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World's oldest solo yacht race prepares to set sail once more

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: February 18, 2013

  • The crew of Gipsy Moth III, the yacht in which Sir Francis Chichester won the 1960 race, watch the start of the 2005 race

  • The race founder Sir Francis Chichester

  • OSTAR founder and cockleshell hero Blondie Hasler

  • Peter Crowther is competing in the OSTAR again this year.

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How many sporting events can boast the pedigree of the OSTAR – the Original Single-handed Transatlantic Race between Plymouth and Newport, Rhode Island?

Started by one of the most revered heroes of the Second World War, the cockleshell hero Herbert 'Blondie' Hasler; won at the first attempt by record-breaking round-the-world yachtsman Sir Francis Chichester and run by one of world's best known yacht clubs, Plymouth's Royal Western, the OSTAR is a sailing event that even non-sailors will be aware of.

Yet how many will know that this year the world's oldest solo challenge, first raced in 1960 and run every four years since – with a jump in 2004 to 2005 – almost faltered through a combination of a lack of sponsorship and organisational difficulties? That it is now safely back on course with 20 boats already entered for the event and more expected to sign up, is down to the hard work of ex-serviceman, businessman and keen yachtsman David Southwood.

With the backing of Plymouth's Royal Western Yacht Club Commodore, John Lewis, David, for 30 years a Lloyds broker specialising in marine insurance, has taken over the running of the event for the second time. He was chairman of the Race Committee in 2009 and stepped into the breach for the 2013 event to ensure the prestige event could go ahead as planned.

He said the Corinthian spirit of the OSTAR, which began as a race for keen amateurs, remained intact even though professional yachtsmen did take part. "The boats are between 30ft and 50ft," he said. "Some will be raced by professionals but most are Corinthians. We have always stressed that this is a Corinthian race – a yacht race for Corinthian sailors."

There is, however, nothing amateur about the commitment of those who take part or the risks that they run in sailing, single-handed across one of the most inhospitable stretches of ocean in the world.

Entry fees come in at a relatively modest £1,200 to £2,000 but most sailors will clock up a bill of between £10,000 and £15,000 in order to take part in the event. Then there is the time that those who compete must take off work, potentially costing them even more. At least one competitor in the past was so keen to compete that when his boss told him he couldn't spare him, the amateur yachtsman promptly quit his job – then found another one once he had completed the OSTAR.

The physical dangers are clear. Strong prevailing winds from the west in most years make the crossing quite a slog. A choice has to be made about the best route to take. The fastest great circle route runs quite some way north, with cold weather and the occasional iceberg a hazard, even in May. The longer southerly Azores route is warmer – but boats must avoid trying to sail against the Gulf Stream, which will be pushing against them at around 1 knot, slowing their progress.

There have been casualties, sinkings, damaged yachts and dented egos. There has – touch wood – been only one death in the event's 62-year history, however, when Mike McMullen, an ex-marine commando, racing a yacht called Three Cheers was lost just a few days into the race. Mr McMullen had tragically witnessed his wife accidentally electrocute herself as she helped prepare the boat just days before the start. It was a double tragedy.

OSTAR's launch in 1960 is now firmly etched in competitive sailing history. Blondie Hasler might have been expected to have had enough of boats after the daring cockleshell raid of the Second World War when he was one of only two survivors to escape after an attempt to blow up part of the German fleet moored in the Gironde estuary of western France.

A keen sailor, however, he hit on the idea of a 3,000-mile east-to-west crossing of the Atlantic and Britain's most famous yachting adventurer of the time, Sir Francis Chichester, got to hear about it and was intrigued enough to offer his support. The legend is that even without a sponsor the race would have gone ahead because each of the competitors – who had picked up news on the sailing grapevine – had wagered a half-crown bet with the pot going to the winner. In the event a sponsor was found, in the shape of the Observer newspaper (the original 'O' in OSTAR, which now stands for Original). The Royal Western Yacht Club of Plymouth agreed to host the event.

Five made it to the start line in 1960 and all finished. Chichester arrived home first in 40 days, 12 hours and 30 minutes followed by Hasler eight days later. Jean Larcome was the last home in that first race, taking 74 days. Each sailor had relied on only very basic self-steering, roller-reefed sails and navigation by compass and sextant – a far cry from today's technology.

Needless to say the 40-day record didn't hold for long. Four years later, in the second OSTAR, Frenchman Eric Tabarly arrived on the scene and literally smashed the race, taking 27 days to cross the Atlantic. Back home in France he was awarded the Legion d'Honneur. An Anglo-French-American battle had begun.

Monohulls have made up the lion's share of the race field throughout its history but in some years – 1972 being the first – multihulls come into their own. In that year – also the year of the first woman competitor, Marine-Claude Faroux – multi-hulls came in first, third, fifth and sixth.

By 1980 the United States took top honours, winning first, second and third places. And again it was multihulls which won the day, taking the top five finishes. Four years later, France hit back, taking an astonishing eight of the top ten places. And in 1988 a Frenchman set the race record – still unbroken – of ten days, nine hours and 15 minutes. Philippe Poupon achieved this feat in Fleury Michon IX, a 60ft multihull – a size of boat that has not been permitted in some of the subsequent races in order to retain the Corinthian spirit.

In 2009 a new record was set for a 40ft yacht when Dutch skipper JanKees Lampe crossed the Atlantic in 17 days, 17 hours in the monohull La Promesse.

One of the striking things about OSTAR is the incredible support given to the event and its competitors on the US side of the Atlantic. Sometimes in contrast to the way the city council in Plymouth has regarded the OSTAR, the city of Newport, Rhode Island, hosts scores of events to celebrate the arrival of the successful yachtsmen and women.

Once the starting gun is fired at midday on bank holiday Monday, May 27, and the boats cross the line in Plymouth Sound to start their journey west, Mr Southwood will begin preparing for his trip to Newport to welcome home the winners. He will spend a month on the US east coast, taking a rigid inflatable boat out to meet the yachtsmen as they pass the finish line in Newport, press the stopwatch to record their time and escort them back (via customs and US immgration) to the shore.

"I get a lot of support from the Americans," he said. "They go bananas over there for this event. The city council give us many free receptions and help to cover a lot of the costs on the US side."

In 2009 the Duke of Edinburgh started the race. This year Mr Southwood is keeping his cards close to his chest but is hopeful of 'someone famous' to do the honours. The Royal Navy is proposing to send along a ship and if the weather is good a large crowd is expected to turn out to see the vessels off and enjoy a classic boat rally, also taking place in Plymouth Sound over the bank holiday weekend.

Skippers already confirmed for the 2013 race including JanKees Lampe, winner of OSTAR 2009, and veterans from previous OSTARs such as Peter Crowther, Mervyn Wheatley, Geoff Alcorn and Christian Chalandre.

"It's an amazing event," said Mr Southwood, still enthusiastic despite being partially press-ganged into organising for the second time. "In a way the Corninthian element makes it more exciting than the professional races... I am really looking forward to it." So, we must hope, is Plymouth. The city doesn't know how lucky it is to host the longest running and best loved single-handed yacht race anywhere in the world.

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