Solent Sunbeams still shining through as 90th year sails into view

Diffeent types of Solent Sunbeam racing at Cowes Week  Picture by Peter Mumford-Beken of Cowes
Diffeent types of Solent Sunbeam racing at Cowes Week Picture by Peter Mumford-Beken of Cowes

Nearly 90 years on from when they first took to the water, the Solent Sunbeams are still going strong – and are entering an exciting new era of racing.

The beautiful Solent Sunbeam OD yacht was designed by Alfred Westmacott in 1922 and the first seven raced in 1923.

The following year the Falmouth Sunbeams formed their own class and of the 48 wooden Sunbeams built since 1923, 47 remain - divided between the Solent fleet at Itchenor and the Falmouth fleet. One was lost while racing in the Solent in 1939.

In response to declining numbers coming into the Solent fleet and the rising cost of maintaining elderly wooden boats, a group of owners last year sought ways to reduce the maintenance costs and hassle of running a wooden day-racing yacht.

With the consent of the class they produced a prototype which had a GRP hull and deck but was otherwise fitted out exactly like a wooden boat, importantly with the same overall weight and weight distribution.

On the water the new boats are indistinguishable from the wooden boats. The GRP hull does, however, have sealed buoyancy compartments and float when totally flooded.

The prototype, V61 Betty, was launched in July 2010 and competed in 36 races during the season, proving she could race on level terms with the existing boats.

In accordance with the aim of preserving and expanding the racing fleet, the Solent Sunbeam owners decided to adopt the GRP boat and sanction the building of new ones.

Three more have been commissioned, the first of which, V64 Maisy, was launched in July 2011, raced in Cowes Week and was sold in September 2011. The new GRP boats are about half the price of new wooden boats.

At the same time, learning from the XOD class experience, the decision was taken to embrace the use of epoxy resin for softwood splining and exterior coating. This allows Solent Sunbeams to use epoxy coppercoat anti-fouling, which has proved to be highly cost effective for boats moored in Chichester Harbour. The first of the old wooden boats to receive this treatment, V25 Query, was relaunched in July.

All types of Solent Sunbeam - the traditional wooden hulled, the GRP hulled, and the splined and epoxied - raced during Cowes Week this year.

The initiative has given a new lease of life to the class with new owners coming in and the prospect of reduced maintenance costs and hassle. A number of the older wooden boats are being refurbished to a high standard using the new specification.

The success of the project was dependent on there being no performance advantage between the three hull types, and this has been achieved.

The result should be a highly competitive racing fleet from 2012 onwards and a general upgrading of the existing older wooden-hulled boats.

The racing in Chichester Harbour, Hayling Bay, and at the two Cowes Week Regattas is highly competitive with half the fleet having won races this year. The overall best boat for 2011 has been the 1938 wooden Danny helmed by Roger Wickens from Bosham and crewed by David Melville and sometimes by Roger’s wife Jacky.

The runner-up has also been one of the pre-war wooden boats, the 1935-built Symphony helmed by Anthony Robinson from Chichester and crewed by wife Jill, and two new Sunbeamers Mark and Nicola Harvey who journey down from London each weekend to race on Symphony at Itchenor.

The two-ton yachts need skill and technique to be raced well, not brawn and muscle. The fleet is close-knit with great friendships and camaraderie. Besides an excellently-managed racing programme, the Solent Sunbeams enjoy a popular social calendar. See www.solentsunbeam.co.uk for more.