A record-matching fleet is due to take to the water today for the first inshore races of the 2008 Rolex Commodores' Cup.
Organized by the Royal Ocean Racing Club, the event will see 45 yachts, divided into 15 three boat teams, representing six nations competing in what is the world's premier event for cruiser racers. The crews, who are almost entirely amateur, will race over the next week on a mixture of courses: windward-leewards in the Solent, a long offshore and - new for this year - a race around the Isle of Wight.
Many teams are returning for another crack at the Rolex Commodores' Cup and, as ever, the game has been raised especially between the British teams, the heavily armed Irish and France, the defending champions.
"I think it is going to be a pretty tough to call who is going to win,"
says Eddie WARDEN-OWEN, the RORC's Chief Executive Officer. "The French are here in force, the Irish are looking good and the British team seemed to come good at the IRC Nationals. I would like to see the Hong Kong guys do well and certainly Jamie MCWILLIAM did really well at the IRC Nationals. So I think it is going to be a pretty open event and if the weather plays ball, it should be pretty exciting."
Gery TRENTESAUX, who manages the French team, defending champions after their win in 2006, returns once again on this occasion with four teams. TRENTESAUX's own boat, Lady Courrier, heads what is suspected to be the best of these - France Green. Alongside Lady Courrier is another returning team - Cyrille LEGLOAHEC's competitive mid-sized boat Batistyl and Marc ALPEROVITCH's Prime Time.
TRENTESAUX himself believes the Irish to be favourite. "They want to win. They didn't win the last two times, when they were able to win. So I think they are a good team with good crew and good boats, and it will be difficult to beat them. After that there is a very good team also in GBR Red."
This year Ireland is fielding two equally powerful teams bristling with new hardware, four of their six boats recently launched and all of their crews experienced Rolex Commodores' Cup campaigners. In particular their mid-sized boats, Conor and Denise PHELAN's Jump Juice and Eamon ROHAN's Blondie IV, look tough to beat, having taken the top two spots in their class at the RORC's recent IRC Nationals. Racing with Jump Juice in Ireland White is Antony O'LEARY's Antix Eile with brothers Rob and Pete GREENHALGH on board - both sailors with Britain's TeamOrigin America's Cup campaign - and Eamon CROSBIE's Voodoo Chile. Blondie IV in Ireland Green has Tim COSTELLO's newly launched Tiamat as the big boat and as the small one, Andrew ALLEN's new No Naked Flames, his campaign managed by America's Cup sailor Chris MAIN.
Antony O'LEARY says that the main difference between the Irish campaign this year and in the past is that despite so many of their boats being new once again, on this occasion they have had more time to test them. "We have spent enough time in the boat to sort out the little foibles and we've managed to benchmark ourselves against some pretty good boats over the last two months,"
says O'LEARY of his campaign.
Following the win of their big boat, John SHEPHERD's Fair Do's VII, at the IRC Nationals, GBR Red are the most promising of the four GBR teams. They are unique in having formed their own team (whereas the other boats were chosen individually to represent GBR and then divided up into teams by the selectors at the Royal Yachting Association). According to Fair Do's VII helmsman John GREENLAND, the teams in GBR Red informally committed to sailing together this time following the Rolex Commodores' Cup two years ago. "We're well prepared and we have some experienced past winners on the team. In terms of our preparation this is our best chance,"
Fair Do's VII is joined by past winner Jerry OTTER on his Erivale III as the mid-sized boat and Peter RUTTER's new Quokka 7.
While the essence of the Rolex Commodores' Cup remains unchanged, there have been a number of improvements made to the event since 2006. The emphasis on amateur sailors has been further stamped on the event with professionals more tightly restricted. The boats are divided into three classes, creating three fleets (Class 1, 2 and 3 or big, medium and small), each class determined by maximum and minimum IRC handicap rating limits. But this year the rating span for each class, as well as maximum and minimum rating limits overall, has been tightened up in order to try and ensure racing with more like for like boats.
Perhaps most significantly for the Irish, who have been race favourites going into the last two events, there has been a change to the race format. Previously the Rolex Commodores' Cup has concluded with an overnight offshore race, but this year it is being held earlier in the week with the new round the island race on the penultimate day. Now the event concludes on a double points scoring inshore race.
"I think the Round the Island race is always a great race because it puts pressure on the afterguard of the boat, because it is a pretty tough place to sail,"
says WARDEN-OWEN. "I think the British might have a bit of a benefit there because of the number of times we've done the round the island race. And now everyone goes into the last race - which is a short course race - with the opportunity of double points. So it is a great format."
While last week the forecast indicated variable weather thanks to an intense depression approaching from the Atlantic, the latest reports show the start of this week to be one of light to moderate winds of little more than 10 knots from the southwest tomorrow, backing to the southeast on Tuesday before returning to the west on Wednesday, mostly dry but with some rain on Tuesday. At the end of the week the weather is set to get lighter still.
Racing at the Rolex Commodores' Cup starts on Monday with two inshore races scheduled, the first starting at 10:30.
Rolex Commodores' Cup - www.rorc.org/comcup