Published in Yachting World Magazine – July 2012

SirKeithMillsProfileAt first, I was tempted to talk about one of the many amazing days during the Clipper Round the World Race back in the 1990s where my passion for sailing really kicked off, but it was a long time ago.
I decided therefore, to go for something more recent which is why I chose last year’s JP Morgan Asset Management Round the Island Race, where I shared the helm of my TP52 Team Origin.
Iain Percy and Bart Simpson were really keen to have a crack at the race, so the deal was I would share the helming. However, I had done hardly any helming on the TP52 so it was all a bit challenging.
We all turned up the day before the race for some training on the Solent. It was a really positive day and I was put through my paces with a few tacks and gybes, spinnaker hoists, drops and various other manoeuvres. I felt a lot more confident after that, but nothing really could have prepared me for what was in store the next day.
The weather took a turn for the worse on the morning of the race, with the wind blowing a hoolie and it was raining. Having competed in this race many times before, I knew how chaotic the start could be, but this year, because it was the 80th anniversary of the event with a record entry of 1,908, it was complete mayhem. The wind was 25 knots off Cowes and 35 round the other side of the island and it became more and more obvious it was going to be a very frisky day.
Anyway, there we were in a fleet of 50 including Ben Ainslie on a Ker 40 coming up to the start. It was all very tense with, thankfully, Percy on the helm at this point. We were halfway down as we approached the line, battling it out with similar-sized boats. Then we noticed a boat powering in on port. It was Ben Ainslie trying to execute a port tack flyer on the basis that speed would carry him in front of everyone.

Sir Keith and Ben Ainslie

Sir Keith and Ben Ainslie take the Trafalgar Cup for Team Origin’s win at the 2010 1851 Cup Regatta – “A great day picking up the prize for thrashing the incumbent America’s Cup holders at Cowes,” says Sir Keith

He passed a dozen boats successfully until he reached us. We were also really flying, but you could see Ainslie wasn’t going to give way. I think we were within inches of slicing him in two before he eventually tacked away just at the moment we tacked away. Words were exchanged!
After the start I took the helm and had the most glorious sail and we were leading round the Needles. By this time the wind was really starting to build.
As we gybed, bore off and hoisted the spinnaker, Iain Percy took the helm again, but we all knew we were in for an exciting ride downwind. We hung on for a while, but towards St Catherine’s Point, we broached big time. Thankfully, we came back up in one piece, but in the process we blew the spinnaker and jammed it round the keel and the rudder. Eventually we managed to free it and amazingly we were still in the lead as we powered off again downwind.
The back of the Island was extremely exhilarating so it was quite a relief to head back into the Solent towards the forts. At this point I said to Percy I think we can cut inside the forts. However, he, Bart and our navigator were convinced we had to go round the forts, so we did. As we were going round we glanced back in horror to see all those behind us taking the shorter inside route.
We managed to retain our lead and take line honours, but through our course-reading error, we lost the chance of winning our class. If there was a lesson to be learnt, it was the obvious one: read the racing instructions. That race also highlighted the importance of always having a great bunch of people in the team. We had no America’s Cup-type pressures; it was just a great fun to be out sailing with friends.