls Snow Goose, this time sailed by John Hart and John Bennett, and Toria, now Gancia Girl, sailed by Tony Bullimore and Arthur Ellis.
Of great interest to everyone was the entry of Donald Parr’s Quailo III, a thoroughbred Class I ocean racer which had been in the 1973 Admiral’s Cup team and in the highly successful British team for the Southern Cross Cup in Australia. Here was a chance to see how a top flight conventional ocean racer would fare against her miscellaneous competitors, albeit only two-handed. It was also of interest to have a dedicated RORC ocean racing skipper wanting to try another form of the sport when many of the yacht racing “establishment” were scornfully describing these sort of races as “stunt races”. The chairman of the Racing Rules Committee of the International Yacht Racing Union (IYRU) spoke of the rules being “bent if not blatantly disregarded”. So blinkered was the vision of some sections of the establishment, that they could not conceive of any sailing race being conducted other than in accordance with the IRYU rules. The chairman went on to recommend that clubs who organized events, such as the Whitbread Round the World Race, should be refused affiliation by their national authorities. Fortunately for sailing, this suggestion did not find widespread support.
There were other conventional ocean racers in the fleet: Robin Aisher lent his Frigate to John Holmes, one of Donald Parr’s regular crew, and Alan Goodfellow entered his Hippokampus.
Among small boats were a 25ft Folkboat sailed by Richard and Edmund Gatehouse, Richard Clifford’s Contessa 26, Shamaal II, the Royal Engineers Yacht Club’s Contessa 26 Contessa Caroline, sailed by Roger Justice and Chris Haskell, the Tankard 24 Windsor Life, sailed by Royal Marines Sergeant Gerry Norman, Ewen Southby-Tailyour’s Hurley 24, Black Velvet and Rod White’s Halcyon 24 Bluff.
Richard Clifford did well to bring Shamaal II home in 24th place overall but perhaps the most remarkable feat was that of the two Swiss boys, Beat Guttinger and Albert Schiess, who sailed their 24ft Quarter Tonner Petit Suisse into 20th place. Their handling of their tiny boat in a succession of gales and very heavy seas won everyone’s admiration. A film made about the race had some remarkable shots of them sailing Petit Suisse, dinghy fashion, around Muckle Flugga, the northernmost point of the course. Colin Forbes, who made the film must have been delighted to be rewarded with these shots, having humped his gear over hill and bog to be there at the time.
The first leg of the race was sailed as usual in quiet conditions with the main problems being fog and light winds. This proved to be the undoing of Alain Colas who only managed 10th place, nearly ten hours behind the leader, British Oxygen. He subsequently admitted that he had seriously underestimated his competitors and should ‘have removed a lot of the heavy radio equipment, and stocks of spare parts he had onboard for his circumnavigation. Multihulls lead the fleet into Crosshaven and Quailo III was the first monohull, in 8th place, followed by Slithy Tove 9th, and Burton Cutter 11th. On the second leg, to Barra, the four leaders, British Oxygen, Three Cheers, Triple Arrow and Gulf Streamer, maintained their positions but Mike McMullen brought his Three Cheers in only just over an hour behind British Oxygen. This was the leg which took the greatest toll of the yachts: Battle Royal, Mantis , Tane Nui and Tehini all retired in, or just after leaving, Crosshaven and several other boats sought refuge in ports and anchorages up the Irish coast and in the Scottish islands. Once again the Wharram polynesian catamarans had failed to get further than Crosshaven. Black Velvet, having battled up the Irish coast almost to Barra, turned and headed south because it was evident his crew would not go beyond Barra, he had had enough. It was said that whereas Ewen could keep going on a diet of sardines and whisky, his crew couldn’t! Ewen took Black Velvet all the way back to Plymouth, mostly singlehanded, changed crew and then sailed up the Channel to Lowestoft to do the last leg of the race as an honorary competitor. Jeremy Hurlbatt and Malcolm Bird retired into Oban and then took Fidget through the Caledonian Canal, into the North Sea, and thence home via Lowestoft.
A fascinating race within the race took place, on the second leg, between F.T. and Quailo. David Palmer describes it in his book The Atlantic Challenge: “In mid-afternoon, Quailo III, the only real thoroughbred ocean racer in the whole fleet of 61 boats, heaves into view, half a mile away from us on our port beam. It is the beginning of a race that lasts for the next 36 hours. Every time the wind goes a little ahead of the beam, Quailo, with her 39½ feet waterline and heavy displacement, inches ahead. Whenever the wind backs to abaft the beam, F.T. slides past Quailo. At dusk, Quailo is pulling away from us as the wind moves slightly north of east. But the following day, having cleared Black Rock and Eagle Island in the small hours of the morning, we overhaul Quailo again, and again start racing each other, changing positions all day. With sunset approaching, the dark and brooding shape of Barra Head comes up ahead of us. As it does so, the wind begins to die, and backs through 10 degrees and we start edging away from Quailo. Darkness sets in and Quailo’s lights recede behind us, until we can no longer see them. Our little race is won – at least for this leg.
As we approach the entrance to Castle Bay Harbour, we pass too close to a mass of rock known as Muldoanich and lose our wind. We drift past Muldoanich, and beat towards the finishing line. The wind is all over the place, and I make two bad tacks. With 50 yards to go I look over my shoulder. Quailo’s lights are moving fast up behind me. She has held her speed past Muldoanich, and is pointing high towards the finishing line. I tack on to starboard, and force her to tack too. I try and hold her on past the line, so that I can tack onto port and cross ahead of her. But she points too high, she just steers across my bow. Two more tacks, faultlessly executed, and Quailo crosses the line 15 seconds ahead of us. Where else in the world would two boats as totally different as Quailo, the thoroughbred ocean racer, and F.T. the brash little trimaran, have a race like this – for 36 hours we have been within a few miles of each other.”
There were various dramas on the leg to Lerwick and the committee allowed a degree of indulgence to some competitors which was appreciated by those concerned, but considered over the odds by those who were not. Basically the concept was that following a mishap – even including a capsize – the competitor was allowed to sail back to the point where he had received assistance and then pick up the race again from there. The elasticity in the rules was not repeated in subsequent races. The chief beneficiary of this liberalism was Brian Cooke, who, when approaching Lerwick, was lying becalmed and virtually still in the water, when a terrific gust came down from the high cliff to the north of him, and simply flipped Triple Arrow over before anything could be done. Fortunately the capsize was seen by Mrs Angela Hawkins who was watching through binoculars. She immediately alerted the Coastguards. Eric Jensen the crew was soon on the upturned bottom of the yacht but Brian was trapped under the netting which joins the hulls. However he was finally extricated with a cut eye. The yacht was salvaged and, as soon as the repairs were sufficiently advanced, Brian and Eric sailed out to the position of the capsize, under jury rig, and back to complete the leg. Then started their compulsory 48 hour stopover during which repairs were completed. She resumed the race and managed to climb back up the fleet to finish in Plymouth in 8th place overall.
Croda Way was dismasted off Barra, managed to get back in there and, with virtually no local resources, repaired the mast and rejoined the race – a remarkable feat. Probably most disappointed of all those who were forced to retire were Michael Pipe and Ian Porter in Slithy Tove, a revolutionary designed monohull of 48 feet. They had managed to get one place ahead of the Nicholson 55, Quailo, by Barra, and were then forced to retire and take a short cut into Lerwick with rigging problems. An unusual casualty on the third leg was Tower Casper. The owner and skipper, Martin Wills, was, in his working life, mate of a small merchant ship, belonging to Tower Shipping Line, whose Master was Colin Hoare, now his crew. As the only two officers in the ship one would have expected that they knew each other fairly well, and that they would be able to face life at sea together with equanimity. However, maybe the boot being on the other foot, so to speak, had something to do with the fundamental disagreement which arose after they left Barra, in stinking awful weather, to sail to Lerwick.
Somewhere near St Kilda, not the most hospitable place in the best of weather, Colin Hoare decided that they were mad to be at sea in such weather in Tower Casper and said he would like to be put ashore. They therefore returned to Barra and he disembarked. Martin sailed again, on his own, for Lerwick. There was some surprise when he arrived in Lerwick with no crew, and of course, he had, by sailing without a crew, disqualified himself from the race.
As British Oxygen left Lerwick, F.T. appeared after having had a wretched passage from Barra. They had suffered problems with their main beams and with leaks, and the weather had been awful, they had spent some hours hove-to and were just beginning to think things were getting better when the bottom hinge fitting of the rudder broke. This had happened on the first leg but they thought the repair, done in Crosshaven would have solved the problem. They were some 130 miles south-west of Muckle Flugga at the time, a bad place in which to have steering failure.
They decided that they must ship the spare rudder they had brought with them and started to do this. In removing the old one it slipped and drifted away. They shipped the outboard motor and tried to get back to it but a sea broke the engine bracket and the engine was swamped. Abandoning the old rudder, they set about fitting the spare one, not an easy thing to do in the open, heaving ocean and as they struggled they fractured the top hinge fitting. Mercifully it did not break completely and after two and a half hours they were able to get under way again, nursing the boat along, under reduced sail, in order to impose the minimum strain on the rudder fittings.
Leslie Dyball, whose 67 years made him the oldest competitor in the race, arrived in good shape with fly fishing rods, with which to enjoy his visit to Shetland. By Lerwick he was well placed in the handicap order and on the next leg, to Lowestoft he improved his position so much that on arrival in Plymouth he was first on handicap. There is a tendency to think of the course from Lerwick as being all downhill, if only because it looks that way on the chart. True the most northerly and exposed part of the course is behind, but the North Sea can be very violent. On the passage south, to Lowestoft, John Westell and Bill Cherry, in their trimaran John Willie suddenly found that their boat had become a proa! One float had broken off. Unlike other proas however, they could not go about and they felt there was no future for them on the one tack they could sail. They therefore sent out a distress call which was soon answered by the German Trawler Junger Pioneer. They abandoned the yacht and were taken in to Lerwick. The main hull, and its one float, was towed in to an east coast port and a call some days later to the Royal Western Yacht Club by the Coastguards, gave news that the other float was being towed into Stavanger, in Norway.
Disaster very nearly struck Mike McMullen on the leg south. He went forward in Three Cheers to change headsails, in a fresh wind and rough sea, and was simply bounced overboard from the heaving deck. The boat was moving fast and, although he managed to grasp a lifeline, he could not hold on to it as he was dragged through the water. He let go and the yacht went over him almost breaking one of his legs as she did so. He surfaced some 50 yards from the yacht. Fully clothed, with foul weather gear complete with seaboots, he soon became waterlogged. Meanwhile Martin Read had luffed the boat up into the wind and she drifted back towards Mike who was able to grab hold of the yacht, though maintaining his grip with great difficulty. To enable him to do this Martin had to get all the sail off the boat. Mike was quite unable to hoist himself back on board, nor could this be achieved with Martin’s help. Martin therefore grabbed a halyard, attached it to Mike and winched him aboard. History does not recall how long this episode took, from the moment they were sailing until they were able to proceed, but when one considers that Three Cheers finished only an hour and eleven minutes after British Oxygen, in Plymouth, one is bound to ask who would have been the winner if it had not happened.
British Oxygen was the leader into Lowestoft by a little over 9 hours and this coupled with the fact that she had the tides right for her departure, put her in a very strong position. Lowestoft, as a stopover port in this race, can be extremely frustrating. Many is the time when a yacht has reached within spitting distance of the finishing line there only to have the wind fail and the tidal stream turn against them. Or conversely when it is their time to go out to restart a rushing northerly stream and a light wind make it impossible to make any progress. One gets becalmed in a foul tide in lots of other places, but do so at, or near a finishing line is frustrating if handicapping is in use. By Lowestoft, Burton Cutter had worked out a lead of 8 hours over Quailo and they were 6th and 7th respectively. After Lowestoft there was no change in the positions of the first ten yachts. Robin KnoxJohnston and Gerry Boxall brought British Oxygen in to Plymouth a few minutes before 4.00 p.m. on 24 July with an elapsed time of 18 days 4 hours 26 minutes, which knocked a day and a half off Toria’s 1966 record time.
Before the race Philip Weld had been up to a bit of predicting, and had reckoned that Gulf Streamer would need 254 hours sailing to complete the course and that she would be beaten by Manureva who would need 240 hours. In the event the winner was not Manureva but British Oxygen who actually took 244¼ hours (only 4½ hours different to Philip Weld’s predicted winner’s time), and he himself in Gulf Streamer bettered his predicted time by 6½ hours – remarkably accurate. It must have been a great disappointment for Phil Weld to come third again but there was a marvellous quote from him after the race which gave an insight of what a sportsman he was. He said “It has been such terrific fun; the point of the whole thing is the marvellous people you meet, the other contestants, the camp followers and the locals in each port. The Round Britain is a wonderful race.”
Due to the yachts concerned being in different weather patterns, there were some interesting comparisons to be made between the elapsed time for different yachts on the last leg. The fastest time was put up by Croda Way who did it in 1 day 21¾ hours, against the winner’s time of 2 days 9¼ hours. On the last leg Manureva very nearly came to grief when a Greek merchant ship hit her, causing damage which, though she was able to finish the race, was, structurally serious. Any account of a race inevitably highlights the winners and the disasters, but in a race like the Round Britain, and particularly when the weather is as bad as it was in 1974, at least for most of the competitors, all those who finish have, in a sense, won. Those who study the tables of results will pick out the ones they think did particularly well. Leslie Dyball and Larry Pardey sailed consistently well to be worthy winners on handicap, and 13th overall. Petit Suisse was a popular taker of the second place on handicap. Clare Francis and Eve Bonham in Cherry Blossom, after a slow first leg in light winds, clawed their way up the fleet, doing particularly well between Barra and Lerwick to finish 22nd overall, and 3rd on handicap.