RB&I 1978

The Forth RB&I – The Observer Two-handed Round Britain & Ireland Race

Word had got around about the Round Britain Race, and for the first time the list had to be closed. This was done at 120 entries, in the hope that that would produce a final fleet of about 100 boats. Anything more than that would have put too much pressure on the stop-over ports and in particular, Castle Bay, Barra, where the Coxswain of the lifeboat, John McNeil, has his work cut out to fit all the yachts in, because although the bay looks big enough on the chart there are a number of places where the holding is not at all good.

The 120 dropped to 86 and, in the event only 74 yachts came to the line to start. It was a fascinating collection of yachts, from the latest in high speed multihulls, to the stately 46ft gaff ketch Melmore, and the 51ft sloop Elena, laid down in 1939 by the Berthon Boat Company but not commissioned until 1946. Melmore was sailed by her owner, Frank Essen, and Elena was lent to John McKillop, the Kingsbridge sailmaker, and crewed by Charles Steinly, who, sadly, was later lost at sea with his boat. John McKillop’s birthday came up when they were at Barra and in deference to the racing he decided to celebrate it a day early. However, it was such a success that they had another one the next day, thereby starting four hours late on the next leg. As there was a south-east gale blowing at the time, presumably any cobwebs were soon blown away.

Chay Blyth was sailing a new Kelsall designed trimaran, Great Britain IV, 54ft. Philip Weld who had lost Gulf Streamer on the way to the 1976 OSTAR, had a new Newick designed, 60 foot trimaran which he had named Rogue Wave, since that was what had capsized GulfStreamer. Having been third in the last two races he was of course rearing to get to the front of the fleet and, this time, stay there. Robin Knox-Johnston was back with another strong man act, sailing the 77ft Great Britain II with Billy King-Barman. Multihull followers were watching Waiter Greene, and his wife Joan, over from America with a boat Waiter had designed and built himself, A Cappella. She had originally been a bit longer but he trimmed her to just under 35ft to fit the lower class limit.

Nick Keig had produced a new Three Legs of Mann, and there were two of Dick Newick’s Val class trimarans, RFD, sailed by Martin Read and Philip Greig, and Jan of Santa Cruz, sailed by Nigel Irens and Mark Pridie. Mike Ellison sailed a production Comanche catamaran, of that name, with Reg White to help him. The smallest multihull was Gazelle, a 28 foot trimaran and, as her name implied was a most delicately graceful boat, but singularly lacking in creature comforts. Her owner, Charles Dennis planned to sail here with his wife Susan but, by the time it came to the race, a small Dennis had arrived and she was advised not to sail. Julia Awcock took Susan’s place at the last minute.

There were a lot of good offshore racing boats who formed themselves into racing groups within the overall race and were very competitive. There were also some which were not quite so competitive. Peter Crowther’s Galway Blazer and Jock McCleod’s Rim Glas, both Chinese lugsail-rigged, were there and Richard Gatehouse was back in Skol II, this time crewed by David Robinson. There were two female crews; Stephanie Merry and Katie Clegg sailed the three-quarter tonner Mezzanine and Pippa Longley and Katie Clemson sailed Nikonos III, a one tonner. Both boats were designed by Ron Holland.

The race went off to a brisk start with westerly winds giving a beat to the Bishop Rock after a reach to the Eddystone, which was the first mark of the course. The wind was westerly force 5 and Rogue Wave evidently found this very much to her liking as she was first round the Bishop Rock, after which she was able to lay the course for Crosshaven.

Second round the Bishop Rock was Great Britain IV. She had hardly settled onto the new course when the fairing on the starboard forward cross beam was damaged and the forward section of the starboard float filled up. The crew hove-to for an hour and a half trying to pump out the float, but to no effect. They then considered where they could best go to carry out repairs and in the end decided to carry on to Crosshaven at slow speed. When they arrived there they were 9 hours behind Rogue Wave and in 6th place.

One yacht we always knew about was Norvantes, sailed by Peter Jay, at that time British Ambassador in the United States. Presumably his taking part posed something of a security problem which may have accounted for his yacht’s excellent communications. His crew was Luke Fitzherbert, who did the 1974 race with David Palmer in F.T. He certainly had arranged a more comfortable ride this time, though it did take him a day and a half longer to get round.

After repairs, G.B. IV left Crosshaven in pursuit of the leaders. The conditions were light, which favoured her, and half way up the Irish coast they were delighted to see Rogue Wave ahead of them, and to be able to overtake her. With 200 miles to go to Barra, the wind headed them and they were on a beat, with a freshening northerly wind. However, in the final stages of the leg they were able to ease sheets and were first into Castle Bay. Rogue Wave was second, 4¾ hours behind. The light conditions did not suit Robin Knox­Johnston in G.B.II and he was 8th into Castle Bay, climbed to 6th by Lowestoft, and then had a slow last lap, when he fell to 12th place at the finish. In the middle of the fleet, a private race was going on with a small group consisting of Yamaha D’ieteren, sailed by Yves Anrys, Mezzanine, sailed by Stephanie Merry and Katie Clegg, Attila, a Nicholson 33 sailed by Jeremy Hurlbatt and Neil MacRae, and the UFO 34, Jaws, sailed by Niels Svendsen and Norman Brooks. Also, perhaps surprisingly, mixed up in this little bunch was Tony Bullimore in his 35ft trimaran, Run Around.

Jeremy Hurlbatt was making up for having had to retire in the last race when he withdrew his yacht Fidget, in very bad weather, in deference to her age.  Tony Bullimore had had to find himself a new yacht because his last one, Gancia Girl (ex-Toria) had caught fire during the 1976 OSTAR and he had to abandon her. Such pieces as were found later, on the Irish coast, were too small to be reconstituted.

Two boats who would have fared better under the more elastic rules of the 1974 race, were Hindostan and Nikonos III, both of whom had rigging problems north of Lerwick and used their engines to get in, hoping to be allowed to go back and restart from there. However the rules clearly stated that this was not allowed and they were both disqualified. A happier outcome followed the loss, by Tony Smith in Telstar, of half his mast, when only 60 miles out of Lerwick. He was left with about 15 foot of mast still standing, but he and his crew, Walter Rietig, from Norway, fixed up a jury rig and sailed the remaining 400 or so miles to Lowestoft. There, within their compulsory 48 hour stop-over period, the mast was repaired and they sailed on. From being 30th at Lerwick and 34th at Lowestoft, they reached Plymouth in 33rd place.

The leading boats after Castle Bay rounded Muckle Flugga, in winds which were very variable with calms, but the last stretch, into Lerwick, was fast and in poor visibility. G.B.IV was first in but Rogue Wave was only 2 hours behind and Three Legs was still in third place. When they left Lerwick they had mostly southerly winds, force 5 up to force 7, so that it was a windward leg. When they got to Lowestoft Rogue Wave had worked out a lead of 4 hours and once again Three Legs was third.

The leading boats came out of Lowestoft into a south south-westerly wind and, when G.B. IV left, a contrary tidal stream. By way of a short cut they lifted the boards and crabbed sideways over the bank into deeper water and less tidal stream. From there they kept hard on the wind, following each shift, until they were close in to the French coast, so close that, as Chay put it, they almost needed passports. Here the wind left them and they anchored between Calais and Cap Blanc Nez where they rode out the foul tide without losing any ground. When the wind came again it was from the south-east but gradually went round to the south-west, so that, from the Owers light ship it was a beat to Plymouth. Rob James reckoned they won the race at anchor, because at that time Rogue Wave was going backwards on the tidal stream, on the other side of the Channel.

Quite how Chay and Rob coped with the separation zones in the Straits is not recorded but, since there were no complaints one must assume they either did it right or got away with it! Angus Primrose, who retired at Lowestoft after running out of spare time, was not so lucky as he came south through the Straits. He was caught in the wrong lane and had the doubtful distinction of being the first yachtsman to be prosecuted and fined. Great Britain IV finished first at 1224 on 29 July and it later became clear that she was not the only one to have overtaken Rogue Wave.

Three Legs finished second at 0059 on 30th, followed 2 hours later by Rogue Wave. When we met Three Legs as she crossed the line, the first thing Nick Keig said was “I’m sorry about Phil”. Four words which said so much, first it showed what sort of a person Nick Keig was, secondly it said what we all thought and thirdly it illustrated the spirit in which the Round Britain has always been sailed. Phil Weld was his usual charming imperturbable self, congratulating winners, and those who came after, all alike. His day was to come, but not in the Round Britain Race, in which he held his own record: three times third.

Waiter Greene took his A Cappella round just behind the leaders with great consistency, being fourth in every port except Barra, where he dropped to fifth. Considering the three ahead of him were 53, 54 and 60 footers, this was a very creditable performance and enormous encouragement for his design and building efforts. Just behind him was Nigel lrens in his Val class Tri Jan of Santa Cruz, whose record ran 7th, 7th, 6th, 7th and finally 6th, though he was promoted to 5th through Dirk Nauta having a time penalty. Immediately behind him was the other Val Tri RFD which Martin Read had brought up from 15th in Crosshaven to 7th at the finish. The first monohull to finish was Dirk Nauta’s Tielsa II, otherwise known as Bestevaer and sailed by Gerald Dijkstra, in the 1976 OSTAR. She actually finished 5th overall but had a penalty of 3 hours 15 minutes for late arrival in Plymouth before the start. This placed him 6th, between the two Val class trimarans. 3½ hours after RFD came Slithy Tove into 8th place, and second monohull to finish.

Michael Pipe had come well down the field in the 1970 race after an enforced call at Stornoway to repair a leak, thereby dropping from 2nd to 19th place, and in 1974 he was forced to retire to Lerwick with rigging difficulties, after being 8th into Castle Bay. With him now he had Warren Luhrs, an American, who was very interested in the long and thin concept, which is what Slithy Tove was. After the race he went home and the next we knew of him was when he brought his, long thin, Tuesday’s Child over for the 1980 OSTAR. He was back again in 1981 and again later on with Thursday’s Child.

Another, not quite so long, but narrow boat was Kurrewa, sailed by Fred Dovaston and John Wetherup. She was basically a half scale model of a Twelve Metre class. She came 18th and 3rd in the under 35 Class. Cherry Valley Duck, Robert Nickerson’s Contessa 35 had a long, and hard fought battle with Beat Guttinger and Albert Schiess in their new Petit Suisse, another Contessa 35. Robert had lead them, sometimes by two places, sometimes by one, all the way round and left Lowestoft 1½ hours ahead at the start of the final leg to Plymouth. When they came to Dungeness they were close, and there was a wind shift. The Swiss were quicker with their sail change and got through into the lead and at Plymouth they were 1¼ hours ahead at the finish to take the monohulls under 35 foot prize. Just before Petit Suisse were Philip Walwyn and Frances Tate (later Frances Walwyn) in Whisky Jack a 34 foot trimaran. They were to become regular entrants in our short-handed races, sailing over from their home in St Kitts to take part and swapping the delights of the Trade Winds for the joys of Muckle Flugga in a force 8.

The little Gazelle very nearly came to grief on the last leg. They were in collision with another yacht somewhere off Torbay and one float was damaged. This did not affect them as they came along the coast towards Plymouth, but, as they turned to come in to the finish line the damaged float became the lee float and started to fill up. She came across the harbour getting slower and slower with the lee float sinking deeper and deeper. What an agonizing way to end a two thousand mile race! As we watched from the club launch there was nothing we could do but pray. Gradually she closed the gap to the finish with the top of the float awash, then she was across. She had not only made the finish, but had achieved the best time, for the last leg, in this race, 2d 01h 45m.

Not everyone had wind all the way from Lowestoft and, at one point Great Britain II and RFD were in close company, becalmed, so the crew of GB II invited RFDs crew to dinner, during the course of which the two yachts were secured alongside each other. News of this leaked out to other competitors and, about a month after the race, one of the competitors represented to the committee that there had been too much laxity in the rules, quoting this dinner party as an example, another example referred to the arrival of the girls’ in Mezzanine in Castle Bay when the, ever chivalrous, crew of Petit Suisse, had jumped on board to help the girls anchor. There were other points he raised but, when the committee had considered his letter he was told that although these were technical breaches of the rules ” . . . these are typical examples of what makes the spirit of the Round Britain Race different from other events. No one gained an advantage, and much good will was generated. I’m glad no one saw fit to protest.”

At this time there was a rule which stipulated that crews must sleep onboard their boats at the stopover ports, and this was not popular with the crews. It appears that Chay Blyth had said to someone, I’m sure with that impish look he puts on when pulling someone’s leg, that he had slept ashore, and this was quoted to the committee. In fact he was quite right, GB IV had been dried out ashore for repairs at the time! The rule was originally put in because, like all the other rules, it was in pursuance of an object of the race. After this race the committee agreed to cut out the “living onboard” rule.

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