Solent showdown

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Sweet revenge. In a showdown between the three most famous yachts in post-World War II British sailing history, Lively Lady – Sir Alec Rose’s 36 foot ‘underprivileged’ yawl – has finally managed to steal a march on her two illustrious rivals.

In two never-to-be-repeated races in the tricky waters of the Solent, off the northern shore of the Isle of Wight, Lively Lady was pitted against Sir Francis Chichester’s sleek 53 foot ketch Gypsy Moth IV and Sir Robin Knox Johnston’s outstanding 33-foot double-ended Indian-built ketch Suhaili.

In the late 1960’s all three won fame and fortune for their owners who battled to become the first solo skipper to sail around the world without stopping – a rivalry which saw Sir Robin claim the highest honour in April 1969 when he returned to Falmouth after sailing non-stop for 313 days.

Both Sir Francis and Sir Alec were knighted by the Queen for being among just a tiny handful of sailors to circumnavigate the world singlehanded since the American Joshua Slocum first did it in his sloop Spray in 1895-8. But like Slocum both stopped on the way.

Now, 36 years later, all three British yachts had recently undergone complete refits and were going head-to-head in two short races set out by the United Kingdom Sailing Academy (UKSA) around cans off the Royal Yacht Squadron in the Solent.

The handicap system for the race was devised by UKSA coaching director Simon Davies, based upon each boat’s average daily run during their circumnavigations. Gypsy Moth IV, by far the longest on the waterline and therefore the fastest, averaged 130 nautical miles a day in her 1966/7 voyage. Suhaili averaged 97nm in 1968/9 and Lively Lady 93nm in 1967/8.

Billed as a friendly competition between the three Grandes Dames of British yachting their skippers sailed like gentlemen, but raced like hard-headed professionals.

In the first of the two races the impecunious Lively Lady – skippered by Alan Priddy, a record-breaking rib fanatic – was handicapped by just one suit of sails and was slow out of the starting blocks on the west-going ebb as her opponents put up their spinnakers. But in a moment of high drama she stormed into the lead in a daring, almost dangerous, manoeuvre squeezing round the first mark on the inside. Her opponents were shocked at her audacity.

With the winds rather light and fickle (Force 1-2) Lively Lady struggled for a while, but as the breeze freshened at the infamous Bramble Bank, where many a racing yacht has capsized, she edged back into contention based on handicap. Gypsy Moth, skippered by John Walsh of UKSA, finished in 1hr 49m and Lively Lady came in at 2h 10m, enough to give Sir Alec’s blue-painted darling her most famous race victory. Suhaili retired after becoming almost becalmed.

The second race took place in conditions so perfect (blue skies and a fresher breeze) it was hard to believe we were on the Solent. As expected the graceful and sometimes flighty Gipsy Moth romped away to take line honours. But to our amazement Lively Lady won for the second time on handicap, managing to pip Suhaili, skippered by Sir Robin Knox-Johnston himself, to the post.

For me and Lively Lady’s crew it truly was “Sweet Revenge” over Sir Robin. For in the last two Round the Island races (the classic 55m anti-clockwise course around the Isle of Wight every June) we had battled against Suhaili every nautical mile of the way and lost in dramatic circumstances on both occasions.

Alan Priddy was so delighted at Lively Lady’s performance with her new sails that, to everyone’s surprise, he handed his first prize to Suhaili’s owner and captain, who vowed to continue this epic of sailing combat. Says Priddy: “Third time lucky! We had new sails. We had a new crew. I was convinced we could outsail them this time and by God we did.”

Next year Priddy is planning to take 60 young men and women from disadvantaged backgrounds around the world going westward through the Panama canal. This is part of an effort to comply with Sir Alec Rose’s wish of using Lively Lady to benefit the lives of under-privileged youths. A renewal of the battle with Suhaili may have to wait until 2008.

Richard.Cowper@FT.com

A picture of the three yachts racing by Colin Baxter, the marine artist, is being painted. Proceeds from print sales will go to cancer charities. Contact: Alan@offshore-expeditions.com

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