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  • Writer's pictureClassic Regattas Limited

A moonlight battle to Cowes

It was an overnight leg from Dartmouth to Cowes for the Richard Mille Cup and the 90nm course with its tidal gate at Portland, challenged skippers, navigators and crews with variable conditions that made for a tense and exciting contest. 


In light winds and a foul tide off the mouth of the River Dart, Blue group was first away at 1400 on Saturday 8 June, with the 1904, 52ft pilot cutter Alpha leading the fleet out to sea on a close reach. Thalia, built in 1889, was next to cross, with Cynthia and Patna close behind. 


Two and a half hours later Black Group had its turn and Sir Keith Mills’ Viveka made the best start of the day, despite the fact that the wind disappeared at the five-minute gun. Powered up and near the line, she made some useful gains before the wind reached the rest of the fleet, but in a pattern that set the tone for the leg, Viveka then found a hole and could only watch helplessly as the others caught up. Viveka was, however, to turn the tables later in the leg, in dramatic style. 


With the sun shining and the wind building, it was a sight to behold to watch Elena and Atlantic, the final two schooners, crossing the start line together before joining the rest of the fleet on the ride east to the Isle of Wight. 


As darkness fell, the wind picked up again. Several yachts saw speeds of 12 knots and more as they reached on into the moonlit night. Off the tidal gate of Portland, around 23:00, Elena was leading, with Atlantic just behind. Mariquita and Viveka were close together, continuing their regatta rivalry, and were able to pass close to the notorious Bill in the relatively flat conditions. 


The stage was set for a classic finish up the Solent, as the yachts approached the Needles shortly after 02:00. As the breeze died dramatically, the smaller yachts in Blue Group took the decision to anchor off Keyhaven until the tide turned, but this leg was to have some cruel blows in store for them.  


In Black Group, all sails were aloft and a light airs chess game ensued that demanded as much local pilotage knowledge and as it did tireless crew work. No doubt the sailors on the handful of modern cruising yachts in the area did a double take as they found themselves sharing water with some of the most famous yachts afloat, Elena, Atlantic, Mariquita, Viveka and Moonbeam IV all close together as they entered the Solent. 


Two hours later at 04:00, it was Mariquita that rounded Gurnard Point first, but although she was within sight of the Royal Yacht Squadron, she couldn’t hold her way and it made for an agonising spectacle as she was dragged back by the tide, fought her way up again, before drifting back once more. 


Mariquita’s wind hole was a cardinal for the others to avoid, but she wasn’t alone. Atlantic also stalled and Elena took advantage, scooting around to take line honours for the schooners. Then it was Viveka’s turn, keeping well clear of the windless Gurnard shore to take the flag at 06:20 ahead of Mariquita, who slowly made her way to the Squadron line shortly afterwards. As the wind built a little, Atlantic finished the grueling leg in style, with all sail set including her two fishermen staysails. 


Meanwhile members of Blue group set off in more favourable tide to finish the leg in time for a much-deserved breakfast on Cowes High Street, the first yacht Patna arriving almost 19 hours after the start gun. 


On the pontoon at Cowes Yacht Haven, as victor Viveka tied up, Sir Keith Mills said: “There were a lot of holes and we found many of them, but we came good in the end.”  

Alex Mills said: “The start was a bit of a lottery, but once the wind filled in, we hit 11/12 knots overnight and it was a pretty good reach across to Portland Bill. We got round the Bill in favourable tide and we had a very good stint on the Shingles side as we approached Hurst.”  

“Past Hurst there was a balance between coming inshore to keep out of the tide, yet staying in the breeze, and I think the yachts around us got a little too close in. We had one moment off Yarmouth where we lost the breeze, and we ended up sailing almost backwards to get back into the breeze. After that we learned our lesson and stayed more offshore.” 

“The last bit was very tricky, very light and shifty and we only passed Mariquita off Gurnard. We stayed offshore and were slightly fortunate that the tide went slack when it did, so you could afford to be further out. We could see them stopped and took a wide berth around the outside.” 

“This is a Royal Yacht Squadron boat and this is the first time it’s been at the Squadron, so it’s brilliant that we’ve been able to get line honours here.” 


After grabbing some much-needed sleep, the crews are invited to a reception at the Royal Yacht Squadron on the evening of Sunday 9 June, before inshore racing resumes over the week ahead. 


The final offshore leg is from Cowes to Le Havre, in time for one more inshore race and the prize-giving on Saturday.


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