The pinnacle of the 44Cup’s 2023 season sets sail tomorrow (Thursday 10 August) with the opening races of the 44Cup Cowes World Championship.
This is the second occasion the high performance Russell Coutts-conceived one designs have raced on one of yachting’s most famous stretches of water: the Solent. In 2021 it was Hugues Lepic’s Aleph Racing with a crew led by Michele Ivaldi that won ahead of Team CEEREF and Team Aqua.
The Solent’s fierce-some reputation as a yacht racing venue is due to its geography. With Southampton Water entering it from the north, the Solent is effectively the channel dividing the Isle of Wight from Hampshire. It’s unique tidal characteristics plus being peppered with sand banks, shallows, ledges and spits and all their accompanying eddies and back eddies, makes it one of the toughest stretches of water to navigate. This week racing will be held northeast of Brambles Bank, off Lee-on-the-Solent.
To help understand the Solent’s complexities, most 44Cup teams are relying upon specialist local knowledge. To help Team Nika for example, British tactician Nic Asher has employed his former 470 Olympic crew Elliot Willis, while Igor Lah's Team Ceeref powered by Hrastnik 1860 already has as its tactician local Adrian Stead (fresh from winning the Rolex Fastnet Race) and have also enrolled leading international navigator Jules Salter. But perhaps best qualified is local sailor Graham Sunderland author of Winning Tides who is advising Hugues Lepic’s Aleph Racing. Could it be coincidence that the French team won here in 2021 when Sunderland was also advising them?
Nico Poons’ Charisma, which is the present holder of the ‘golden wheels’ as the 2023 44Cup leader, has another Solent specialist in legendary British Olympic coach and sailor David Howlett, who is supporting team coach Morgan Reeser and tactician Hamish Pepper. Pepper, from New Zealand, raced for two seasons here but admits about the current: “there is a fair bit to learn and understand. It adds another element to the racing. It will be challenging for everyone.” Being top of 44Cup leaderboard brings its own challenges, especially since this is a World Championship. “We sailed well last year and were fortunate enough to win the Worlds, but it is hard to repeat. Everyone has us as their target, so it would be quite easy for someone else to slip through. But this is the big one - everyone will be fast and sailing well with good coaches and outside support.”
Charisma has the added benefit that helmsman Nico Poons knows these waters well. “I started sailing on the Solent more than 40 years back on various IOR boat,” he says, including with recently deceased fellow Dutchman, Piet Vroon. “I was crewing on boats until 2000, when I got my own 39ft footer and we went to Cowes in that. So I know the Solent pretty well. It is challenging. You need to have some local knowledge.”
While his Solent experience doesn’t go back as far as Poons, Peninsula Racing tactician Vasco Vascotto, along with several others of the 44Cup’s more wizened crew, also competed on these waters in the Admiral’s Cup, once the effective world championship of offshore racing. In 1999 Vascotto was steering the Sydney 40 Merit Cup for the European team, which finished second overall. Before that Merit Cup had won the Sydney 40 Worlds nearby on these waters.
“It is special because you always need to think first about the current and then about the wind,” says Vascotto of the Solent. “That is the most important thing. You can’t make any mistakes, because if you do the current will be pushing you down.” Peninsula Racing is currently ranked third overall in the 2023 44Cup.
Christian Zuerrer's Black Star Sailing Team and Torbjörn Törnqvist's Artemis Racing will both be hoping to improve upon their performances last month in Marstrand, Sweden. For this event, the RC44s will be joined by a ninth RC44, Bullet, sailed by an all-female team, led by Louise Morton.
Team Aqua’s owner, Chris Bake is hosting the 44Cup Cowes World Championship via his club, the Royal Yacht Squadron. “It is nice to have my club hosting us this week,” said Bake. “There are quite a few people coming out to watch the racing this weekend. It think there is some nice context [with the America’s Cup].” Back in 1851 the Royal Yacht Squadron ran a race for the 100 Guineas Cup, famously won by the yacht America and subsequently rechristened the America’s Cup. Bake was a backer of Britain’s challenge for the 35th America’s Cup in Bermuda.
Racing starts tomorrow with a first warning signal at 1130. It will take place in the central Solent but will again be sent off from the Royal Yacht Squadron line on Saturday, as they were for today’s practice racing.