Racing gets underway this Sunday at the third IRC European Championship, for the first time being held out of Cowes. The IRC Europeans will incorporate the Commodores' Cup, the Royal Ocean Racing Club's biennial event for three boat teams with amateur crews. For this season these two events have been merged to reduce demand on owners and crews' time.
Entry requirements have been eased significantly for this, the 14th edition of the Commodores' Cup. There are no longer rating bands, no requirement that one boat must be a 'big boat' and teams no longer have to represent a nation or a region. Any three boats entered in the IRC Europeans can form a team, but as the Commodores' Cup is a Corinthian event, professional sailors are limited to one per boat (boats only entering the IRC Europeans have no such restriction).
The 2018 Commodores' Cup sees the return of the Celtic Team, masterminded by renowned Scottish adventurer, Jock Wishart, who is once again campaigning Jean-Eudes Renier's JPK 10.80, Shaitan. Backed by Aberdeen Standard Investments, the team also comprises the First 40 Adventurer (Rob Bottomley's Sailplane) and Andy William's Ker 40 Keronimo. Among the teams' pros are old hand David Bedford on Shaitan, while sailmaker Kevin Sproul will race the Commodores' Cup for a third time on Keronimo, having won the event aboard her in 2012 with original owner Jonathan Goring.
The GBR RORC Green team sees the return of RORC Admiral Andrew McIrvine for his fifth Commodores' Cup. His First 40 La Réponse will be joined by Tom Kneen, whose JPK 1080 Sunrise put in the best performance across the two British teams in 2016. This time Kneen will be racing his latest Sunrise, a brand new JPK 1180. The team's third boat is Ed Fishwick's heavily campaigned Sun Fast 3600 Redshift Reloaded, with former National Match Racing Champion turned Figaro sailor, Nick Cherry.
Another team from the UK is Kings High. This comprises Mike Bridge's Elan 37 Elaine, whose crew are regular competitors at the RORC's annual IRC Nationals but are having to dust off their sea boots for the offshore races in this year's event, plus two King 40s, Roger Bowden's Nifty and the Blair family's Cobra, current leaders in the Performance 40 class.
"We've been planning it for a year and a half and have been building up to it through the course of this season - we are really looking forward to it," says Cobra skipper Stevie Beckett of this year's event. Cobra competed in the 2016 Commodores' Cup and according to Beckett they deliberated hard about the make-up of this year's team: It was felt having two King 40 sisterships racing each other might coax out the best performance from each. While the King 40 excels in lighter breeze, Beckett says "our crew work is really good now, so we'd like a bit of everything weather-wise."
Meanwhile, boats are arriving in the Solent from across Europe. One of the hot teams from France will be the J/112e J Lance 12, skippered by Didier Le Moal, Managing Director of J Composites, European manufacturer of J/Boats. "We are sure it will be a great competition," says Commercial Manager Frédéric Bouvier, J Lance 12's boat captain. They are also using the event "to prove that you can still win races with a pure cruiser-racer." This is the third J/112 they have campaigned but J Lance 12, launched in March, is the first fitted with a 'grand prix' package including a carbon fibre mast, fin (rather than bulb) keel and other race boat features. "We are trying new systems, which might be useful on future boats," explains Bouvier.
The team has been highly successful racing on France's Atlantic coast, winning all they entered in 2017. On board for the IRC Europeans is reigning Solitaire du Figaro winner and Volvo Ocean Race navigator, Nicolas Lunven.
Making the trip down from Scotland is Rod Stuart and Bill Ram's Corby 37 Aurora, a competitor in the last two Commodores' Cups. The team is making use of a new RORC initiative permitting boats with either two females or two under 25-year-olds (or one of each) can carry an additional crew. "That is really good," says Stuart. "It's a great way of getting younger people competing at events of this level. It means my 15-year-old son James can sail with us. Previously he would have been watching from a RIB, this time he will be in the thick of the action..."
According to Stuart the last two Commodores' Cups were both Aurora's poorest results in her season so he hopes it will be "third time lucky... The banding of Class 2 is much tighter than before - that's good because you're up against similar speed boats. We've raced against most of the class at one time or another and sometimes we have beaten them and sometimes they have beaten us. We know when we are on form we can do it - but it will be tough."
Stuart also enjoys the mix of inshore and offshore races - the IRC Europeans schedule is near identical to that of recent Commodores' Cups, but with the race around the Isle of Wight brought forward:
Sunday 10th June - two inshore races
Monday 11th June - Race around the Isle of Wight
Tuesday 12th June - two inshore races
Wednesday-Thursday 13-14th June - long offshore race
Friday 15th June - two inshore races
Saturday 16th June - two inshore races
On the social side, there is a Welcome Party following the skippers briefing on Saturday 9th June, a Crew party on Thursday 14th June and the event concluding with a prizegiving on the final day.