The route back from the Caribbean is seldom simple; it is a question of planning a strategy to dodge around weather systems, avoiding the headwinds, skirting around the windless holes then waiting for the perfect low pressure system to sweep you east without beating you up on the way. We left Antigua with a grand plan in mind; to head north out of the easterlies and then motor directly through the centre of a high pressure system above us. Once this was cleared we would hook into a low and ride our way home. Simple but effective. Like all great plans, it didn’t turn out that way and somewhere on day 4 of our trip things took an unusual turn and the last week has been poles apart from what I had hoped. Objectives for yacht deliveries are completely different to racing. My main aims for this passage are naturally to keep my crew safe, then to minimise wear, tear and damage to the boat and sails then finally to get back to the UK as quickly as I can. When I look at the weather I am not only looking for a quick route but also an easy one, I will avoid excessive wind and waves and aim to motor through areas of calm as much as fuel supplies will allow. For this trip Phorty is using old sails which is also limiting our performance – I have only a small jib and small spinnaker available to use. The good new ones are kept for racing best. At times deliveries can be painfully slow, especially if you know just how much potential the boat has to go faster; I find it quite hard and have to mentally sit on my hands to stop them from searching out big spinnakers or shaking out reefs when actually we are going fast enough already. So.. back to day 4 of our delivery and we are making our way north, under motor with a blistering hot sun baking down on the deck. And then all of a sudden we are not. With a faltering put putting, the engine grinds to a halt and we are left wallowing – a heavily laden boat with small delivery sails in a big sloppy and windless ocean. Somewhere along the lines we must have picked up some dirty fuel and the engine could no longer be relied upon to either charge our batteries or fire up in an emergency situation such as man overboard. There was only one solution available, which was to sail to Bermuda some 400 miles to the North West then drain our tank, change the fuel filters and start the trip over again. The biggest hurdle being actually getting to Bermuda from the wind hole we were firmly stuck in. It took three days of trying, of hoping every time a ripple appeared on the horizon that this would be the breeze filling in then the disappointment as the boat slapped and slammed and the sails hung loose when the wind fizzled out to nothing again. To make matters worse we were due to make our Bermuda landfall just after sunset on a Saturday night so the hope of getting professional help on the island on a Sunday was limited and we would need to spend the night stooging around outside the island in the dark, as to sail between the reefs with no engine at night would not have been a smart idea. In an effort to try and organise some help for a quick turn around, back in the UK Ash started to ring around various contacts to find out where was the best place to go in Bermuda to sort our problems out and if there was anyone who might be able to help out on a Sunday. After a great flurry of contact – many thanks to everyone who offered advice – we came back with the answer that Bermuda is basically closed on a Sunday. No one could even think about whether they could help us until Monday morning. As the sun rose on Sunday we came to the realisation we were on our own, rolled up our sleeves and decided to nail this problem. With the help and guidance of the Duty Officer at the wonderful Bermuda Harbour Radio we sailed in through Town Cut to St Georges harbour then picked up a tow from a passing fisherman and finally we made it to the shore. The mission would now begin and I had a problem solving ace crew for the job. I pulled apart the stern locker to find an oil extraction pump and some old garden hose which was then duly cobbled together to drain the tank. Diane led a mission to find a disposal place for the old fuel and a garage to get some new stuff. After two hours of pumping, rinsing, cleaning and walking backwards and forwards with jerry cans the engine started again and we left it purring away for a couple of hours, watching from a quayside restaurant while inhaling a burger and chips that was long overdue. And so that evening we once more set off to sail back to England. The forecast is slightly different and we are one crew down as Poppy flew home from Bermuda, but three days into the next leg of our trip and I am pleased to report there is nothing to report. The worlds of racing and deliveries require different temperaments – to mix them up would bring failure on both counts. However there is one stand out attribute that is required across the board when ocean sailing and that is to take adversity on the chin. Things go wrong, sometimes fault can be attributed, and sometimes it just happens. For every problem that gets thrown into your path a solution must be found, circumstances must be endured or embraced, there is seldom time for self-pity or lamentation and rarely anyone else to play the fairy godmother and make your problems go away. If you can do all this and still find the time to enjoy a stint on the helm or marvel at a beautiful sunset then life cannot be bad at all.
I am a bit of a yes woman.
I like to say yes to most things, whether they are invitations to dinner or crazy endurance challenges. Saying yes feeds my appetite for experience and also guards against that nagging feeling that somewhere along the line I might miss out. Saying yes pushes me along, it encourages me to use my time as productively as I can, to work, to learn, to experience and to spend time with the people I love. However, packing so much in just before heading off on a Trans-Atlantic crossing can result in one crazy Pip, ricocheting between countries and activities, trying desperately hard to keep all of those balls from crashing down around me. In the last couple of weeks I have managed to pack in a lifejacket test for Yachting World magazine, a snowboarding trip, a pit stop in Sweden to review the new Hallberg-Rassy 44 and an all-day running and biking event all the while planning provisions, spares and repairs for the delivery of Phorty back across the Atlantic. I arrived in Antigua with delivery crew on the 28th and since then we have worked and prepared in a suffocating humidity to make sure we and the boat would be ready for whatever the ocean throws at us in the next couple of weeks. My crew settled in quickly and it has been wonderful to team up with fellow mini sailor Diane Reid, who I have not really spent any time with since our 2013 race; as well as Charles who is my co-skipper for the upcoming double handed attempt at the 3 Peaks Yacht Race and his daughter Poppy. When we finally cast off the lines and sailed out of Falmouth harbour to start our 3500 mile journey back to the UK the cool breeze was a welcome to us all. Immediately the frenzied activity of the past few weeks has been caught up on a warm Caribbean wind, my shoulders are relaxing and my gaze is on the wonderful empty ocean that lies ahead. I love sailing across oceans, this will be my 11th trans-Atlantic and I felt just as excited and nervous when leaving the dock as I did on the first. Not only will I have time ahead to indulge in sailing this wonderful boat (every day is a school day on board) but also to reset the pace of life, to focus on just one thing and start to breathe again.
This final blog is long overdue and since arriving back in Plymouth it has been difficult to snatch any time to gather my thoughts and put them on paper.
I won’t make you read to the end to find out the result. I am finding it difficult to keep quiet about it.
We won! We won!
The Shed sailed across the finish line yesterday afternoon, 1st in Class and so the winner of IRC overall.
This is a fantastic result and Phil and I are over the moon. It has been a lot of effort, but we have been rewarded wit the prize we wanted.
The final two days of racing have been excruciating.
The high pressure that has been affecting the South coast coupled with the strong tides that run around headlands has made sailing conditions fickle and frustrating. With every puff of wind we have been sailing the boat as hard as possible, and when the wind dies, we have been drifting or anchoring, stomach in knots, boats from behind approaching.
The good times have been sailing The Shed well. Our beat up to the Bill was the best the Shed could have been sailed. We concentrated hard, watching the numbers come up on the displays, speed, VMC, wind strength wind angle. Altering course, changing between sails; there was a huge pleasure in knowing the boat was performing, in paying so much attention to detail and acknowledging that a decrease in speed of just 0.1 knots was not acceptable and must be addressed.
The flip side was the agony of losing the wind; I looked at our track off the back of the Isle of Wight; a big circle and another one off the Bill.
Sitting, waiting, wondering if the others have wind, are they catching us, have they overtaken us. Trying not to believe it has all been lost, trying to stay focussed and positive – something I did not manage all the time – I am afraid my Mum got the worst of it when she rang me at 3am and I happened to be in mobile range.
The chapter came to a close off start point, with the pack 6 miles behind, the wind again died. This time we anchored in 64m of water, and waited, binoculars on the horizon straining to see our competitors. Only 25 miles to go and it all to lose.
The wind filled in we had to lift the anchor and go, after a lot of straining we agreed we would cut the anchor free as we could not afford to spend an hour battling to retrieve it. With that, the line became slack and I pulled like a wild woman and up the anchor popped.
We spent a glorious hour trying to pace Izara, the Figaro, on the home stretch, daring to believe we had done it, spirits high, enjoying the breeze, counting down the miles. Then the wind died.
It is hard to describe this feeling. Phil summed it up with,’You are having a laugh?’
We sat and wallowed and waiting, I have to admit that even for this rufty tufty sailor the tears were prickling my eyes behind the sunglasses, I felt so powerless.
I looked behind and on the horizon was what appeared from my perspective to be a wall of advancing sails. Just the silhouettes, black and menacing, in my head they were the pack Taika, Jangada, Fastrack, Comedy of Errors, baying for our blood, teeth bared and we were sitting ducks.
The mental determination to remain positive and believe it would work out was immense.
And it did.
The wind filled in, we started sailing, I counted up the speed, cheering when we hit 2 knots, 3 knots and positive whoop at the 4 knot mark. All the way to the Plymouth breakwater.
From out to seaward a boat appeared sailing along the breeze line. I know it was Taika, they were going fast and had spotted wind we had not. At the breakwater they over took us, we fell into another hole and the oars came out.
Speaking to Chris and Kim afterwards, they said they had never rowed so hard as to stay ahead of us, and we were the same, getting The Shed up to a whopping 2 knots under oar power.
A final hoist of the spinnaker and Taika rocketed off, The Shed following to the finish.
Taika took line honours for class 3, finishing some 5 minutes ahead of the Shed which crossed the finish line, spinnaker up and winners on handicap of Class 3 and overall winners of IRC.
The blur afterwards has lasted to today, champagne, kisses, hugs, hand shaking and back slapping. We have been on the balcony of the Royal Western cheering in as many finishers as we can, giving each the reception they deserve after such a race.
We are proud and happy; we feel we got the result we deserved if hard work and determination are a measuring factor. What a race.
Bring on the next one.
A Co-skippers View
It was around four months ago that Pip first mentioned having a go at the Shetland Round Britain and Ireland Race. ‘Is that non-stop?’ I enquired, before being reassured that there were stopovers, and that furthermore, being in the middle of summer, and two handed it was in fact most “un-offshore” like; Offshore sailing, in my limited experience, involves sitting on the rail thinking heavy and protecting the rock stars at the back from the elements for days at a time.
Having enjoyed the Royal Southampton Double Handed series last year, the RBI seemed to offer a challenge for 2010 and preparations commenced.
The Shed’s undersides were sorted with four coats of antifoul and countless sheets of 600 grade wet & dry. Time off from work counting sand was granted – thank you Kier Regional. The wind instruments were coaxed into life with some help from Rob at Navico, a B&Q external wiring connection, solder & the mandatory gob of sealant. Oars were procured – it turns out you’re allowed to row in this yacht sailing event (??) and looking at the size of the sweeps Pip is looking for hull speed out of them.
A rigorous training programme was developed and implemented – a jaunt across the channel on the Cherbourg Double, the 300 mile qualifier and a days gybing practice had us on top form and fully prepared – well as fully prepared as we were going to be.
Fortunately Pip and I sail together as part of an inshore crew so we know each others abilities pretty well. This left the challenges of racing for longer distances to work out on the course – balancing sailing fast with sleeping, eating and navigating for three or four days at a time, as opposed to a couple of hours.
So there we were in Plymouth on start day. James had given us our certificate to race only hours beforehand and we were set to go. We’d committed to giving this race our best shot, and that meant from the off.
At the start the committee boat appeared to be the end to be at and we went for it. The subsequent World Start Line Barging (Green Boat Division) Record attempt is currently being ratified, in the meantime there should be some video on the Royal Western website. However it’s an 1800 mile race and we were pleased with getting away in reasonably clean air at the front of the fleet for the beat to Eddystone, Plymouth here we come!
The start now seems like a distance memory, and thoughts are turning towards the finish. It was only recently, when someone asked me how I’d found the race as a whole, as opposed to just how had the last leg been, that I realised I hadn’t really considered it. We’ve been too busy sailing the boat at the maximum potential to stop and wonder if it’s been fun! Stopovers have been a whirl of repairs and preparation. It was during the quiet patches on the way to Lowestoft I finally had a chance to reflect for a few minutes.
Originally I’d offered the unconsidered response that the race so far had been good, which prompted the reply, accompanied with rolled eyes, ‘Yeah ok, so what is good?’
Well good, in fact awesome, has most recently been surfing down North Sea waves, bow buried to the forepeak hatch, hoping that The Shed will pop out and take off, (she did, every time). Previously, it’s been getting a result after a forty hour spinnaker trimming session on the way to Barra, then rounding Muckle Flugga at 11 knots on a tight spinnaker reach.
The beat up the west coast of Ireland in glorious sunshine, with plenty of wind, a rolling sea in a boat the sails to windward on rails defines what makes sailing so rewarding.
Seeing our tactics ultimately pay off on the way to Kinsale was a huge relief, a good result from the start set us up in the right frame of mind for the rest of the race.
Good has also been wrestling on the bow with spinnakers at 03:00 in the morning, not perhaps immediately fun, but rewarding when it works. It’s been a years worth of sailing experiences crammed into 3 weeks.
Beyond the direct sailing experiences, good has been the camaraderie and attitude of fellow competitors; being shorthanded encourages much more interaction between competitors than in fully crewed racing. People are much more prepared to help one another sort issues and work together to keep racing.
As an example, Chris and Steve on Ding Dong set off on the final, leaving with a good luck and see you in Plymouth for a beer. We know we are fighting for an overall IRC place and there’s only two hours between us, with plenty of others still in contention. The overall result is something of a lottery with boats sailing so far apart on the race course, but the bit of luck needed to win it won’t happen without hard work. When we saw them on our arrival in Lowestoft they looked shattered, we knew we’d made them work for their deserved lead.
Chris and Kim on Taika who we went for dinner with in Lerwick, whilst aware we were competing in a very close class, were more than happy to share advice and experiences.
Sailing this race with Pip has been a sharper experience than I’d imagined; the calm and patient Pip stays ashore and is replaced by a highly driven and focussed competitor.
From our inshore racing I’ve always known she’s had that streak in her, but it seems magnified when competing under her name; with a point to prove after a rig failure in last years OSTAR.
Ultimately this event is a race and we’ve proved what can be achieved in an older boat if it’s pushed hard, and we’ve pushed it pretty close at times. I’m sure people are wondering about our rating, I’ve heard the word bandit mentioned a few times, I’d happily swap anyone of the more modern boats, with Gucci sail plans and full time internet access for a leg and see the results.
Obviously it’s not all been what I would call fun – a night on the leg to Barra after 7 headsails changes in wet and bitterly cold conditions with confused seas and 25 knots of breeze whilst both too tired was not great.
Leaving from Lerwick into a forecast 30 knots and big seas was a little tense; entering and leaving port can be a little anxious due to The Sheds love of spitting the prop off the back of the gearbox!
My hands feel like they belong to someone else, and seem to have developed an allergy to wet rope, wire and GRP – The Sheds major components!
Sailing along at 7 knots in fog too thick to see the bow; its hard not to consider the reasons the liferaft and flares are in the cockpit, especially with the RTE going off on all 4 corners!
Lack of sleep is hard to deal with, my automatic reaction to the 4th shout of Phil is now to run up to the foredeck ready to battle a flogging sail!
However, in the usual way, memories of the difficult parts will soon fade, we made it through the tense moments in good shape, hands will recover, and there’ll be plenty of time to sleep in Plymouth. The good parts will stay much longer, and in another year or so I’ll probably consider another off-shore event!
So the final leg has started, it was forecast to be a light airs leg, not The Sheds favourite conditions, but we’d put ourselves in as strong a position as possible and we just need to sail the best we can to Plymouth.
And we’re now sitting off the Isle of Wight, in virtually no breeze with no more forecast for the next couple of days. The pack has closed the gap to 11 miles, and it looks all too likely we’ll be snatching defeat from the jaws of victory in the most spectacular fashion. After the way we’ve sailed so far, losing out due to the fortunes of the weather would be pretty hard to take.
Its 3 am. The Shed is gliding over a ripple less sea, under an orange moon, with just the gentle sounds of ropes and sails moving in the swell to accompany our voyage.
Finally I am feeling calm enough to write without scorching the page; this last 24 hrs have been the toughest of the race yet.
We could not have had a more fortunate restart time. Friday, was a continual surprise, as with every corner we turned the breeze held, we flew along our rhumb line, while our competitors ahead, wallowed in the vacuum that is plaguing sailors along the South Coast.
Yesterday it was our turn to take the medicine.
The day started well, with Q II and Elixir both within a couple of miles of us. We were reaching along the coast together under spinnaker, all neck a neck, monitoring the others progress and trying to get ahead.
Eventually Elixir gybed off into the haze. We were left with Q II inshore, the wind slowly started to die away and before I knew it I was in my own personal wind hole, while Mary and Jerry gracefully slid on towards the west.
I could see the breeze they were in, ruffling the water, less than a quarter of a mile from where we were, I knew we had to get there, we could not just sit in the hole and watch them sail away.
The only answer was to row.
After the customary four attempts at waking Phil, a surly and silent man arrived on deck, picked up an oar and without a word started rowing in what was becoming the baking heat of the day.
It worked, after 15 minutes or so we arrived at the breeze the spinnaker filled and we were off in chase of the other boat.
Eventually Phil spoke his first words of the day (other than the URRGGHH on waking up),’ I think allowing rowing in this race is a really stupid idea!’
Evidently being wrenched from a deep and comfortable sleep by some manic woman who is insisting that you attempt to row a seven and a half ton sailing boat immediately is not a great way to start your day.
The heat increased and within an hour the breeze had died to nothing, the tide was against us and The Shed was wallowing and drifting, in water to deep to anchor and going back in the direction we had come.
This was the worst I have felt in the whole race.
The boat flopped and rolled, we seemed powerless to make it go. We rowed; we chased down every slight ripple on the water. Sails went up and down, changing every time we were fooled into thinking our luck was in and the breeze had arrived.
The excruciating thing was that the rest of our class were chasing from behind, as we had done the day before, at 7 knots, advancing on our position, ruthlessly chewing up the miles and in the end decreasing our 13 hr lead to less than 20 miles.
I remember saying before, how Elixir must have felt on restarting in Lowestoft 6 hrs before us, only to have travelled 5 miles by the time we got to the line. Now I knew. It was awful, and though deep down I know that this is the role of luck in this sport, I desperately sought for a reason or a solution to what had happened.
I down loaded grib after grib, listened to forecasts, plotted other competitors positions, the activity around the Shed was frantic, I could not relax, my mood became dark and I sought to blame myself for something that was out of my control.
Phil, as frustrated as I was, when not changing sails sat on the back and smoked, occasionally holding a cigarette out at arms length and watching the smoke curl up to the sky, confirming what we already new.
The wind instruments were playing cruel jokes, showing a filling breeze from one direction, then as soon as sails were hoisted changing 180 degrees ‘ only joking’. We had every sail on deck, with all associated poles, blocks and fixings. Hand held VHF, GPS, remote for the autopilot all lying in a snakes nest of ropes, with a pair of oars, lashed to the side of the boat, getting caught on external sheets and guys.
The Shed had lost it.
Meanwhile, less than a mile away, the voice of experience on QII was a lot calmer. Mary and Jerry had taken down their headsail and QII was sitting patiently, heading in the right direction, waiting for the new breeze. I imagine they were having a cup of tea and enjoying the show of a whirlwind of sails, arms, oars and rigging emanating from the Shed; all the while knowing the only tactic here is to sit it out.
Needless to say QII gained about half a mile on The Shed during this pointless session.
Finally, I got worn out. My spirit was broken, I was hot, cross dejected and recognised a losing battle.
We tidied the boat and I decided to do a couple of small jobs on the engine to take my mind off things. Even being below in the heat with a diesely rag was better than what had gone before.
The tide turned and we were off in the right direction again; then a light sea breeze filled in.
From nowhere several boats converged and we sailed in company code zero’s taking the strain towards the Isle of Wight; all the while behind us the pack of chasing dogs, were still charging at 7 knots, eating the difference in miles between us and them. The tension has been unbearable, put in simple terms, they have it all to gain and we have it all to lose.
Richard from Jangada said to me at the last stopover that this race was about the Hare and the tortoise. He said they were the tortoise and they would get me in the end. By the looks of their position reports, I would not describe his pace as that of a tortoise, he means business and I do not take his words lightly, so maybe not just a pack of chasing dogs but a tortoise with another gear as well.
And so the rest of the day carried on in such a way, we missed the first tidal gate around St Catherines, but by some miracle managed to keep the sails on The Shed drawing all night and around 12 midnight found our own personal band of breeze that was to carry us to our final Island rounding.
Passing St Cats was not for the faint hearted, it was in the middle of the night, with little wind, and I decided as it was the shortest route and there would be maximum gain from the tide I would take The Shed through the tidal overfalls.
These overfalls are like rapids in a river, they are caused by the water running at speed over an uneven bottom, throwing up waves, and whirl pools. In windy conditions they are highly dangerous, but I decided they would be no threat to us last night.
I entered the overfalls with a cat following close on my stern. Effectively The Shed was being swept sideways around the point, so I was steering the boat at the shore, looking like we were going to go up the beach, but this was the only way to keep steerage and control over where the boat was pushed by the tide.
As we neared the point, I could hear the worst of the turbulence approaching. It made me feel sick in my stomach, even though I knew it was safe, being in the dark, not able to see how close we were to the rocks, and hearing breaking boiling water approaching at 5 knots, make the brain scream danger.
‘Here we go’ I said aloud, though no one could hear it and we were sucked into the rapids, the rudder was pulled and The Shed tried to spin in a circle, I let out some sail and bore away to aim more at the shore get more power in the sails and gain steerage. This was totally counter intuitive, with breaking water all around, you would never chose to sail faster at a shore line you cannot see, but the GPS showed that I was not making any way towards the shore at all, but just being swept sideways around the headland and fast.
The Cat behind me had followed me in, I looked over to see it turn, green light to white and disappear in the other direction. Obviously this was too much for him and he had bailed out to take the wider and slower route in calmer waters.
The trick paid off and The Shed covered a couple of miles in extra quick time, and then was spat out the other side and on course to Start point.
The rest of the night I have spent eeking out the knots, just making way through the water and carrying the favourable tide.
The sun has now risen, opposite a huge white moon, the light changed and all around I can spot white sails in the distance, hovering above the ironed piece of silk that is the sea today.
The wind has gone now.
The Shed is drifting, the tide has turned and we are making ground back in the other direction. There is not a breath of wind. There is not forecast to be any wind until lunch time.
My heart is still in my mouth but this time I am taking a different approach, I have left Phil to sleep and will not be insisting on an early morning rowing exercise. I am trying to patiently wait; trying to believe the wind will come. It is hard.
The Shed is slipping across the Thames Estuary, dodging around the ships that appear from the gloom and making best speed possible to the Dover straits and the final run home.
Another stop over has rushed by in a blur, a chance to fix the boat – or in my case break more stuff – clean, organise, restock and then catch up with the other skippers over a cold beer in the evening.
The scene was rather more relaxed than Lerwick, the Royal Norfolk and Suffolk, provided an excellent welcome and a much need rest for us all. Last night we had supper in great company with our fellow competitors, swapping stories some livelier and more embellished than others and mostly lead by the king of story telling Tony from Comedy of Errors.
As we got the end of our meal, I became distracted by Elixir preparing to leave and restart the final leg; the flags were hanging limp from masts, there was not a breath on the water. I did not envy them going out into that, and feared for our own restart time and similar conditions.
Everyone is suffering from this high pressure. Boats are arriving in dribs and drabs, after frustrating hours spent tacking and tacking and making little or no ground to windward. Maarten and Harry from Home of Jazz, even managed to spend hours tacking in and out of Norfolk’s only nudist beach mysteriously not making much ground to the finish. Some crews have anchored and gone to sleep it off, others are battling on and the relief on faces as they arrive in port and head for the bar is easy to see.
Our restart was 03h 44m this morning and we had intended to get out there early and organised to leave the dock at 2am. However at this time there was no wind. What was the point?
The grib file had showed that around 4 in the morning there would be a breeze filling in from the North East, which would build during the day and we had pinned all our hopes on.
At 2am there was no sign of this breeze. We trudged around the boat, getting things in order and reluctant to leave into a foul tide and no wind.
About 2.15 I felt the hair move around my face. I looked up, the slightest zephyr was unfurling flags.
Amazed I watched as the breeze built, it was from the right direction and steadily over 10 minutes built to 4 knots, which by the standards of the last couple of days was a positive hurricane.
Immediately we were ready to go, The Shed swung into action, we legged it out of the harbour accompanied by the RN&S rib and made our way to the start.
With a couple of minutes to go we were the right side of the line and hoisting the spinnaker, praying there would be enough wind for us to make ground against the tide. And there was.
I consider we are lucky.
Elixir who started some four hours ahead of us had spent the night going nowhere fast against the tide and were only 5 miles ahead of us when we restarted. This is tough to deal with for them but there is an element of luck in yacht racing and I am a firm believer that good luck and bad luck are dealt out in equal portions and it is how you deal with this luck that is important.
The morning wind was patchy and we were only making one knot over the ground to start off with. We watched QII come out and start and could see them gaining on us straight away. The breeze tailed off and Phil suggested it was time to break out the oars; any speed was good speed and we really wanted to stay ahead of QII just for a psychological boost.
We lashed the oars to the toe rail, just aft of the shrouds with sail ties, and started to row. Initially the action was a struggle, due to the height of the topsides on The Shed and the length of the oars, it was tough not to get knees and knuckles bashed with each stroke, but after a while we managed to get The Shed up to a lightening speed of 0.8 knots over the ground, monitored from our rowing positions on a hand held gps. We kept up the rowing every time the sail collapsed over the next couple of hours and felt pretty good for it.
Our main concerns for this leg are to first stay ahead of our chasing pack of wolfish class 3 competitors, and secondly to try and reclaim our first position overall in IRC, for this we must maintain the best speed we can keep ahead of Elixir and Jbellino on time, and make up over 2 hrs on Ding Dong’s finishing time.
There is only one way we can achieve this – by lots and lots of effort. This is the final push and we are giving it all we have. If we don’t make it at least we will rest in the knowledge that we could not have tried any harder.
Luckily we are well fuelled for this leg of the race with cake; the last cake in the trail was a Parkin, which was waiting in the race office on our arrival, we had a piece immediately and it was amazing.
However, this parkin was not the only cake that has made its way to the Shed, and friends and family have managed to supply us with a date and walnut, chocolate brownie, rock cakes and a fruit loaf. We are caked up and ready to go.
What every serious sailor needs with a piece of cake is of course a nice cup of tea. We all know that offshore sailing is about drinking tea and napping down below!
I came down to make the second cup of the day this morning and to my horror discovered we are out of tea bags! Call the coast guard!!!
I had mistaken a packet of detox teabags as the real thing and so had over looked this vital element. There was a look of total disbelief on Phil’s face when I told him. ‘How did that happen?’
So now we have entered extreme conditions, to race, through shipping lanes, with little breeze and strong tides, promise of fog patches, inadequate sleeping times and with no tea! This will be a genuine test of our metal.
I have a good stock of detox teabags, rose tea and peppermint, but Phil cannot be persuaded, he is on the instant coffee and compensating with extra cake. I am calmly making my way through a hippy selection of herbal teas, and hoping they will not adjust my competitive spirit.
The Shed is making her way to the Goodwin sands, we have the A4 up and are roaring along in flat seas and a nice breeze, grateful of every extra tenth of a mile we can accumulate before the breeze dies again.
The forecast is for light and variable winds, it looks like there is another high around the corner waiting to swallow up the fleet.
There is a huge amount of shipping around and we are taking it in turns to be down below monitoring the radio and the AIS trying to figure what is what. Earlier when passing the sunk light vessel a huge container ship turned what appeared to be 140 degrees to end up pointing directly at us; I was convinced we were crossing it but wanted to make sure so called them up on the VHF.
Once contact was made I asked the radio operator if I was crossing ahead and he replied, ‘ Yes Ma’am, I have just turned my engines off for you, have a nice day.’ What a nice man! Phil has decided that it is my job to talk to all the ships; I am not sure however they will all be quite so obliging.
In truth this is fantastic sailing right now at this minute the Shed is slipping along under a watery sun, the water rushing past the hull, the luff of the spinnaker gently rolling as we work the sheet in and out. It is effortless, stimulating, peaceful and so unexpected from the sloppy horrors I had envisaged. I am going to try and engrain this to my memory to recall later down the track when the sails are slapping and the boat is rolling and my nerves are jangling.
The end of the last chapter was long, tiring and emotional. A classic example of how we are all at the mercy of the weather and no amount of effort will overcome a lack of wind.
From the gas fields on Monday afternoon we decided to ride the south going tide in towards the coast for our final approach into Lowestoft.
From 40 miles out we tacked as the tide turned and reaped the benefits of a lee bow tide, pushing us from the north towards the wind, increasing out boat speed and improving our course towards the finish.
The Shed went from super slug, to super charged, we were averaging over 7 knots, fully powered up and running for the coast.
My initial plan was to hit the coast with the last of the strong southerly tide, around Cromer (missing the crab pots) and then ride the current down the coast, for the last couple of hours, and then we had a decision to make.
The final approaches into Lowestoft are surrounded by offshore sandbanks with three channels between them, through which the tide rips. Add into this, a wind farm, lots of traffic a dying breeze and the night time, and navigation could become a little tricky.
The easy and simple route was to go around the outside of all the sand banks and drop into Lowestoft from seaward around the same latitude. The problem with this route would be avoiding the shipping, which there was a lot of; and during the afternoon and evening channel 16 on the VHF seemed to be alive with communication between ships and those annoying silly little yachts who were like a swarm of green fly, clogging up the shipping channels.
To go through one of the middle channels, would be tricky navigation wise, as they are very narrow, and the wind was blowing directly from the south, meaning we would have to tack, bouncing from one sandbank to the other. With a south going tide, this would be a favourable route though as the water is channelled between the banks and would be flowing fast in our direction.
Finally there was the very inshore route, again, dodging between sand banks and the beach, a shorter route, significantly more effort but against the tide, if we stayed in the very shallow water, there should be gains to made.
We arrived at the shore, exactly as planned with two hours of favourable tide to go. Things could not have been going better. With the current boat speed and course we would be in well before midnight, the mood on The Shed was buoyant.
I came up with a master plan about our route and at the right moment floated it past Phil; the idea was to take the inshore route. We would ride the tide up to the point where the banks began and there was a narrow gat (break in a sandbank) to pass through and a three way fork in the route.
We would take the very inshore route, making the most of the tide as we could, then when the tide died we would work the shore, tacking in and out of the most shallow water that we dare and slowly creeping our way toward our destination.
With the Shed fully powered up and in the bright sunshine, I put across a good argument; we wanted to gain some time and we would never do that by just following the pack, we needed to take a different strategy, to dare to be different and prepared to put in the extra effort for extra reward…… maybe.
He was up for it and so we set off inshore.
We arrived at the gat, the fork in the road with a falling light, and made the decision to go inshore. A big gamble and a bit of a stressful option but we were up for the challenge.
I had worked on the tidal heights and due to the lack of swell was prepared to go in close to the shore and pass over the top of sandbanks, to gain as much advantage as this. This meant that I would be navigating the boat, jumping up the companion way to check our position course and speed, then coming on deck to issue Phil with directions and work the sheets for him during manoeuvres.
Phil was helming and had to totally trust my judgement which was difficult; there was a decent moon creating a half light, going into the shore, we could see the waves breaking on the beach but distance becomes very hard to judge and driving the boat in towards a line of breaking swell goes against every decent sailors instincts. Going out the other way from the shore, I was navigating the boat over sandbanks, so the depth would drop away suddenly and as we were sailing in an un marked area, going away from the coast it would not be immediately obvious which was to turn should The Shed run aground.
After a few hesitant trips inshore, Phil urgently shouting the depth to me as it fell, we settled into a rhythm and worked the Shed towards the finish.
When we entered the inshore channel, to retain 1st place overall in IRC we needed to cover 12 miles in 4 hours. Easy.
The breeze died and the tide picked up. After an hour things were not looking so positive.
We needed to make 10.5 miles in 3 hours. This was still doable. The Shed had to make just under 4 knots VMC. We were sailing at between 5 and 6 knots through the water…..just keep plugging on.
With 2 hrs to go the mood on The Shed was not jubilant; due to the tidal effects, we were tacking through 120-140 degree angles, ricocheting between the beach and the banks, frantically running backwards and forwards but not moving towards our destination.
With 30 minutes to go we were still 9 miles away and I had to admit that we were not going to make it.
At this point Pip Hare might have lost her cool……
Phil stepped back and watched while I had a melt down criticising myself for a terrible tactical call and blaming myself for throwing our position and sailing like a muppet. All the toys were out of the pram.
A quiet brummy accent from the back told me if I was going to beat myself up could I please do it after we had finished the leg and then Phil could get some sleep.
He had a point. A paddy never got anyone anywhere onwards was the only way forward, and even if we were only making 1 knot towards the finish at least we were moving.
We crawled up the shore, I was counting the lights on the sea front at Gt Yarmouth to measure our progession. Tacking became a 5 minute task and we averaged four lights per tack. A five lighter would be a cause for celebration.
Eventually we popped out at the end of the channel and had a decision to go inshore or offshore again.
The quickest route was inshore, so we decided to take that option, and ploughed on into the coast, at which point the wind stopped dead. The sails started flogging and it was apparent this was not the way to go.
We were committed but need to get the hell out of the inshore route and go the long way round in some wind.
Another tidal calculation and I decided we would sail the Shed over the end of a sandbank and out into the wind.
Tensely we crept forward, the dept fell, and fell; all instincts told us to turn around expect the competitive one. We sailed on into the dark, eyes glued to the depth sounder, this time in silence, no need to read the numbers out we were both fully aware of the situation.
A puff of wind pushed the Shed forward, this is what we had been looking for, but we were now driving into shallow water with more speed.
Breath held, wind increasing, eventually we scraped over the bank and were realeased onto the other side into some wind.
The Shed ate up the final miles, we arrived at the finish at 03.44.18 tired, strung out, but incredibly grateful we had made it.
A rib came out to meet us and due to a problem with the prop shaft towed us in.
The wind had shut off completely, and we watched a beautiful watery East coast sun rise over the north sea for a perfect beach day.
At the Royal Norfolk and Suffolk yacht club we were met by the Blue NG shore team, Tim and Ian, who had been on standby for a couple of days, with our ETA changing often they were glued to the tracker.
Into the dock and off to breakfast, we launched straight into another day, with no sleep and a hectic stopover schedule.
We had made it to the finish with the last of a dying breeze. We had secured first in class and dropped back to second overall. I was full of self criticism for taking what I though had been the wrong route, but we had made the most of it in the end and were happy to have made it to such a warm welcome on a warm day.
Meanwhile the rest of the fleet were still out there, suffering with the lack of wind.
The sun is shining, and it is a stunning day, in amongst the gas fields of the North Sea. But that is about as positive as I am feeling on The Shed today. This final beat to Lowestoft seems never ending and is starting to fray my nerves.
After the fantastic blow and super speedy decent from the North, we and most of the rest of the fleet ran straight into the back of a slow moving and sprawling high pressure system, sitting in the north sea, waiting to swallow us all up in a void of windless nothing.
Although we knew it was coming, I guess I had held a ridiculous hope that the high would move off and we would all carry on trucking to the fourth stop over; anything other than to have to negotiate the light breeze and inevitable hours of sail slapping and boat wallowing that accompanies such a weather system.
We kept The Shed moving until around 1pm yesterday, sneaking out to the west, as the routing suggested, trying to creep around the outside, unnoticed, and willing the boat to carry on under spinnaker for a long as possible.
As the last puffs of wind were expiring we decided to take down the mainsail so the spinnaker had a clear flow of air over it, and this allowed us to carry on moving for another hour or so, ghosting along, pulling the spinnaker, always square to the breeze sheet in one hand, guy in the other, standing in the centre of the cockpit, like a chariot driver.
We estimated we would wallow for a couple of hours and contemplated having a go at rowing. Phil was up for this, but I suggested that we may be better sleeping during this time, so we were ready for the breeze when it kicked in, rather than getting tired from rowing.
I would like to have a go at rowing The Shed at some point, if we can get it moving, I think momentum may allow us to achieve some sort of boat speed, but I was tired and a bit stressed out so then was not the time.
So why so stressed Pip?
The pack was chasing, and while we were sitting in no wind, they were advancing, eating away at our lead.
I knew that eventually they too would encounter the same high pressure and would be hampered by it in the same way, however after the calm at the centre I needed to think about the tactics for the final couple of hundred miles, and these are not easy by any means.
The breeze filled in as we anticipated after a couple of hours of lolling, and we had a fairly hectic evening and overnight, first with thick fog 50 m visibility sometimes, only just seeing the bow. We bought the life raft and flares on deck ready to launch. Phil maintained a watch on the Radar Target Enhancer and the AIS, myself on deck steering.
The fog eventually lifted to a wall of sparkly lights in our path, a close packed gas field, with service vessels a cruise liner thrown in for good measure.
We picked our way through these and this morning I was rewarded with a beautiful pink sunrise and a couple of huge dolphins, telling me not to stress out so much and look around me at just how amazing it all really is. I don’t think dolphins ever get stressed.
We have sailed into a fairly stable high pressure system and for the rest of the leg, places and time will be gained and lost on how we handle this last beat.
To a certain extent racing the Shed in moderate to heavy breeze is relatively simple, the optimum route seems more obvious and it is a question mostly of following the rhumb line with as much sail as you can handle, and not too many high risk variations.
The light wind beat we are now encountering holds a far greater risk in terms of tactics and the behaviour of wind around the high pressure system is a lot harder to understand.
We are desperately trying to hold our lead, and being first on the water are not able to learn by the mistakes of others, we must chose our own path, with the following fleet, learning from the outcome of our decisions and profiting from that knowledge.
At this stage it is unlikely that we will retain our lead in IRC overall, Chris and Stewart in Ding Dong have sailed a blindingly fast race, and though caught as we have been in the light winds at the end, they sailed fast enough in the initial blow to get them in, in the early hours this morning.
We are however, fighting to retain our first in class, as always looking over our shoulders and feeling tense every time the boat slows from a wave or the wind knocks us or dies away.
The Shed was set up for the OSTAR last year and has a sail plan designed for that race. She has non overlapping headsails and a fully battened Dacron main, with two spinnakers and a code zero in the downwind sail wardrobe.
This sail plan has undoubtedly suited me well in both the OSTAR and this race so far, but I do have an Achilles heel and today it is incredibly exposed.
The wind is blowing at a fairly constant 9 knots out here in the gas field, and our destination is up wind.
With my largest headsail as a number 3, The Shed is suffering from just not having enough power. We are not able to use the code zero at this wind angle so must go with this small headsail and suffer the consequences.
She feels sluggish; she is not springing through the waves, but dragging her feet like a moody teenager. It is all a bit of an effort and her weight versus sail area is keeping us slow and listless.
All we need is another knot and a half of wind. When occasionally we get a puff like this the boat has a total change in personality, like she has woken up and seen what a beautiful day it is.
Sadly or frustratingly for us the breeze is very constantly just under what we need. So here’s to hoping and I’ll keep downloading the grib files in the optimism that one will suddenly show me a fetch with code zero to the finish. Though in reality I know we are in for another long night looking over our shoulders.
So even though I seem to be travelling under my own grey cloud (don’t worry the annoying positive Pip will return soon) I feel I ought to mention that if you are planning your holidays in the UK; after a fairly extensive survey of weather in the British Isles and Ireland I can confirm that the only places it is not grey, drizzly and a bit cold are Barra and the North Sea! Finally we found the sun; I guess there is always something to smile about.
We are charging head long, down wind, through a misty and grey oil field. Next stop Lowestoft and we are running at full pelt to get there, bursting down waves, spray flying, Shed surfing. What and awesome day.
Leaving Lerwick turned out to be a little stressful; the internet connection slowed down and stopped, just at the crucial moment of downloading a final grib file and sending out last minute messages.
With 40 minutes to the race start, we still had a boat rafted to us and the promised rib to assist us off the wall had gone to help another competitor.
We waited and waited and then decided to leave under our own steam and deal with the consequences.
We arrived at the start line in time but on a back foot, having not really worked out which spinnaker we would be using and on which side it would be set initially.
We left into a strong breeze and a confused and difficult sea state. The spinnaker was flying, but steering through the waves was some of the hardest I have ever experienced.
There were two sets of waves, one following our course with the new breeze and the other a monster swell created by the severe gale that blew through over the last couple of days.
The boat was continually on the edge, you would pick up a surf on the first set of waves then a huge, spreader high, breaking roller would come from the side and knock the boat first with the boom into the water and then with the spinnaker pole in the water. I was frantically turning the wheel from one lock to the next, moving my hands as quickly as I could, bracing my legs and knees to keep on balance, whole body tense, eyes fixed on the sea ahead, the instruments, the sails and ears listening for breaking waves.
Phil was playing the kite sheet to prevent a wrap, which was a high likely hood with the side swell that was running. With the sheet cleated he positioned himself in the cockpit between the winch and the turning block. When the spinnaker collapsed he pulled hard with both hands on the sheet between the two points, like drawing the string on a bow, then as it filled he let it go with an almighty bang, making sure the timing was right so as to avoid burned hands.
This was the most high pressure sailing we have come across yet, and not from the wind but the waves. It was a reminder of what I have learned in the past that it is always the sea that is the greatest danger, and rarely the wind.
We spoke of the scenarios that would take place if something went wrong, organising between us actions, should we wrap the spinnaker, broach or Chinese gybe. We discussed whether flying the spinnaker was too risky in these conditions but decided that we had to make every minute of our six hour head start from Lerwick count and this meant pushing the boat to the limit.
In the end I steered with the spinnaker up for 7 hours, and we managed to make a 54 miles out of Lerwick before the next boat in our class started.
At about 1 am, I realised I was becoming too tired to concentrate; I needed a break for at least an hour. Phil did not want to helm with the spinnaker in these conditions, and anyway we needed to gybe so we decided to take down the spinnaker, gybe and white sail for a couple of hours so we could both get some rest and recharge before hoisting the kite again.
I am not normally one to take my foot of the accelerator, but this decision I believe was the right one. With every extra hour, we pressed on tired in those conditions we were risking getting it wrong and damaging ourselves and the boat.
After a couple of hours we were ready to go again, hoisted the kite and found ourselves hooning along through the Scottish oil fields.
The visibility is poor and all day, oil rigs of different shapes and sizes have been appearing and then disappearing from the misty horizon. There have been a couple of ships and not a lot else.
The wind is forecast to blow until 2100 tonight when we will run into the back of a high, centred over the UK and moving east.
Our plan is to make as many miles in these winds as we can.
The waves have become more regular and we are now taking it in turns to surf the shed down as many waves as possible, regularly making 11, 12 and a cheeky little 13 knots.
My leg where I fell, is stiff and sore, my shoulders and arms are red hot aching, but there is a grin on my face. This is fun.
As I am writing I can hear the rush of the water down the hull as we start to take off down a wave, the whole boat is alive, like a head strong horse charging off in the direction it pleases and we must take control of that power and make as many miles as we can to the South.
We have a bet on as to our 24hr run, loser buys the first beer. I say 205 miles, Phil is on 201. Spot the optimist and the pessimist?
The stopover in the Shetlands has been a difficult time for us all. Gale force northerly winds blowing straight into the dock we are moored in have wreaked havoc through the whole fleet.
Boats have been damaged, sailors have got little sleep and morale among the fleet is fairly low.
These is the half way point in the race, and tell tale signs of tiredness are starting to show on the faces and in the tempers of competitors. Though everyone’s spirits are still in tact, a tumultuous stop over was not what any of us needed and we are all looking forward to getting back to sea again, just to save the boats from more damage.
Our hosts on the island could not have been kinder; every boat has been allocated a host, who have looked after our every need. Ribs have been on hand to help with moving the boats against the 30 knot winds, and a proper ships tug was even provided to get the 40’s off the dock yesterday, when the Rib power would just not do.
I watched them leave with mixed feelings. Everyone was nervous, aware that they were leaving into some fairly harsh conditions, but this was balanced by the knowledge that it would be a super fast ride.
We are going to catch the last of the blow, but the wind is already dying and as we sit here waiting for our start, Jbellino and DingDong, who are just behind us overall in the IRC results, are making many miles in a great following wind. All the time, banking the hours between us and them.
I have been trying to catch up on some sleep as I arrived here pretty wrecked. I also have been recovering from a fall I had on the last day of Leg 3. I tripped, landing with my knee on the traveller, but also twisting my hip and ankle. I now have quite a painful leg and am walking with a comical limp.
Luckily enough Warwick from Thunder was on hand to have a look at the leg; he tells me nothing too serious, no ripped ligaments or anything, just a bit of tissue damage. The answer is to keep taking the painkillers and let my body do the rest.
I think once I get sailing the leg will be forgotten; it is just when ashore that I allow myself the time to acknowledge there may be a problem.
There is some concern here about the welfare of the guys on Paradox, as their tracker is showing they are only making 3.8 knots. No one has heard from them we all just hope they are under control and safe.
The work list for this stopover has included servicing all the winches, a full check of the steering gear and another rig check. At this stage we do not need any gear failure; we still have to push the Shed hard over the next 1000 miles and need to look after her, for her to look after us.
Onboard The Shed this race is being renamed the great cake hunt; as when we arrived in Lerwick, there was again another parcel waiting for us from friends Ian and Fee. This time a ginger cake baked with love in Andover and sent to 60˚ North for a couple of strung out hungry sailors. I cannot think of a better or more thoughtful gift.
So here we are waiting………
I know I am going to race today as I could not eat my porridge this morning. Nerves kick in and I am operating in a tense anticipation of what will happen on the next leg. This seems to be a problem for me, I have to force myself to eat while we are racing, and have already lost quite a bit of weight on this race.
Phil is the same and has happily reported he has gone in a notch on the belt which he says means there is more room for beer. Happy Days!
We are doing well, but the race is far from over and we are competing with some talented and serious sailors who are out to catch us.
Someone asked me yesterday whether I was happy with our result so far. Well of course the answer is yes, but I am by no means relaxed and am certainly not in the mood for celebrating. Every minute things change when you are yacht racing, the variables are never ending and nothing is a given.
We have worked really hard to gain a lead over our class. Leading IRC overall is an unexpected bonus to this, however to a certain extent that is in the lap of the gods, as we are racing against boats that left 9 hrs before us and will have totally different weather to sail in.
It looks like we will get the last of this northerly blow and then the wind will die off and there is a big high coming to sit over Lowestoft. We need to make every one of those hours in the wind count for as many miles as possible, then who knows what will happen.
The waiting is excruciating. Right now I just want to go.