The pre-event press release says 'no clear cut favourite but Irish eyes are smiling'. It's the kind of pressure Ireland's three boat team can do without after so many near misses in this event. But as they go afloat this morning for the first race there is no dismissing the fact that Ireland's single boat is seen as a major threat, especially if as forecasted, the winds on the Solent are moderate to strong. (You can send team Ireland good wishes HERE.)
International entries from as far afield as Hong Kong and South Africa have descended on Cowes ready for the start of the biennial Rolex Commodores' Cup.
As usual the event is for teams comprising three boats in different IRC rating bands, the boats ranging from 35-45ft in size. Teams are national with at least 50% of the crew coming from the country they are representing. The Rolex Commodores' Cup is also strongly Corinthian: only two professional sailors are allowed on the Class 1 boats and just one aboard Class 2 and 3 entries.
This year, the tenth edition of the competition, 10 teams are competing, the largest contingent coming from France, who are fielding four teams; GBR has three teams and Hong Kong, Ireland and, for the first time, South Africa each with one. Whilst the team numbers are down from two years ago, "the top four or five teams are as good as they were last time," says Eddie Warden Owen, CEO of the event's organisers, the Royal Ocean Racing Club.
In terms of the form, Warden Owen thinks the Irish will be ones to watch, as they have certainly been in the past, although they have never won; "they are very competitive, they seem highly focused and they have some very good amateur sailors on board as well as professionals." The Irish team is led by experienced Rolex Commodores' Cup skipper Anthony O'Leary and his Ker 39 Antix.
Dockside in Cowes for the Rolex Commodores' Cup. Photo: Kurt Arrigo
South Africa and Hong Kong also have strong entries, the latter having learned from competing here two years ago, again with the driving force of Jamie McWilliam behind them.
Warden Owen reckons that the dark horses at this event are the British and French teams. "The unknowns for me are the French teams because there are some good individual boats, but how they play out overall, I don't know."
Defending champions from 2008 are GBR Red, where the only return entry is former RORC Commodore Peter Rutter, this year skippering Quokka 8, the mid-sized yacht. Rutter's new vessel is a Grand Soleil 43, a sistership to the most successful yacht at the 2008 event.
Rutter was instrumental in picking his GBR Red team mates in Michael Williamson's Summit 40 White Heat, as the Class 1 boat and Jim Macgregor's Elan 410 Premier Flair in Class 3. "We are very much a tight team – we learned that from GBR Red last time. It is going to be an interesting regatta because it looks like there are going to be some very light days and some very heavy days."
The equivalent to GBR Red among the large French entry is France Yellow, which includes repeat entrants to this event, Philippe Delaporte and his J/122 Pen Azen and Marc Alperovitch and Jerome Huillard's A-35 Prime Time. They are joined by Bernard Gouy's Inis Mor - a British designed Ker 39 with an Irish name, points out skipper and owner's son, Laurent Gouy. While this is Inis Mor's first Rolex Commodores' Cup, the Gouys have for the last years been alternating Cowes Week and the Rolex Fastnet Race with Cork Week and the Round Ireland – this year moving on to this event.
Like GBR Red, France Yellow also organised themselves as a team and presented themselves to the RORC's French equivalent, the Union Course Au Large (UNCL), before Christmas. Inis Mor is one of the most successful IRC boats on the French circuit and usually podiums at the event in which she competes. As to how he thinks they will get on this week Laurent Gouy will not be drawn: "I would not dare to say! It is very complex."
The other French team that stands out is France Blue featuring Nicolas Loday and Jean Claude Nicoleau's familiar Codiam, a Grand Soleil 43, but also Marc de Saint Denis and Géry Trentesaux's First 40 Coup de Coeur, although we understand the wily Trentesaux, a Rolex Commodores' Cup veteran and winner in 2006 will not be in Cowes until Friday. The weak link in France Blue could be Samuel Prietz' X-40 Goa, but only because the boat is still new, having been launched in May.
Making one of the greatest efforts to compete in this year's event is Philipp Gutsche and his Mark Mills-designed Landmark 43, Windpower, which was shipped up from the southern hemisphere to be the South African team big boat.
"It's on my bucket list! Why not at my age?!" says Gutsche of why he is here. "We have done very well this year in South Africa in IRC and we won the South African Championship, in May. We have a good crew and a good boat - why not test our mettle against everyone else for the fun of it?"
"As a team I hope we will do very well. We'll be starting off as the weakest of the three boats. Cowes and the Solent are not easy, especially for foreigners." Gutsche had never sailed here before he competed at this year's Cowes Week. "It has been great fun. We are looking forward to it."
The racing format over the next week remains the same as it was in 2008, with a mixture of inshore races in the Solent plus a 24-36 hour long offshore race starting on Tuesday and a race around the Isle of Wight on Friday. The event culminates in a double points scoring inshore race on Saturday.
Conditions this week are expected to be particularly difficult, with light winds on some days, combined with some of the most powerful tides of the year. For example, today (Saturday) the famous Brambles Bank cricket match took place; the one-day each year the tide is so low as to expose the sand bank in the middle of the Solent. As Simon Shaw, skipper of the GBR Red big boat White Heat points out "I have never seen so much tide – we've seen 4 knots!" Conditions for the first few days of the regatta look set to have the wind from north, typically an awkward wind direction in the Solent, and around 7-14 knots. "There is discrepancy about how windy. Some people think on Tuesday there is going to be a load more breeze. I'm not so sure. Expect it to be from the north, fickle and swingy," predicts Shaw.
Whatever the conditions, the spirit and camaraderie exhibited on shore over the past couple of days of measurement and registration bodes well for a hard, but fair fought week of competition.
e months to go to the 10th edition of the biennial Rolex Commodores' Cup, the international fleet has every prospect of being one of the more exotic in recent events. A noteworthy success in these straightened times. The headline foreign contingent is perhaps South Africa, participating at the regatta for the first time. Hong Kong has confirmed it will be back following its happy venture in 2008. Thereafter, the northern European teams – Ireland, France and the United Kingdom - that are the traditional backbone of the event - will be present in numbers. Organisers, the Royal Ocean Racing Club, anticipate a total of 12 teams. Racing is from 15 to 21 August, with close of entry on 12 July.
The Rolex Commodores' Cup is a weeklong series mixing inshore racing on the waters in and around The Solent, the body of water separating the Isle of Wight from the mainland United Kingdom, with an offshore course that takes the fleet out into The English Channel and a course round the Isle of Wight. All of the racing is typified by one thing. Comprehensive knowledge of the tides and currents affecting these areas is essential. Furthermore, it has been proved time and again that is not just the team with the best boats or the best sailors that wins. It the team that is the best prepared in all aspects.
Take the Hong Kong team, led by Jamie McWilliam. Having finished fifth overall in 2008, surprising many of the more seasoned campaigners in the process, McWilliam and his teammates were resolute in their determination to return. Not just to participate, mind you, but to have a crack at winning. "In 2008 we arrived with a crew that had trained hard but which had never seen the boats before the regatta, as they were either charters or brand new. This meant that we spent quite a bit of important time just before the event working on the boats instead of working on our speed, and as a result we were still learning about the boats during the series. Our team this time was determined to avoid that mistake," comments McWilliam, explaining that this time, "all the boats are owned by Hong Kong owners and we therefore have much more time [to prepare]. Our full team will be at the UK IRC Nationals in late June and we are scheduling other weekends over the summer for the boats to have new sail trials."
It is a tall order to travel almost halfway around the world to participate in a three-boat team event. The three yachts needed to compete range in size, roughly, between 35 and 45 feet. There are crews to be identified, accommodation and travel to be arranged. McWilliam is clear that it is worth the effort, "it's always exciting going to an event where you think you have a chance to win but where you know you're going to have to really perform to achieve that. It provides a great combination of expectation, anticipation, and nerves. Combined with the knowledge that we are representing the small sailing community in Hong Kong, it's a really exciting deal."
The Hong Kong team is made up of Rockall III, a Corby 36 owned by Chris Opielok, in the small boat slot. 'Opie', as he is known, is a Hong Kong sailing legend, having won two Admiral's Cups for his native Germany. Rockall III is the former Rosie, which has a dominant history in UK & Irish IRC racing. The middle boat is Blondie IV, a Mills (King) 40 chartered by Anthony Day from Helmuth Hennig, both very well known Hong Kong racers. Blondie was 2nd in class in Rolex Commodores' Cup 2008 and has an exceptional track record under her former owner. The big boat is Mandrake, Nick Burns' Mills 40.5, formerly Ngoni and Tiamat. As Tiamat, she had an outstanding Rolex Commodores' Cup in 2006.
McWilliam acknowledges the difficulties involved for foreign teams, particularly getting the right boats in the right condition to the venue when they are located more than a delivery trip away. He clearly believes more countries should look more seriously at the possibilities, "I would definitely encourage other teams to participate. The Solent puts unique and intense pressure on crews and seemingly trivial moments turn out to be really critical, like a down tide bottom mark rounding where you've got to be perfect in order to hold your lane to get out of the current. I also believe that the best team here has always won the event, and that's the best recommendation I know for a regatta."
The Hong Kong team is looking forward to renewing rivalries with some of the teams it competed against in 2008. They are not here to make up the numbers, "we really enjoyed the event in 2008 and feel that the event is a good match for the type of sailing we do in Hong Kong, and therefore represents a great opportunity for Hong Kong to compete against peers and find out where we rank. We were happy with our 5th position in 2008 but saw it very much as an initial effort and unfinished business."
The Rolex Commodores' Cup will be held off Cowes, Isle of Wight, from 15 to 21 August. Entries, which must be made by Member National Authorities, close on Monday 12 July.
Irish crew list HERE
Entry List HERE
You can send team Ireland good wishes HERE