It’s Saturday, July 3rd 2021 at about 7am.
The weather is a bit murky and misty. What’s most worrying is that there is little wind – a significant concern given that I’m crew on a racing yacht, weaving in and out of a myriad other yachts, just the right side of the start line for the 90th Round the Island Race and our start time is in ten minutes time.
The Round the Island Race is an iconic yacht race around the Isle of Wight.
After the London Marathon and Great North Run it’s the biggest participant event in the UK with nearly 1200 boats taking part. COVID meant that this race is actually the cancelled 2020 race, and this is actually the largest sports participation event since the pandemic began in 2020.
The race sounds simple. From the start line at Cowes sail westward down the Solent through the narrows at Hurst Castle, down to the Needles, turn east along the southern coast of the Island – rounding St Catherine’s Point on the way and then along all the way to Bembridge Ledge at the eastern end before racing back to the finish at Cowes.
It’s 50 miles. What’s not so simple are the tides, the wind and the shipwrecks – a major decision is whether to go inside or outside Varvassi, the wreck of a Greek cargo steamer sunk in 1947 near the Needles. Her boiler is just below the surface, and as recently as 2016 claimed a yacht called Alchemist. There’s a lifeboat stationed nearby in case it happens again.
We cross the start line at 0710 with the rest of the boats of our class and there is wind – not from the south-east as forecast but from the west, meaning we face a morning of beating west down the Solent and we have the tide with us too.
The Solent is incredibly crowded. We have to contend with turbulent ‘dirty air’ from other yachts, some of which are skippered and crewed by folk who clearly don’t understand the rules governing which boat is ‘stand on’ and ‘give way’. At one point, our skipper shouts at the crew of another yacht which forces us to abruptly change that he would have protested if he was taking the race seriously. Others clearly are as we begin to hear boats listed that have been disqualified.
We make good progress, though and are soon off Yarmouth, where a sharp shower brings more wind and rain, forcing me to don my foul weather jacket. We negotiate the narrows off Hurst Castle, which can be a significant ‘tidal gate’ if the tides are against you, with ease. The decision is made to go outside Varvassi, a longer but safer course.
After rounding the Needles light, we face the tide against us, but the wind is now with us, so we hoist the downwind foresail as do all the other yachts. The sight of all those brightly coloured kites popping up is one of the iconic images of this race and is simply breathtaking. There is quite a lot of mist and fog though so not all of them can be seen. We take an inside track to miss the worst of the tide, but this also means we miss the strongest breeze taking us east.
It’s a bit of a toss of the coin which is the best course of action and in our case means that we have to change course to the south to round St Catherine’s Point – will this be a negative factor in our placing or a good tactical decision?
After rounding the point, we are running downwind, and the symmetrical spinnaker replaces the asymmetric. After a lunch of rather excellent sandwiches made by the skipper, I’m on the helm as we head towards Bembridge Ledge, and we overhaul quite a few other boats. The mark, a cardinal buoy, is hard to make out in the murk, but the compass guides me towards it. Soon we’re back in the Solent, racing west again towards Cowes and the finish. In addition to the other boats, there are ferries and the hovercraft to think about. Near Osbourne Bay, the wind strengthens, so we reduce the sail and put a reef in.
With the finish line is in sight – two yellow buoys to the north and south of an anchored boat. Our finish line is to the north. We cross it at 1548 and then proceed to Cowes, where we drop one of the crew off. We’re relieved to hear from the person on the casualty pontoon that he has had little to do all day.
The race now done with we make our way back towards Portsmouth Harbour and our berth on the Gosport side. After mooring up, we enjoy a glass of fizz, and then I go for a long shower. My hair is a birdsnest from the wind, rain and spray.
How did we do, and does it matter – after all it’s been a grand day out? Out of the 1169 yachts that started, we were one of the 960 that finished. The remainder retired or in the case of 12, were disqualified. In terms of line honours, we came 319 out of those 960 which puts us in the top third. In the IRC class when handicaps have been applied, we’re 234 out of 331 finishers, so perhaps not so good, but then we were a scratch crew on a boat most of us had never set foot on until a few hours before, and we’d never even hoisted sails until the start.
As a trans sailor, I feel very pleased and grateful to have had this chance.
I’m aware that there are a few other trans sailors, but not if any have been in the race. I know how many barriers there are for any trans person to take part in most sports. I don’t think even the most fevered transphobe could argue that I’ve had an advantage today, though. After all, the boat I’m in has been mixed gender. There are other subtler barriers to participation though. There’s always the issue of showers and changing rooms. And when I’ve been on training courses, the question of whether to berth me in a cabin with a woman or a man could have been handled clumsily. That they’ve not, and the fact that I’ve never faced any transphobia, tells me that people who enjoy the sport I love are inclusive and fair-minded.
When all the rating calculations were done a tiny 19-foot yacht called Eeyore won the Gold Roman Bowl. The Round the Island race bills itself as a Race for All because the rating system makes fair competition possible between all the different classes and sizes of yacht.
In light of the toxic discourse on whether trans people can participate in sports as their affirmed gender, I have to ask if a system can be set up that enables fair and inclusive competition for yachts - why can’t that be done for trans people?