Sailing: Warlord is defeated in battle of the waves

As Cowes Week gets into its stride in the Solent, Stuart Alexander meets an early victim of the dire weather
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THE CREW was, to say the least, hacked off. "This is what you get out of bed for in the morning," they said. "It's what you look forward to - a howling good blast." The macho men on board Philip Tolhurst's 40ft yacht Warlord were feeling a little cheated in the Cowes Yacht Haven yesterday after being forced to pull out of the first meaty race of this year's Skandia Life Cowes Week.

The first part of their race, from a start line off the Royal Yacht Squadron, had gone well, taking them upwind to a buoy off the entrance to Lord Montagu's Beaulieu River. The breeze was up to 27 knots, kicking up a short sea, and Tolhurst had the crew lined up on the rail to counterbalance the heel of the yacht. "It wasn't too wet," claimed the stoical foredeck hand, whose blond hair, plastered to the top of his head, made him look vaguely like a drowned ferret. But the reward for the uphill slog was a run under spinnaker, which had everyone working their socks off.

"It was very physical," said Tolhurst. "We were burning out winch grinders in just 10-minute spells. And pumping the mainsail in and out, doing everything to squeeze maximum power from the kite, surfing down wave after wave."

"A neat blast," was the general verdict as they turned to go back upwind, rather like trudging back up a mountain difficult snow knowing that a big run was in prospect. They could almost taste the thrill of the 10 or 11 miles back to the entry of Southampton Water.

The came the bang. A big one. The halyard, with a near two-tonne breaking strain, parted and the mainsail crashed down.

"There you are, just about to throw yourself off the top of the mountain, and the ski bindings break. There was a real feeling of emptiness," said Tolhurst. "In America they might regard these as storm conditions, but not here. This is when team work has to be spot on and we were really pumped up for it."

Tolhurst is a lawyer with practices in Chelmsford and Southend and among his 12-strong crew are his sons Jeremy, 24, and Patrick, 17, and daughter Rosanna, 22. Wife Jenny also guests. The rest of the daring dozen are seasoned Solent warriors, mainly from the Hamble, giving Tolhurst a perfect mix of amateur family sailing but with expectations of doing well at the top level.

His latest Warlord - No VI - is a Farr 40. Before it came three three- man Dragons, a J39, and most recently an Etchells, his final day boat persuading him that a return to something bigger was in order.

Tolhurst is unhappy about the way the handicapping system treats some yachts unfairly, including his own, and would like to see more of an open playing field. He is also adamant that people should put more into the actual sailing and less into expensive tinkering for handicap advantage.

Even so the Solent, rather than the East Coast waters of his home, have become the chosen playground for Tolhurst - "it offers so much variety and opportunity," - even if there is the occasional disaster.

"We hit a top speed of 19 knots in 30 knots of wind today but by mid- evening I expect that will be 30 knots of boat speed in 19 knots of wind," he added with a smile.