A Beginner’s Guide to Round the Island Race

Every summer about 1,600 small (and not so small) sailing vessels set westwards towards the Needles Channel in what is basically a mad dash to complete the 50-mile circumnavigation of the Isle of Wight as fast as they possibly can. The race begins at the mouth of the Medina River, just North of Cowes and is a defining part of the classic English Summer. 

The Round the Island Race sits amongst many other iconic sporting events including Wimbledon, The Grand National, the Derby, The Oxford & Cambridge Boat Race, Cricket Tests, Henley Rowing regatta - and the odd football match to boot. Together with muddy boots at Glastonbury, expensive strawberries and a minty Pimms cocktail, the Round the Island Race is everything that is fun about the English summer.

For those of you planning to skipper for the first time check out our beginner’s guide to skippering your first Round the Island Race.  For those of you participating as crew, here are a few tips to get you going. We’ll be there again this year - on a flying visit from sunny Gibraltar - so give us a wave if you see us!

What time does Round the Island Race start?

The race starts on the ebbing west flowing tide so as to help the fleet through the first tidal gate at the Needles Channel. This is ideally around 6 am so as to allow the whole fleet to leave before 7 am but some years it’s earlier. Early enough that a night out on the Friday before is generally ill-advised!

The mid fleet and slower boats tend to ride the tide all the way around with the faster ones (like the super fast catamarans & Trimarans having less need for its assistance).

How long does Round the Island Race take to complete?

Most 36ft cruisers finish in between 7 - 10 hours dependent on weather and sailing ability. The record was set in Phaedo^3 in 2016 who completed the 60 mile circumnavigation in a startling 2 hrs 23 mins, just 23 seconds faster than Ben Ainslie and his crew on their AC45 the year before.

Who can compete in Round the Island Race?

Anyone can enter but the entries are usually oversubscribed so get in early!

Family cruising boats and small day sailors race alongside some of the World’s best and most famous sailors. 10 metre wooden gaffs alongside 30 metre carbon fibre race exotica. The atmosphere is electric all day!

Jolly Parrot are racing again this year and we still have a few places left on our second boat at the time of writing. Click here for our Round the Island Race Package.

How do 1,600 boats cross a start line all at once?

They’ve thought of that. The race is between everyone, no matter what you sail, and the results are defined by reference to a handicap. Each boat is allocated a class and each class starts 10 minutes apart.

This reduces the potential for carnage but it’s still pretty busy on the start line!

Make sure your skipper knows her IRPCS and race rules and stay off the start line until it’s your turn!

There are usually ‘holding areas’ off the eastern entrance to the Medina and the south western edge of Brambles Bank (check the race instructions for details).

What to take on Round the Island Race?

Depending on the competitive nature of your skipper and crew it’s best to pack light. Have a change of clothes for the evening’s festivities and a sleeping bag (unless you are on board a more civilised yacht with linen of course).

Make sure you bring high factor suncream, a wide brimmed sun hat with chin strap, sunglasses and some bottled water! It can get very hot and suffering from heat stroke whilst your crew members are dancing in the beer tents is no fun whatsoever.

A few nibbles and a cold bottle of beer or wine for the race finish normally goes down well - check with your skipper!

Where are the usual ‘pinch points’ for the race?

The race is pretty frenetic with each leg being defined by specific challenges dependent on wind speed and direction. In the usual south westerly, the race is defined by;
(i) The start - Always busy and stressful for the less-experienced racer. When the South end of the line is favoured it can get very busy around Gurnard with boats tacking deep into the beach and lots of calls for ‘water’ and ‘starboard’ clearly heard by spectators standing just metres away on the deep-shelving beach.
(ii) The Approach to Yarmouth - Staying in the deep water and maximum tide down to Yarmouth is usually best but cleaner air to the North can be tempting. The fleet is pretty close together so you need to keep your eyes open for starboard vessels - especially as you cross the Trap and enter the Needles Channel. 
(iii) Like the M25 but busier - The area around the Trap at the eastern end of the Needles Channel is usually very busy and short tacking in traffic is the order of the day. Be careful, be watchful and be decisive if you want to avoid an expensive collision and an early saltwater bath!
(iv) The Needles & Varvassi - Rounding the Needles is the first real waypoint on the course. Keeping close in saves time but get too close and the Varvassi wreck is waiting to put a hole in your bottom. Brave souls ‘thread the Needle’ rounding between the rocks and the wreck but you need to know exactly what you are doing!
(v) The kite run - The Needles is usually the windward mark and the first to get the kite up will do well. Watch out for starboard vessels coming down on you if you are on a port tack! There are usually a few broaches and kite wraps as boats manoeuvre for position. Some will choose to go slightly offshore and punch some tide whilst most dive into the bay and ride the eddies around St Catherine’s Point. Doing the latter might mean you are gybing a fair amount but it usually pays off for mid fleet boats. 
(vi) St Catherine’s Point - Usually blustery, on a windy day the point can get interesting (and lumpy) if wind is against tide. Keeping the kite up here is probably critical to a good race result and it’s sometimes easier said than done.
(vii) Bembridge - The downwind run to Bembridge is usually fairly competitive but some of the slower boats are starting to lose focus. Keeping your foot down from here will pay rich dividends in the race results. After rounding the mark it’s usual to reach to the Forts so there is some time to take a breath.
(viii) The Forts & Ryde Sands - Sailing the shortest allowable course and avoiding Ryde Sands is the order of the day. Stay out of the foul running tide here and keep in the shallows North of Wooton Creek and into Osborne Bay. 
(ix) The finish - Make sure you know which line you are aiming for - there are normally two. Failure to cross the correct line will result in a DNF! The winds around the headland are fluky, especially inshore and light airs will make it hard to cross the finish line against a strong counter tidal flow. Try and engineer a fast, high approach on starboard tack, ideally on a close reach, if airs are light and a strong tide is flowing.
(x) Taking names - Make sure to take name and sail numbers for the yacht ahead and behind you and note your finish time - report it using the race organiser’s texting system.

I’m a complete novice. What can I do to prepare for the race?

If you are on board a chartered yacht with professional skipper / mate then you will be well looked after, so just do what they say when they say it.

If you still want to get an idea of the basics of sailing or if you sail but want to learn more about sail trimming here are a few books worth reading;

Mainsail Trimming
Headsail Trimming
Sail & Rig Tuning
Racing Rules

What’s my job on the race?

You will be allocated a job for the race. This might change as the race progresses - it’s down to your skipper and circumstances. Whatever job you are doing, make sure to hold on, keep your head down and keep your eyes open!

It gets very busy on race day and in the unlikely event that you are involved in a collision keep your limbs out of the way of big heavy boats!

What does the shout ‘starboard’ mean?

There are lots of rules designed so that vessels don’t collide; the maritime version of the Highway code I guess. These rules are extended into racing rules which are similar but tend to be amended subtly every few years.

One of the basic rules in sailing is that a sail boat on a starboard tack (the wind is coming over the boat from the starboard side) has ‘right of way’ over a vessel sailing on a port tack (wind coming over the port side). In close quarters a yacht with rights might shout ‘starboard’! to warn a yacht on port of their imminent convergence. The port tack vessel should give way, either by tacking off or ‘dipping’ under the stern of the starboard tack vessel if necessary.

What does the shout ‘water’ mean?

Basically, when yachts are racing and one vessel is approaching an obstacle (such as shoals) the vessel may call ‘water’ on the approach to warn other yachts that they will need to manoeuvre around the obstacle and will need room to do so.

This might also be the case when approaching a race mark with an overlap on another boat at a fixed length from the mark itself. The overlap is usually defined at a place 3 x boat lengths from the mark itself.

Click here of the current ISAF Racing Rules for 2017-2010. Check also the Race Instructions.

What to do after the race?

I don’t know about you, but after a long, hard race in the sun I usually find a cold beer goes down very well. There is lots to do at Cowes Yacht Haven which is still the most central marina in the town and hosts the beer tents, sponsor tents, caterers and live music.

If that’s too mainstream for you, check out the iconic Anchor Pub at the entrance to the marina or mingle with some of the racer-types in the Pier View.

It’s a good idea to book if you want to sit down for food - but make sure it isn’t too time critical on an early finish!

Getting into Cowes Yacht Haven can be tough, so consider East Cowes Marina and Shepherds Wharf also. Alternatively, try an alternate (and quieter) evening across the Solent in the village of Hamble.

Whatever your level of experience, the main thing is to keep a smile on your face, enjoy the day and come ashore with a tale to tell and some new friends made. After all, that’s what sailing’s all about.

If you missed the opportunity to sail in this year, take a look at our Round the Island Race weekend package.