The history of the Round the Island Race

Guest writer, Mike James explains the beginnings of the Round the Island Race, a traditional British sailing competition which first began back in 1931...
The history of the Round the Island Race
Copyright Patrick Eden

The Round the Island Race emerged after a proposal by Major Cyril Windeler in the 1930’s, a member of the Island Sailing Club (ISC). His aim was to introduce a race that would benefit smaller boats; a handicap race around the Isle of Wight in the category of five to 25 tons.

The Royal Yacht Squadron had previously stated that no boat under 30 tons would be permitted, so whether his idea came from a dedication to smaller boats taking part or just a quiet joke remains unknown!

The first Round the Island Race took place in 1931 and featured 25 entries. Ironically, the smallest of these 25 entries came out victorious. Peter Brett was the successful skipper of the winning boat, a Cornish fishing boat that was 22 foot long. It had cost him £45, which seems a fair price for winning the Gold Roman Bowl in return, the top trophy at the time. The original was seen on display near the site of a Roman wharf in London after it had been dug up from the surface of the River Thames.

After a few years of good-natured Round the Island Race’s one of the competitors suggested to Chris Ratsey, a previous winner, of the sailmakers who were located at the town of Cowes on the Isle of Wight. The claim was that Ratsey’s boat “the Evenlode” was fouled. Ratsey maintained his reputation as a true gentleman and declined the trophy because of this. His example was admired by Major Windeler, so much so that Ratsey was award a special honour instead. Ratsey won the award fairly later that decade, in 1938. 

As the race continued for many years, between the 1950’s and the 1980’s there was a clear increase in the number of participants. The Round the Island Race in 1950 welcomed 105 participants while 30 years later the race was taking applications from over 1,000 participants. 1989 was probably the most famous turnout, with 1,813 taking part in the race. 

The Rt. Honourable Sir Edward Heath was an avid sailor and a keen supporter of the Round the Island Race, even during his term as Prime Minister. He won the race four times, with three victories consecutively in the early 70’s. Two women have won the Gold Roman Bowl in the history of the event, Mrs Tobin on “Barbar” in the early 50’s and Julia Dane on “Glass Onion” in the early 80’s. 

Today, results of the Round the island Race are processed using Next Generation Results, who guarantee hand-written finishing records reach the results room. This room is still known as the Bunker despite the impressive renovation work that has been carried out the Cowes Combined Club’s facilities. A dedicated website presents the results as a live stream, while on-screen results appear on the Event TV in Cowes. 

Round the Island Race welcomes participation from amateur sailors and beginners with varied levels of experience and skill. Classic yachts are attracted to the event, such as the beautiful J Class “Velsheda”, while stunning, state-of-the-art ground-breaking yachts are also welcomed. The IRC and Sportsboat Rule classes are regularly participated in by Olympic gold medallists. Many sailors competing at the Round the Island Race are experiencing sailing for the first time, which makes it all the more special when they greet seasoned, experienced and often decorated sailors at the event. 

The race celebrated its 80th anniversary in 2011 with a special exhibition taking place. Charity and fundraising have been hugely popular over the years as well, with many charitable causes benefiting from this fun and exciting stage of the race.  Sunday 27th June saw the 84th annual race in Cowes, as hundreds of happy competitors gathered to watch the successful event sponsored by J.P. Morgan Asset Management. 

Mark Wynter, initiated the annual prize-giving event alongside special guest Paralympic sailing Gold medallist Helena Lucas MBE. Dave Atkinson, speaking on behalf of the ISC Race Management Team commented that 2015’s race was classic Round the Island Race, with around 120 volunteers and 15,000+ sailors involved. He said:

"We were blessed with great weather and good winds. Whilst there were a number of racing incidents, these are not uncommon when you have this number of people out on the water. However, given the co-operation of all the agencies that work alongside us, everything was handled with the utmost professionalism and skill and also dealt with quickly throughout the day.

The next Round the Island Race will take place on the 2nd July 2016. Read all about it at www.roundtheisland.org.uk

Article provided by Mike of Island Charters, a yacht charter management company based in Cowes and an avid fan / supporter of Cowes Week and the Race.

The history of the Round the Island Race

by Mike James

Writer for ML UK

Mike James is a boating enthusiast with a background in civil engineering. He writes about his working projects for ML (UK), a south coast based company offering dredging services, steel fabrication and structural engineering services.

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