The Small Ships Race is an annual event, held in Cowes on the first weekend of October. Organised by the Association of Sail Training Organisations (ASTO), the event brings together around twenty-five sail training boats of all varieties, from 72ft steel racing yachts to our own wooden gaff rigged boats. The only requirement to take part is that over half of the crew are aged under 25 and this year Pegasus made the trip from Plymouth to take part.
Pegasus’ crew joined in Plymouth the week before the race, allowing them an exciting few days to make the 120 nautical mile journey to the Solent. That gave the crew, some who had sailed before and others who were completely new to it, chance to get to grips with Pegasus, sailing from Plymouth to Cawsand; Weymouth; Portland; Swanage and Beaulieu before getting to Cowes for the race. In that time, plenty of sailing skills were practised, from faster and faster tacks and gybes to racing headsail changes and topsail hoists and drops. Not that it was all about the racing, for the long passages to get Pegasus east gave the crew plenty of opportunity to practice skills such as navigation, engine maintenance, and steering while making some excellent speeds under sail. Dolphins were aplenty, and a birthday celebration halfway across Lyme Bay kept things memorable.
One particular highlight that week was the passage from Portland to Swanage; a sunny and warm day with not only a great wind, but the company of the two mighty square rigged barques of the Jubilee Sailing Trust, racing in their own competition. As the two ships were going the same way as Pegasus, it seemed only natural to set off at the same time as their race start, and with some hard work from the deck team to get the sails set and trimmed, Pegasus proved more than a match, overhauling both and getting some fantastic photo opportunities in the blue afternoon at the same time!
Sail training voyages are all about the variety, and while this trip was always going to have the Small Ships Race as a focus, there was still plenty of time for visiting new places, learning to drive the dinghy and swimming off the boat: at least for those brave enough to! The tides granted Pegasus the opportunity to visit the Beaulieu River, a beautiful part of the Hampshire coastline, hidden in the trees of the New Forest, and giving the crew chance to explore the woods and historic shipyard museum at Buckler’s Hard.
Friday saw Pegasus arrive in Cowes, and her crew, now a laughing and joking team rather than the group of individuals who arrived on day one, set to work tidying the boat, dressing her overall in flags and bunting, and exploring the pontoons of Cowes Yacht Haven. Here they met trainees from other vessels: friendship and shared experience being what the Small Ships Race is all about. That evening a skippers briefing was held, where details such as the course and the racing classes were discussed. The Small Ships Race uses a class and handicap system, allowing the varied fleet to compete with each other fairly by applying a Time Correction Factor (TCF) to the finishing time, so it’s not necessarily the first boat across the line who wins the race! Pegasus was to be racing in class B, alongside other traditionally rigged boats Morning Star of Revelation and Maybe.
The weather forecast showed that the day of racing was going to be a challenging one, with light winds and rain building into much stronger winds as the day went on. After a hearty breakfast the crew of Pegasus changed into foul weather gear and set about getting the boat ready for the day ahead. The changing conditions would mean a whole variety of sails would be needed, but thankfully all the training of the previous week meant we could be confident in the crew’s ability to react to events quickly and enthusiastically. It is a tradition of the event that before the racing starts proper, a Parade of Sail is held in front of the Royal Yacht Squadron: an opportunity for spectators and judges to view the boats taking part. A prize was to be awarded for the boat with the best dressed, or most enthusiastic crew – criteria definitely involving silly costumes and coordinated Mexican waves. The crew of Pegasus gave it their all, donning an eclectic array of silly hats and smiles, with a last minute cha cha slide blasting out the deck speakers as they passed the Royal Yacht Squadron. With the Squadron start line lit up, and Cowes disappearing into a rain cloud behind, it was time to focus on the race ahead.
Class B’s start was at 10am, and with some excellent manoeuvring through a fleet of racing yachts coming the other way, Pegasus made a good start, well ahead of Maybe and just about level pegging with Morning Star down to the first mark, a quick topsail hoist getting us within biscuit throwing distance of them. The first couple of legs were downwind, and Pegasus held her own, but with the building wind the very impressive Maybe sailed through the fleet, needing the stronger winds to get going but then sailing very well past both Pegasus and Morning Star on one of the upwind legs. Spirits were high though, with some incredible effort from the crew to tack and gybe in the building winds. An hour into the race, and many of the faster boats from other classes had caught up, having had later starts, and this created some exciting close quarters sailing with several boats trying to round a mark at the same time, but thankfully without any incident.
By now the wind had built to the point that Pegasus was sailing with her rail under the water more often than over it, and it was time to reduce sail to keep things more level and safer for everyone on board. Watching the crew drop the topsail quickly in some pretty squally conditions without very much instruction was a pleasure to see, realising what young people can achieve in trying circumstances. The steady wind prompted the race committee to announce they were shortening the course – for classes C, D and E – but not B! With Maybe ahead in the clouds of rain, and all of the other boats now heading back towards Cowes, Pegasus and Morning Star, never far away from each other, continued west towards Lymington, reaching some fantastic speeds in the conditions.
Rounding the buoy at Lymington ahead of Morning Star and being able to head back towards the finish line was a great relief for everyone on board, who, a particularly young crew, were by this stage were starting to feel the effects of the heavy rain and cold blustery northerly wind. Muscles and brains were getting tired as the afternoon wore on and an incredibly long upwind leg to the finish didn’t favour Pegasus, who watched as the much closer-to-the-wind Morning Star was able to finally catch and overtake.
By the time Pegasus crossed the line, it was blowing hard, and the relief on all the crew to have finished and be able to think about getting into port and change into dry clothes was clear to see. Still, there were smiles all round and everyone was visibly pleased with what they had achieved. The strong winds made handling the boat hard work, but the crew had risen to the challenge admirably. This was reflected in the prize giving that night: Pegasus’ crew leaving with a prize for third place in class; the youngest overall crew and most impressively; the prize for the Best Dressed Crew – that cha cha in the rain had paid off! Pegasus may have been the final boat to physically cross the line, thanks to the shortened course for the other classes, but overall results showed her, with the TCF applied, a very respectable ninth out of twenty-three boats.
A good night’s sleep and sunny final day saw the crew slip from Cowes and head to Gosport, where they disembarked. To anyone watching them leave, you would not have known that many of these young people had not met before, and a few had not sailed. They were going home tired, but full of smiles, many armed with new Royal Yachting Association qualifications, and rightly proud of the adventure they had made their own over the past week.