Boats are things that take us places. They can also be so much more, even a way to connect with old friends. When my regular doublehanded sailing partner Alyosha was unavailable for the Round Isle of Wight Race in England, I asked my longtime friend and partner Carl Buchan to race with me on Red Ruby.

Way back in ancient history (1981), Carl had asked me to sail with him in the Flying Dutchman, and we became a pretty good team over the next three years, eventually winning the FD World Championship and an Olympic gold medal together. We also became friends, and have been for the last 40 years. But we rarely sail together, just the two of us. I remember we sailed a 505 regatta a few years back, and that went pretty well, so maybe we should try it again?

The Red Ruby project is a partnership between Chris and Justin Wolfe and I, where we share our Sunfast 3300 in doing some of the most iconic offshore races in the world. Our boat is based in Hamble, UK. I typically sail with Alyosha Strum-Palerm, who we heard from in the June issue of 48° North.

One of the fixtures on the UK Doublehanded Offshore Series circuit is the annual Round Isle of Wight Race (RIOW), starting and finishing in Cowes on June 10, 2023. There is a lot of history to this race, as it was the course for the first America’s Cup. When Alyosha had a conflict, I thought of Carl. Could this be a way to finally race together again? Of course my motivations in inviting Carl were not purely social, since Carl is the best sailor I know.

We had an easy flight to Heathrow Airport (except Carl got stuck in a middle seat), then took an Uber down to Hamble on the south coast. Fighting our jet lag, we prepared Red Ruby for a couple days of training with another identical Sunfast, then spent the afternoon getting to know the boat and working out our roles. I would do most of the boat handling tasks and Carl would steer.

We were a bit more alert on the second day, and we got some good training done on the Solent. As we started to find our groove, I was struck by how easy it is to sail with someone as good as Carl. He is always steering well, always has a good idea about our positioning, and there is not much communication needed — just like the old days.

Red Ruby sailing upwind against another Sunfast 3300 near Cowes.

On Friday we got to go racing. There were two buoy races scheduled from Cowes as part of the Sunfast Cup. We eagerly accepted the opportunity to do some casual racing before the big show on Saturday. The current was ripping across the fixed starting line off the Royal Yacht Squadron, and we didn’t really know where all the fixed marks of our course were, but once we got underway we found our way to the top of the group. We made a few little errors in handling (mostly my errors trying to fill Alyosha’s shoes) but on the final short run to the finish we were neck and neck with the two leaders. Carl made the brilliant call to sail wing-on-wing for the last stretch into the finish, and we won the race by 9 seconds. The second race also went well, and we got third. OK, we can do this.

Dinner and awards were at the Royal Ocean Racing Club, where we got to meet some of our competitors and soak in the nautical atmosphere of Cowes. We slept on the boat, exhausted from the day, but excited for the RIOW race starting at 7 a.m. the next morning.

The day dawned bright and clear with a light northerly. The current was ebbing at 3 knots on the start buoy, so the big challenge would be getting a good start without being swept over the line early. Carl did some mental math and positioned us in exactly the right spot two minutes out. In the final seconds, we set the kite, dropped the jib, and hit the line with speed. Carl had absolutely nailed the start with no input from me, and somehow I had managed to execute a good set. We were off among the leaders in a 6 knot northeaster. The wind died and headed, and we sailed on the jib for a bit. Then it rebuilt and lifted, and we used the kite all the way to Hurst Castle at the western end of the Solent, then jibed for our first turn at the famed Needles. Red Ruby was the first boat around!

The next leg was close reaching with the wind coming off the high chalky cliffs. There were three fast boats right behind us as we worked south towards St. Catharine’s Point. It was quite variable, sometimes reaching, sometimes upwind. Then we briefly got a big lift, and I foolishly suggested we reset the kite. That worked for about a minute, then we had to scramble to get it down when the breeze came back on the nose. Finally the wind built and stabilized, and we had a nice 10 mile upwind down the south side of the island, short tacking with the other three leaders, a Sunfast 3600, a JPK 1080, and a Farr X2. We were a little slower but staying close, and by the time we got to Bembridge Ledge at the east end of the island, were solidly in third, three minutes behind the leader.

The last leg was a light run back to Cowes against the tide. All the fleet hugged the Isle of Wight shore, but there were lots of tricky sand bars coming a long way offshore (Ryde Sands), so staying out of the current but in deep enough water was a challenge. We got by Bellino, the 3600, but the lead boat, Mzunga, gradually pulled away from us, and we feared they would correct out ahead, since they only owed us about five minutes for the race. We worked hard to go as fast as we could, playing every puff for all it was worth. Finally we crossed the finish line at Cowes, tired but happy. We had sailed well, with some good moves and no big mistakes. Like everything with Carl, it did not even seem that hard, just business as usual, sailing a boat fast and smart.

In the end we corrected over Mzunga by just 16 seconds, after over 7 hours of racing. However, our dreams of victory were dashed by the arrival of the J/109 Jago about 15 minutes after us, and we only owe them 13.5 minutes. So we got second out of 30 doublehanders. But we felt like winners. We had put together a good race after sailing together aboard Red Ruby for just three days, and we had a wonderful time both on the water and ashore. I guess after 40 years, there is still some magic.