By Will Carson
THERE are very few things that will raise me from precious slumber at the unholy hour of 3am.
But once a year a special something happens which calls for the alarm to be set almost four hours earlier than normal.
That something is the Round the Island Race. One of the biggest yacht races on the planet, it is the London Marathon of the sailing world – and it happens right on our doorstep.
After taking part in countless editions of the race on all sorts of boats, this year I teamed up with charity Macmillan Cancer Support to race in the Charity Challenge.
Last year four cancer charities – Macmillan, Prostate UK, the Ellen MacArthur Trust and Breast Cancer Care – went head to head in their own mini race and raised £100,000 in the process.
This year the four charities were back once more and despite a common fundraising goal, competition was fierce.
Joining us onboard Macmillan was Southampton's own Olympic star Iwan Thomas, an ambassador for the charity.
We were all praying for the windy conditions that would see us complete the 55-mile course in less than 12 hours and be home for dinner – not least because Iwan freely admitted he can’t sit still for more than an hour or so!
We left Cowes at 5.40am, still 40 minutes after the first boats had set off.
Heading out from the marina into the start area, with the sun rising over the Solent and hundreds of boats already packing the tight waterway between Southampton and the Island, it was impossible not to feel a buzz of electric excitement.
Our starting gun went and it was straight into race mode as we headed for the Needles.
Up went the spinnaker, the brightly coloured sail at the front of the boat, joining the hundreds of other yachts painting a spectacular picture as they tried to squeeze every last knot of speed out of their boats in the light morning airs.
A strong tide heading west helped the fleet along and the four Charity Challenge boats jostled for first position.
Olympic 400m runners are not known for their endurance and by now Iwan had sneaked down below for his first power nap of the day.
After rounding the Needles and setting a course for St Catherine’s Point, the southerly tip of the Island, our early morning prayers were answered – we had wind, and lots of it.
We also had an World Championship gold medallist, awake again, on the winches. Things were looking good.
By 9.30am the fastest boats were starting to finish but our race was just starting.
The majestic south coast of the Island is one of the highlights of the race, and we all took time to appreciate the beauty as we passed Freshwater Bay, Ventnor, Shanklin and Sandown.
We had overtaken the other three charity boats and were pulling away thanks to skipper Nick Gale’s tactics.
By midday, after more than six hours of full on racing and a few more Iwan Thomas sleeps, we were at Bembridge Ledge, the easterly point of the Island, and the start of the sprint to the finish.
A fresh 20 knots of breeze was propelling us along at impressive speed. The end of our epic day was in sight.
We could sense victory.
Eventually, after nine hours at sea, the honk of the committee boat horn signalled our successful finish of the 79th Round the Island Race.
It also meant that glory in the charity challenge was Macmillan’s again, and a champagne reception welcomed us on our arrival back to Cowes Yacht Haven.
Unsurprisingly, Iwan was awake for that bit!
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