The skipper's guide to Round the Island Race

Here is our Rookie Skipper's Guide to your first Round the Island Race. If it's your first time crewing on Round the Island Race take at our Beginners Guide to Round the Island Race..

If you sail in and around the Solent there is a good chance that you have competed in at least one Round the Island Race (RTIR) in your time.

Many cruising sailors are understandably nervous of the sheer vastness of the race fleet which usually numbers around 1,600 boats and 16,000 sailors starting in classes over a period of an hour or more. You may have owned your boat for a while but this might be your first year skippering the RTIR. This article is for you.

When is Round the Island Race and how long is the course?

The race course is approximately 50 miles long and it usually takes place at the end of June. This year (2017) the first class crosses the line at 0530 hrs BST on Saturday 1. July.

How do I enter Round the Island Race?

You can enter right up until about a week before race start for an entry fee of £350 but if you want to save a packet, enter earlier in the year. Entrants that registered before the end of February 2017 got a relative bargain at just £112. You will need to fill in a form with some boat measurements for handicap, etc.

Do I need any qualifications?

No - unless you are chartering in which case you are likely to need to show the charter firm an RYA Day Skipper qualification and some race experience as a minimum. Although we’d certainly recommend you have some experience as things can get quite busy out there! Skipper and crew need to be on their toes to keep out of trouble.

What sort of boat can enter Round the Island Race?

A wide variety of boats enter every year from small day boats to maxi multihulls. The basic parameters are based upon safety and the primary requirements are set out in the World Sailing (ISAF) Offshore Special Regulations for Category 4 races.
(Offshore Special Regs). Further information is included in the Notice for race and Sailing Instructions. This will include what you must carry on board, the basic performance specification of the vessel and things like lifejacket specification, etc.

How would I ever compete against the big boys?

Like golf, there is a handicap system which is supposed to level the playing field for all involved (hence the boat measurements, etc). Of course, some boats are treated better by the system than others and it’s not unusual for small day boats to win the race overall (on handicap) in the right conditions.

How do I learn the racing rules?

The basics are relatively simple, but you must know them or you’re likely to find yourself in a pickle. If you want to buy annotated and illustrated rules try buying an up to date book such as The Rules in Practice 2017 - 2020. This covers rules to 2020, having just been revised this year. Make sure you understand the race instructions, the course and when you have an option to take a race penalty rather than having to spend hours later in a protest meeting post race! Solent Race Strategy is written on here.

Why does the Round the Island Race Start so Early?

Tide waits for no man, as we know, as HW Portsmouth is just after race start meaning that the fleet starts on a positive tide. Tide makes a massive difference as we know, so understanding tidal flow and the presence of back eddies is critical to a good performance.  You can buy detailed almanacs on tidal flow in the Solent here.

What preparation can I do pre-race ?


First off, make sure you are insured to race. If you are not, this could be an expensive weekend.

Also, there is little point carrying unnecessary excess weight, so check the rules to establish what you can remove from the boat and then decide how far you are prepared to push it. make sure you have completed all formalities and submitted your crew list, etc. Register your mobile phone and keep it with you.

If you want to make a difference consider having your boat lifted for a bottom cleaning. If you don’t race regularly, get out on the Solent for a day or two beforehand and make sure you know where the start line is and take time to train your crew for the big day. If you are a confident kite flyer make sure you practice a few gybes and drops at the very least.

Make sure your boat is fully to spec and meets the requirements of the race and it’s a good idea to book a berth if you can for post race activities. This probably needs to be done months before.

Round the Island Race Tips

  • This year, make sure you get an early night and set a couple of alarms - it’s an early one!
  • Make sure to affix all necessary decals the day before and race / sponsor flags.
  • Listen for broadcasts on VHF CH22. Make sure you have registered your mobile phone as per the race instructions and keep it fully charged and on board at all times
  • Make sure you empty all your water tanks. Running with less fuel is also a good idea (but, of course, you will need some!)
  • Carry enough bottled water and non-alcoholic drinks on board for you and your crew. It can be a long, hard day!
  • Carry food. Maintaining concentration for 8 - 12 hours can be hard, especially when hungry. I tend to enjoy a bacon sandwich after we’ve got the kite up and are on our way to St Catherine’s Point! If you are all going to be too busy for a bacon butty (what sort of madness is this I hear you ask) then snacky, high calorie foods for energy are useful.
  • Stay clear of the start line until your 10 minute gun and until then stay in one of the holding / waiting areas.
  • Have a trusted mainsheet trimmer and bowman. The former will keep you out of trouble in the gusts and the latter will be a pair of eyes watching out under your head sail on the start.
  • Make sure you understand where the hazards are on course and avoid them! This is sometimes easier said than done when you are amongst a matched fleet bunching around the Needles Lighthouse. The Varvassi Wreck has caught out some of the best, so be careful! The general consensus is that a safe rounding can be made if you keep the old coastguard station above the level of the top of the lighthouse in transit. Ryde Sands have also caught out many a sailor.You can also check out Peter Bruce’s book on Solent Hazards here.
  • At the finish, make sure your race number is properly displayed and that you cross the correct finish line. Be aware that you might find fluky winds off the headland to the West of Osborne’s Bay and light airs and a foul tide can make crossing the line a tricky and somewhat fraught affair for the fleet.
  • Make sure you text your finish time and the sail numbers of the boats ahead and behind you as per race instructions.
  • After the finish start your engine and get clear of the finish line. It gets busy - especially if you are mid fleet.

What are the usual ‘pinch points’ during 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;

1 - 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.

2 - 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. 

3 - 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!

4 - 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!

5 - 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. 

6 - 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.

7 - 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.

8 - 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. 

9 - 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.

10 - 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.
It should be no surprise that on such a relatively short race, a good start, clean air, being on the most favourable tide and sailing the shortest course are all critical to a good result. However, as long as you understand the rules, brief your crew well and sail within your limits, a good day can be had, no matter what your result. After all, there’s always next year!

If you want to crew on this amazing event, take a look at our Round the Island Race package.