the last blast

Its half past two in the afternoon, and we are on our final dash into the finish of leg 3 at Lerwick.

The Shed is cranked over on her ear, fully powered up, slicing through the flat waters at 8.5 knots with Elixir hot on our tail, only 2 miles behind and in sight.

We worked ourselves to the limit last night and this morning, on the last of that ‘oh so long’ spinnaker run to Muckle Flugga – the headland that never seemed to get any closer.

During the night Phil and I trimmed in one hour shifts, feeling that was the optimum time we could concentrate for and keep The Shed on the pace. When morning came I made porridge and we had Shed rocket fuel coffee and agreed we would both be on deck now until the end.

In the last 40 miles, things were tense; all the other boats in our class had really started to shift and were sailing fast but in a different direction to us, gybing downwind to increase boat speed.

I did the sums over and over in my head, on a piece of paper, on my fingers. Should we be sailing slowly dead downwind down the rhumb line or join the rest sailing hotter and faster angles but a longer distance.

In the end we went with what I know. The shed is an old girl, and from the days when boats sailed down wind. We squared the pole right back and soaked down on every wave. I put on a preventer to stop the boom coming over and then in the bigger gusts was able to sail a little by the lee, easing the sheet as the gust came through, giving the boat windward heel and so bearing away further towards our destination.

In the early hours of the morning a sea mist came down, the whole situation became a bit surreal. We had less than 100 m visibility and were heading for the most northern tip of an island to a waypoint off Muckle Flugga, where we would turn East and then South down the other side.

We got closer and closer, knowing that dead ahead of us was a huge lump of land, but we could not see a thing. Eventually speculating that we may well round the top but not see it at all which appeared rather ironic as we had just spent 40 hrs trying to get there.

Suddenly a lone rock appeared out of the murk less than a tenth of a mile away. It was quite a shock, even though we knew it was there, and made me think of the sailors from Square rigger days, who if they came across a rock so suddenly in that way would have been toast before they could wonder where they were.

As the advice on the inside of the cuddy says, we got to the corner and turned right, flying the spinnaker along the top of the island and making 11 knots, then dropped the spinnaker and turned right again, a monumental right turn this time as it marks the start of our Southerly return to home.

This last stretch is a pure and simple blast down the coast and we are struggling to stay ahead of Elixir who is pushing hard with us in her sights,

The mist has lifted and the Shetland Islands are in view and it looks ….. well…… cold!

Low grey cloud hangs over a fairly barren and rocky landscape, there are islands and inlets and not a lot of dwellings. I think it would look a lot better in the sun.

When we discussed the Shetland stopover at the race briefing it was mentioned that we are arriving during their mid summer festival, when it never gets dark and everyone spends a lot of time in the pub.

I think because of the word ‘summer’ I had a picture in my mind of green fields, sun shining, people in shorts and t-shirts, marquees and music. Now I don’t know yet about the last two items on the list, but certainly I think an arran jumper would be more appropriate than shorts at this moment in time.

The real colour is provided by the puffins. We have been spotting them from quite a way out. I did not realise they were so small.

They beaks are the brightest orange and they are gorgeous to look at with puffy little black bodies and odd orange feet that flail around on the water when they try to take off.

We are not in yet so I do not like to talk about our result, but we hope it will be good. The rest of our class never recovered from the early period of light winds leaving Barra and we have maintained and extended a decent lead at the moment.

This leg has been tough, hard work physically trimming the spinnaker and mentally trying to overcome the desire to copy what others are doing and stick to our own plan. Routing has been done from my head. I have been downloading grib files and looking at what the computer said I should do but on the whole decisions are being made independently and sometimes in contrast to what the software is telling me.

My grib files I download from saildocs, via the sailmail organisation, through a HF radio and modem.

As I do not have the budget for a satellite phone this is a great cheap solution to email communication and weather forecasts at see.

Sailmail operates as a sort of co-operative and your yearly subscription entitles you to use the service for 90 minutes a week. This usage is capped to stop people from clogging up the shore stations so everyone may have a go.

I know in the last week I have exceeded my limit by downloading many many grib files, which are so important to routing. I emailed sailmail head quarters, explained my situation and that I was racing around Britain and Ireland and they have agreed to allow me extra time until the end of the race. This is a service run by sailors, for sailors and it is so nice that they understand. Thank you sailmail.

Now I need to get back up on deck and carry on sailing. Only two and a half hours to the finish at this speed.

I am exhausted but running on adrennaline, I would like to sleep and sleep when I get in. Recovery will be important as my body has just about had enough at the moment, but we will have only 48 hrs to get this Shed back on the road, into our next challenge… The North Sea – how much more grey can a girl take????

Spinnakers are us

59°47 N
5° 06 W

Crs 60° Spd 8.0 knots

142 miles to Muckle Flugga. Yes it is slowly getting closer, thanks to an awful lot of hard work and a flippin huge spinnaker.

Since we rounded St Kilda yesterday we have had nothing else in our lives but the spinnaker.

The last 24 hrs have been spent coaxing the maximum possible out of The Shed using her down wind sails, and we have another 17hrs more to concentrate in this way.

In order to keep the Shed going Phil and I decided we would try and work the boat as though it was being sailed fully crewed, changing sails exactly when required and continually trimming them for optimum performance. We have not once allowed the boat to go into ‘cruising mode’; there has been no break for us or the sails.

Sail selection is simply between the code zero and the A4 spinnaker, as the course is off the wind and in light to moderate airs. There is a fine line at the cross over for these sails and we have to watch our boat speed and the wind angle and speeds like a hawk to make the decision of when to change over. So far we have changed 5 times between the sails.

Typically I call a manoeuvre when Phil has just gone down for a sleep I think he will have nightmares for the rest of his life by my voice shouting, ‘We need to gybe!’ ‘Peel to the Code Zero’.

Normally I will make the decision and call once downstairs to try and wake him up, while wandering round the deck and setting up for the manoeuvre myself.

There is never a response, not surprisingly Phil is sleeping very deeply.

This morning I had to make four attempts at waking him up to which his comment was ‘nice to know I am always in a state of readiness, like a coiled spring then?’

At this time, the single handed sailor in me is very tempted just to do it on my own, and a couple of times I have almost swapped over a spinnaker alone, but this is a double handed race and it is undoubtedly quicker and less risk for us both to perform a sail change.

Phil wakes, always with a start and a ‘where am I look’ on his face. But after the initial shock he is up on deck and in ready mode. We have peeled the kites so much now, we do not need to talk and the routine is second nature.

When we are not changing headsail we are trimming or steering depending on the conditions.

Of course the optimum performance is obtained from The Shed when we are both on deck, this happens for around a third of the day, and either one will drive and the other trim, or we allow the pilot to drive, one trims and one winds the winch.

The rest of the time there will only be one of us on deck, the other either resting, navigating, or doing everyday maintenance and housekeeping tasks around the boat.

Again depending on the conditions I would choose to steer or to trim the spinnaker to get maximum performance.

Any time there are waves, other than in very light airs, I would always choose to lock off the kite sheet and steer the boat by hand, as I would like to think I have the edge over the pilot being able to see the waves. However, I will always spend time before taking over the wheel, looking at the average speed and direction of the boat and if I am not able to out perform the machine, need to get over the humiliation of being beaten by a grey box with a bigger brain that me, and step down for the good of the race.

The other conditions I have found it beneficial to steer the boat myself is reaching in flat seas. I will then take time to set up the sheet and guy so the boat is at maximum power and the leading edge of the spinnaker just curling a couple of degrees off course. I can then take the helm and steer against the edge of the kite, heating it up to maximum speed just as the kite is curling and a couple of degrees above course, then gently dropping below course to stabilise things before I heat it up again. I think it’s fast.

The rest of the time I allow the pilot to steer and trim the spinnaker to that course, like on a fully crewed boat.

The piece of kit that has become invaluable for this job is my slightly mouldy bean bag, a present from Lou and Jon, for the OSTAR last year.

This bag will mould (no pun intended but you should see the state of it) around all sorts of things on the boat to provide a comfy seat with a head support in which to sit in and trim. We have made a video of Shed Style spinnaker tirm and I will try to get it up on my website, perhaps the bean bag trimming position will catch on!

This is a job that requires dedication and whole hearted concentration; you must immerse yourself in it totally to be able to carry on going for a couple of hours at a time with no breaks.

I normally set up before hand, with every rope I need within reach, a drink and something to eat. Positioned opposite the winch, one hand permanently curled to a fist around the rope, easing the sheet then pulling, and the other grinding the winch.

My arms and sides ache and there are already calluses on the inside of my knuckles, when I have finished a stint it takes a while to unclench my fist, like when you have been carrying very heave bags for a while, but I am sure it is worth the effort.

It has been a grey old day and I would love to describe some scenery to you but the truth is we could be anywhere, at any time. There is little change between night and day; the grey mist became a little murkier for a couple of hours last night.

When the visibility really draws in I have been turning on the Radar Target Enhancer for an advance warning of any ships in the area. I am some what reminded of my trip over the grand banks last year, though there is not the stress of ice bergs at the moment.

All minds are on Muckle Flugga, the more we trim, the closer it will get and if we are lucky we will arrive there before the rest of our class.

St Kilda

58°05.71N
8°05.76W

Crs 50° spd 7.2 knots

We are just under a day into leg 3 and have managed to work a considerable lead over the next boat in our class…. And we are going to need it.

Despite my worries, we did have wind at the restart for this leg. We made our way out to the line, the last to start of a group of 3 boats, and managed to welcome ‘Kipper’ the Victoria 34 in class 4, across the finish line, just before we were about to start.

All my hopes were that we would have wind to the end of the island chain, which would help us to keep the lead we had gained so far, and lucky enough we got what we wanted.

We sailed with spinnaker to Barra Head, the light was fading and there was a stunning sun set with streaks of pink, blue and grey cloud over the top of the islands as the sun set, though it never really got dark.

We are now, a long way north, further north in fact than Cape Horn is south, and I do not think we will see darkness during the night for perhaps another week, when we start to drop latitude on the other side of British isles.

The light was beautiful but a little eerie and to add to the effect the water seems to be full of basking shark, so quite often you will look up to see a dorsal fin, cutting its way through the grey light around you, then retreating menacingly back to the depths.

Once we had made it around the bottom of the Barra Island chain, our next stop was St Kilda, a large lump of rock out to the west.

As the forecast said, the wind shut off completely just after midnight but as we had made it around the islands, we were able to ride the north flowing tide, up the other side and closer to the new breeze as it filled in.

By 4am we were sailing again, and due to the good luck of being in a favourable tide had managed to double our lead on the boats behind us, who were still struggling in unfavourable tide and no wind. This will be important as we have now rounded St Kilda and the next leg of our race is a 280 mile down wind spinnaker run in moderate airs. Our worst nightmare!

The Shed is a reasonably heavy displacement boat which needs a good 20 knots of wind to get her going down wind, the pack behind us are more modern and lighter and so we imagine will surf quicker and faster in the conditions we have at the moment.

That is why extending our lead at the start of this race has been so important, we just have to sail like mad things and hope they do not eat too much of it away before we have to turn the corner at the Shetland Islands.

Rounding St Kilda was a strange experience. A front was passing over us and the island was shrouded in a thick mist, we could only see the bottom half of it from half a mile away.

I do not have detailed charts for right up close to the shore so both Phil and I were a little jumpy as to just how close we could get, torn between giving away valuable distance and the fear of ending up on an uncharted spiky rock should we get too close.

It was like a scene from Jurassic park. The island is barren and jagged, the mist was rolling around the tops of the rocks and you could not see how high or wide the land mass was. I was expecting to feel the vibrations of a Tyrannosaurus foot step and a roar in the background as we passed close by.

Once clear of the island we have really entered the open sea.

As mentioned it is 280 miles to the top of Shetland, but not so straight forward as just sailing there.

The weather at the moment has been dominated by a ridge of high pressure and various skippers will have various theories on how to get the most from their boats; where the wind will be strongest, which angles it is better to sail, and whether sailing the angles with more speed will be faster than a straight line, slow but shorter distance.

I think all eyes from behind us will be on our tracker, watching to see which way we have gone, and equally we must keep an eye on them. If any of our competitors decide to sail in a different direction from us we must evaluate, what they are doing and whether we can afford to allow them to split or if we must cover them by copying their strategy.

Brains are straining and the trackers have become a vital piece of tactical equipment. We are keeping our cards up our sleeves this race has become about the thinking as well as the sailing; I am playing my cards close; let’s see how we look in the morning.

However for any of our class who are reading this and looking for some inside information, here we go…… we have decided it will be a lot quicker to go via the Faroes!

The storm before the calm

The Storm before the Lull

Castle Bay, Barra, West Hebrides, 5 hrs to the restart

The sun is shining on Castle Bay and right now it is one of the most beautiful places I have been, blue skies, clear water, sandy beaches and the background of hills and islands.

The boats are swinging, at anchor or three to a mooring buoy; all the class 40’s and the faster boats have gone and been replaced by the class 4 boats just arrived and those who were not lucky enough to get a mooring when they first arrived and have been dragging anchors across the bay for the last 24hrs, impatient for the 40’s to leave and free up a mooring.

Flags are fluttering and the bay looks idyllic. The local TV were filming the scene this morning and I wondered if they had any idea just how manic, life behind that serene scene is as we all recover from the last leg and prepare for the next.

The Shed fared well on leg 2. The only damage sustained was two blocks blowing up, and we also had a leaky window to remove and re-seal during our 48 hrs here.

Others have suffered, ripped sails, broken bow sprits, broken spinnaker poles, electronics failure, mast tracks ripping off and part of the challenge of the race is to get all that fixed and ready to go again in a remote Scottish island, with no mobile reception and an airport that only operates at low water.

The racing rules stated that we must carry with us a means of anchoring and getting to the shore in Barra. This has been interpreted various ways and crews can be seen passing in various states, at the top end of the scale are the boys with an outboard, all of a sudden the most popular guys in the fleet, then there are the avon red crest gang of which The Shed is a member; I think we should have organised an avon red crest regatta, there are enough around most of which are as old or older than their owners and still going strong.

However, most of the boats from the faster boats are children’s swimming pool toys, and at anyone time, you can watch grown men, frantically paddling out to their boats, being blown sideways across the water, with waves lapping over the sides and bottoms millimetres from the wet. Or one paddling and the other pumping frantically in a race to get to the shore before a section of the dinghy sinks completely.

Once ashore the activity centres on the Castlebay Hotel, race head quarters! Here there is one bathroom to be shared by all 56 boats, remarkably without queues, though now into the second week of the race, personal grooming seems to have gone by the wayside, beards are forming, shoes are no longer required and baggy old thermals are how one dresses for lunch.

There is no mobile signal for most of us on the island and so the wifi provided by the hotel has taken a hell of a bashing. The amount of weather data, grib files, synoptic charts that are being downloaded to a small hotel in the Hebrides must be puzzling someone in the US government – I am told they know all about what happens on the internet.

The local co-op has been stripped of energy drinks, fruit, and chocolate supplies are running low. The bar and restaurant are standing up well to the influx, however last night the staff of 4 had to cope with over 100 hungry sailors and their entourages all deciding to eat and drink at the same time. Not a harsh word was offered, but the portions did get smaller over the course of the evening.

We have just been focussed on the boat, getting dry, getting sorted, getting some sleep. Again we had Ian from Blue NG meet us as a shore crew and he diligently put his head down to any task we threw at him, whether bailing out lockers or ferrying us to and fro from the shore in the dinghy. What a star!

I hit a wall yesterday evening. I was so tired. I seemed to be running all day, trying to find time to catch up with myself, trying to get back ahead, to get the boat in order and then to spend a bit of time getting myself in order.

A look at my emails and all of a sudden the outside world came flooding in to a place where it really does not fit. Taking part in a race like this is all consuming; it has to be. You cannot take your focus away from the boat and the rest of life must sit on hold, but surely this is one of the pleasures of what we are doing?

I gave my free drinks tickets to Phil and came back to The Shed for a long and deep sleep, which was only interrupted by Paul and Marco knocking on the roof at 2am, they were leaving and I wanted to cast them off and wish them well, as current leaders of Class 40 in Sunguard Front Arena, I hope to see them in the same position when we reach Lerwick. Marco of course I know from the OSTAR last year, and Paul I met on a race coaching course in February; over the last few months we have helped each other out a lot getting our boats ready for this race, working together pooling our skills and resources. This is something that Brian Thompson is trying to get going in Halsar marina. A centre where short handed sailors can be based and can train together, work on each others boats and help each other along. We are already doing that but would love to see things take off in a bigger way.

This morning our neighbours have changed from a Class 40 to another Schumacker designed boat (The Shed also being one) Santana, sailed by brother and sister Myles and Ashley Perrin. They had an amazing second leg and stormed Class 4 arriving hours ahead of the next boat, pushing hard downwind, Myles said the boat surfed at 23.8 knots, and then he Chinese gybed! Worth the push as their parents arrived and it was Fathers day yesterday so they took their old man out for supper.

We had a great surprise yesterday when we found a HUGE parcel waiting for us in the race office. From Ian and Fee a GIANT home baked fruit cake packaged up and posted by royal mail, it weighs a ton. Thank you guys, I have spoken with James on the race committee and decided that if we take the cake to the windward rail to snack on, it is not technically stacking! So when it gets breezy the cake will be with us at all times.

We restart at 21h 28m 25s we know this as we are writing our leg times on the inside of the cuddy, along with all the messages and hints from friends, family and fellow competitors.

The wind is looking horribly painfully light. Overnight there will be nothing.

When we leave here, the course is to leave Muldoanich, Berneray, Barra Head, St Kilda, Flannan Island, Sule Sgeir, North Rona and the Shetland Islands including Out stack, outer skerries and Bressay to Starboard. The Finish is in Lerwick. These are all places I have mostly never heard of before, especially St Kilda which is annoyingly out in the Atlantic.

We are hoping the last of the breeze will take us to the bottom of the islands and so we will still be able to maintain some lead on the boats in our class.

The danger is that if there is no wind for the start and we sit going nowhere for two hours, then the rest of the boats over whom we have gained a lead, will come and join us at their start times, only a couple of miles behind when it could have been 10 or more. It looks like our frenzy of activity will end in a high tension light wind start in fading breeze but that is the luck of the draw; just got to keep The Shed moving.

13th June 2010

Castle Bay Hotel
Barra

Second leg over.  Another first in class and still unbelievably lying first overall in IRC.

I am exhausted! What a leg. We have been pushing The Shed and ourselves as hard as possible and gratifyingly the results show the effort has paid off.

Yesterday was tough. We started the day under the grey solid sky of a passing front in changing and shifty conditions with lumpy seas. Life on The Shed was tough and tiring.

The combination of wind and seas made it very difficult to find a sail plan that allowed the boat to drive along comfortably.

The balance between the jib and the main seemed impossible to find, too much mainsail causing us to round up uncontrollably with every wave and gust skewing us from our course and wrenching the helm from your hands.

With too little main, the jib took over and an uncomfortable amount of lee helm made it difficult to helm, with natural intuition out of the window.

I struggled with it all morning and eventually went down for some sleep, and while I was down Phil managed to find a balance for the boat by putting two reefs in.  Punctuating a lesson we should all remember that less is sometimes more and bigger sails don’t always make the boat go faster.

We had not had a lot of sleep and Phil has been struggling to find a good sleeping pattern. I feel I have not been very helpful on this matter as I decided that working a conventional watch system would not necessarily be the way to race the boat hard in this race.

On the first leg we just sailed hard and took a couple of short naps when we hit the wall. For this leg, it has been mostly the same, I have been pushing as hard as I can and could really see the benefits of us both working the boat, particularly with one steering through the waves and the other trimming the main to adjust balance in the gusts. In single handed style I have been napping when I need it but as this is Phil’s first offshore experience it has been a tough thing for him to do and yesterday he said he wanted to go onto 1hr on 1hr off and get some sleep, I could see he was wrecked and starting to really suffer from lack of rest.

He went down for a couple of longer sleeps and returned a new person, and since we got in we have decided that he will sleep in that pattern for the rest of the race as his performance is much better that way.

In the second half of the morning the front that was giving us the stronger westerly winds started to blow over and we were left in soggy and light winds.

This was excruciating. We had managed to keep our lead over the rest of our class but with Fastrack being only 10 miles behind we started to worry about whether others were experiencing the same light winds as we were or they would be sailing around us in more breeze.

There was nothing for it, we had to keep sailing forward, but as the hour passed the wind started to changed direction and so not only were we sailing slowly but in the wrong direction as well.

We could see the end of the clouds and new that a change was coming, according to the weather file there would be favourable winds on the way and it was a question of just keeping cool and waiting for the new wind.

We emerged from the edge of the cloud into a new world.

All of a sudden the water changed form a sloppy grey chop to a pristine aquamarine with a rolling swell.

The day was stunningly beautiful, the colours sharp and you could have been forgiven for thinking we were sailing in the Caribbean and not the west of Scotland.

We hoisted the code zero and the Shed started to move. The wind steadily built and with 80 miles to the finish the chase was on again.

The only tactic was to go straight to the finish as fast as we could. Accompanied by dolphins and a couple of whales, we changed between the code Zero and the A4 and then back again, eyes glued to the instruments, always reading the numbers, assessing our speed, wind strength and wind angle, making judgements on which sail would be optimum with the current conditions.

Eventually an island popped into view on the horizon, and with it a sail, then another, but who were they?

Time for the last push to the finish, out came the lucozade, chocolate and sweets that our friend Helen had supplied for emergency use (among the other emergency goods we have supplied by friends is a bottle of red wine and a bottle of champagne – not required at that very moment!). After not eating much for the last 3 days, I filled up with chemicals and glucose and was bouncing off the guard rails.

We set the autopilot to steer and then I trimmed the kite and Phil ground the winch for me.

I was hyper, the kite sheet was going in and out, in and out and we trimmed like that for 3 hrs; leaving positions only to check the navigation.

This tactic seemed to work and as the rest of the island of Barra came into view we seemed to be gaining on the boats ahead, but the wind was patchy and it looked quite possible we could sail into a hole and would stop, with the boats behind gaining time on us.

Phil suggested that I climb the rig and try to spot a path through the wind holes to the finish. With the spinnaker up and flying I climbed up the windward side of the rig, using the mainsail as steps hanging on when we went over a wave. When you are at the top of a mast while the boat is sailing, all the movements of the boat are accelerated and if you let go you will swing out past the sail onto the lee side of the boat hitting the rigging on the way.

Ash had that experience a couple of weeks ago and is suffering now from badly bruised ribs with that on my mind I was hanging on with legs and arms like a koala hugging the top of the mast.

The tactic was worth it, I shouted down to Phil and we mapped out a route to the finish between the flat patches on the water, all the time gaining ground on the boats ahead, one of whom I could see from up high was Elixir, who were lying 3rd overall in IRC and as Izara had turned back had moved up to 2nd overall.

After a manic last few hours, we crossed the finish line in Barra on 12th June at 21h 28m 25s and received a message immediately from Marco and Paul on Sunguard Front Arena. They had won the class 40 class and were in the bar celebrating.

The little island of Barra will not know what has hit it.

We stepped ashore into an amazingly different world from our isolated life on the boat. A heaving bar, jammed with people and a Keighley band playing loud, with drums fiddles and bag pipes. People laughing and shouting, dancing on the tables, it was almost too much to handle.

We had won our class on the water and on handicap and by the skin of our teeth have hung onto 1st place in IRC overall.

The Shed is lying in the middle of a stunningly beautiful bay, the water is clean and clear, the beaches are sandy white, there is a castle on a rock in the bay. She needs some love and we need some sleep before the next leg starts, only 48 short hours, and 15 of them have gone already.

On the run

54°24.6’N
10°19.4 W

180 miles from the finish and it’s a drag race.

Today and last night we have been mostly changing headsails, and considering I only have a selection of 3 upwind headsails on board and one of them is a storm jib, it has been taking up rather a lot of our time.

The conditions have been trying!

We went into last night, beating into the dark and out to the west waiting for the wind shift from the west to arrive. Most of my class are grouped together and we all had the same strategy by the looks of position reports, to head west and tack on the shift when it arrived, which would hopefully then lift us over the top of Ireland and into the North Channel.

That was the plan anyway.

On the Shed we did a bit of head scratching and decided to hedge our bets a little and stay a bit closer to the Rhumb line than the rest of our pack, by putting in a mini tack back to the East for a couple of hours.

As the night fell, seas were getting lumpy and waves regularly crashing over the boat. The breeze started building and we ploughed off into the dark, sailing close hauled, making a note of our heading every half hour so that when the wind did change the fact may not pass us by.

Computer said ‘ tack at one thirty’ so around twelve I started to get all nervous and jumpy, where was that shift. Was it coming at all, had we just sailed half way to America for no reason?????

Waiting for a forecast like that always makes me nervous. My knowledge of meteorology is not nearly good enough. Sure I can look at the sky and identify different clouds, tell of an approaching front and I teach yachtmasters all about the ‘RYA’ low; that perfectly formed round circle of low pressure with a well defined warm and cold front that mythically exists in text books. For the most part I am able to interpret forecasts and grib files, get basic information from conditions and make a plan using these things but I hanker after the confidence that a more in depth knowledge would bring. That will be the next are which requires coaching I think.

Anyway no need to worry the shift approached at around 1.45 and we tacked with it, and changed up from our no 4 (smallest headsail) to the number 3.

The rest of the morning has consisted of shifty conditions under bands of cloud where
the wind has been having a laugh at our expense. Changing strength every hour or so sufficiently to require us to change the headsails over.

I will enlighten you as to what a performance this is.

The Shed has hank on headsails which means that if there is no requirement to tack the boat during a change it must be done bare headed, one down and then the other up.

When Phil and I decide we need to change the headsail one of us has to go up to the bow to pull down the old headsail and the other stays in the cockpit to let the halyard down.

We have no strict rota as to who does which end of the work but as the job at the front requires battling your way along the deck of a bucking boat and then standing on the bow while it plunges up and down through the waves, with bucket loads of water crashing over your head and more annoyingly up the legs of your trousers as the bow sinks deep into another wave, there is normally an element of hanging back to start with……… an interesting piece of fluff on your jacket sleeve, or an urgent rope to coil in the cockpit, until one of us breaks and goes up the front to get wet.

The halyard is released and the old sail is wrestled to the deck tied up with sail ties and then unhanked from the forestay. This job can be excruciating on cold fingers. Meanwhile the other person is removing sheets and bringing the new sail along the deck, normally soaked and heavy, the bag catches on everything and tired legs stagger along the deck dragging the burden behind them.

Once the old sail is off it must be dragged up to the high side of the boat and tied onto the rail to be sorted once we are sailing again.

The new sail is unbagged, taken to the foredeck, hanks on, sheets on, ties off and then hoisted.

Once the boat is sailing and up to speed again our final job is to try to flake the old sail which will be flailing around in the wind on the side of the boat and bag it.

This job is particularly fun when it is wet and windy as you have to kneel and the lie on the sail once you have folded it to stop it from blowing away while the other one gets the bag. But my sails have a finish on them which is super slippery when wet and you are on the high side of a boat that is heeling by at least 30 degrees, so you slowly slide down the slope and end up like a star fish across the deck, arms and legs trying desperately to save the sail from blowing away and nose or chin planted on the deck to try and stop yourself from rolling down the hill and into the water.

So headsail changing is no mean feat and today we have done six in about eight hours.

There is a little demon on my shoulder that whispers to me every time I consider a change, not to bother; that it will either blow over and I can just cope with the boat being out of control for a while, or to just go slow and wait for the wind to fill in.

The demon was definitely on Phil’s shoulder when I suggested the last one, that was not a happy face, so much so I even volunteered to go and do the underwater bit at the front.

However one thing is for sure, if we want The Shed to stay ahead there can be no compromise on performance. It is tough with just two, very tiring and not enough time to catch your breath before the next round of tasks begins but we are being chased.

I feel like a proper Hare on the run. We were given a head start and the pack is after us. Fastrack VII in particular is nipping at our heels only a few miles behind. We must sail the boat to optimum and not give away a second of speed and that means changing sails up and down at the right time and not leaving it too late.

This leg is quite different from the last, when I was actively looking to see the other boats, to know if we were ahead or behind. This time I am looking over my shoulder at the distant Irish coast and scanning the horizon for a mast hoping like hell not to see one as that will mean they are catching up.

10th June

Now I know I am offshore racing.

I am sitting at the chart table, with a knee wedged against the side of the boat, bracing myself against the jolting slamming motion and having to pull the keyboard back uphill towards me with my finger tips while typing.

My hair is wet, my face is crusty with salt and stinging a little bit with sunburn, I am wearing drenched oilies and thermals which will not be coming off for the next two days.

It is great!

What a full on 12 hrs this has been, and more is promised for this leg.

The restart was a little bit odd; firstly punctuated by Rob on Jbellino getting his engine stuck in reverse. He started the engine to leave the dock and it immediately leapt straight back in reverse straight into the bows of The Shed. No damage done, we were more concerned about getting him to the start line. I offered him a tow but he decided to go out under his own steam, reversing a mile or so down the channel to the harbour mouth and managing to solve the problem on the way.

Then we all just hung around by the start line, and at our allotted time we hoisted the spinnakers and went.

It was interesting that even given a completely empty line; most of us chose different starting strategies, some on port gybe some on starboard and at different ends of the line.

I think I tested Phil’s cool by motoring up and down the line a few times changing my mind about which end and which side the kite should be on. In the end he told me we had a plan and we would stick with it, probably a good move as too much choice is always a problem for me.

Luckily the breeze filled in as we left into the night and we took the big spinnaker to the headland, then dropped it, gybed and hoisted the small one.

Then followed four hours of awesome full on night sailing. We took it in turns to steer and trim the kite and surfed our way into the night leaving a trail of sparkling phosphorence in our wake.

At night every other sense than sight is so much more heightened and last night, the noise of the boat surfing was in stereo around the boat. On the windward side a light rushing sound, then on the leeward side the water has a deep rumble as you start to surf, then to finish off the ensemble there is a ‘swoosh’ from the water coming off the rudder as you have been applying pressure and suddenly the boat turns and the water flows freely out of the back.

At the fastnet rock and still in the dark we had to take the spinnaker down. We left it too late and by this time the breeze had really kicked in.

Just wanting to turn and make the corner I suggested to Phil that we took the kite down and put the jib up afterwards as we would be able to turn the boat onto the correct course then.

Turns out this was not one of my better plans.

It was so windy that there was no shelter for the spinnaker to be snuffed, and even though I drove the boat dead down wind, when I release the sheet and guy ready for the snuffer, the spinnaker just started to fly fully powered up and out miles from the boat, wildly wandering around and threatening to roll us into a gybe or broach.

Hard work for Phil on the snuffer, the tough job here is to keep your feet on the deck as when you have the rope in your hands and are pulling down, if the kite fills from underneath, the snuffer will go back up again with force and take you with it.

But what can I say, Phil did not fly, or come back and push me overboard so it all worked out in the end.

Following that corner, we have sailed on past a number of beautiful Irish bays and headlands, in an out and out drag race with the rest of the fleet chasing hard from behind and us looking over our shoulders.

Finally we have got to the hard bit. Into the wind in lumpy seas and a strong breeze.

The sun is shining and the colour of the water is fantastic. Deep blue with breaking white foaming crests.

The waves are large and breaking over the boat. We have the Shed fully powered up with perhaps more sail than we should have but we need the umph to get through the sea.

The autopilot is a bit redundant in these conditions as part of the skill of keeping The Shed going is to weave a path through the waves, moving the bow one way to climb a wave, then trying to slide down the other side rather than just crashing off the top.

Sometimes you get it wrong and either a wave breaks over the deck. Rolling down towards you and hitting you straight in the face as punishment for poor skills, or The Shed, ploughs into or off a wave, this is like hitting a wall. The whole boat stops dead, there is a sharp splitting noise from the hull, and a juddering of the rig. The boat speed falls dramatically and you are left wallowing, trying to get going again.

For this reason we are doing shifts steering as it is hard to keep up concentration for long periods.

Sadly an hour ago we were just passed by Izara, the boat lying second overall. They were going in the opposite direction and so I assumed they had troubles. This has been confirmed and they have retired from the race with a split main.

They were only 2 minutes behind our first overall place and we were watching their progress all through the night. My heart goes out to them, I know of the disappointment of having to turn around due to gear failure, it doesn’t feel fair, but it is just part of offshore racing that you have to deal with. Things will break, it could be down to bad luck, or poor preparation, but we are competing in a harsh environment that will take its toll in some way shape or form.

Just got to keep The Shed moving fast and in one piece. Only that!

9th June

Jumpy? Unsettled? Can’t eat or sleep and keep forgetting where you have put things?

You must be suffering from the Leg 2 start syndrome, because those are exactly my symptoms and I know I am.

The Shed is sorted, and amid the thunderstorms and persistent rain of the day, Phil and I have crossed all the jobs off the list and are now just hanging around until we can start the race to Barra at 22h 28m 38s tonight.
Pip and Phil
The waiting is terrible. I know I should be in bed; we have decided that to maximise on our lead we really need to push The Shed hard in the first hour and a half before our next in class start themselves. My biggest fear would be that there will be no wind and we will sit just off the start line, until the others get out, but that is out of my hands. All we can do is sail with the wind we have.

The next leg will be a different affair entirely to the last.

At the moment the forecast is showing moderate northerly winds for around 36hrs so we will be beating up the coast of Ireland and watching for the wind to come round to the west which will be our signal to tack, some are saying the race will be won or lost on making the correct decision about the time to tack. – no pressure then!

The Shed should enjoy the upwind conditions; she has waterline length and is heavier displacement than my main rivals and so upwind sailing into waves should favour this design.

The race itself will be around 3 days long, 430 miles to windward. It will be cold and wet and the conditions will be physically punishing, slamming into waves and over on our ear for miles on end.

On the last leg we pushed really hard, foregoing sleep to make sure that both of us could be on deck and driving the boat at all times, but how long could we keep that up for?

I had a piece of advice from John Parker at Quantum East about a race strategy. He said it was important to recognise the key times when both of us would need to be on deck and pushing the boat. However for me I think it is the opposite; I am so keen to push all the time that I will need to recognise the times when we do not need to be on deck all the time and make the most of those, or I am in the danger of exhausting us both and sailing a great first day but losing performance after that. Time to change gears.

8th June

Kinsale Harbour – in the sun boat in bits around me.

The Shed sailed across the finish line of the first leg of the Round Britain and Ireland two handed race, at 22.28.38 last night.

First on the water in class 3 and first on handicap in our class as well. That will do!

What a first leg. It was a full on sprint really. The distance from Plymouth to Kinsale was so short the strategy for this leg seemed plain. Push hard and don’t give up until you hit the finish line, and that is what we did.

After a wet and wild afternoon with the spinnaker, the wind eased as expected and we had sailed ourselves into a position where we would be reaching in the lighter airs to the finish. The hope being we would be able to make good speed in the light airs close reaching with the spinnaker or the code zero.

The tactic seemed good but as we neared the shore, there was still no sight of any of our class. I was gripped by the immediate fear that splitting from the pack and doing our own thing had not been a good idea.

Visibility was terrible for the whole day, in the persistent rain, but all the competitors in this race are fitted with an AIS transponder sending out notification of your position, course and heading every minute or so.

Depending on where you’re the Ariel is sited you are able to pick up information about boats up to about 3 miles away. I am finding this to be a major distraction.

Every few minutes I will pop down to the computer and have a look at who is around and how fast they are going. The programme is mesmerizing, which is not necessarily a good thing. Of course the information is valuable, you can see if similar boats are going faster than you, and in what direction they are travelling which will give you an idea to their route and performance. However, I think it would be really easy to spend the whole day down below ‘virtual yachting’ concentrating on how fast and where your competitors are going, running routing software and playing with your polars, quite forgetting that there is a whole real world outside and the only person that will make your boat go fast is YOU.

30 miles out from the finish and there was still no sign of anyone, let alone our class. I started to worry but Phil very philosophically told me the dice were rolled, we just had to get on and go fast and find out the outcome in the end.

Eventually Fasttrack appeared on the computer first and then as the cloud cleared in real life. We were ahead by 2 miles.

The last time I saw Fasttrack had been leading the rest of the pack so we assumed and hoped that put us in first position.

There followed a tense few hours. Changing from the small spinnaker to the big spinnaker to the code zero, we ploughed on in a dwindling breeze, hoping to make it too the land before it died completely and hanging off every updated report on Fasttracks progress to see if they were gaining on us.

10 miles off and more boats appeared from the night, some broadcasting AIS data, others we did not pick up. Each one that appeared had us wondering if they were in our class.

2 miles from the line we had extended our lead and as the sun was setting did one last change from the code zero to the big spinnaker which sailed us over the line, and as we later found our to a first place.

Time to breath out.

And now the bit in between. I have discovered the stopovers are as much a part of the race as the sailing. Phil and I planned a strategy, making and prioritising a job list, checking the whole boat from top to bottom, sleeping, loading up the boat with food and spares for the next two legs as we assume Barra may be difficult and preparing for the next leg.

The boat was drenched when we arrived, not a dry thing onboard, but we were met by Ian, one of the Blue NG team who are supporting us on the race. He bought with him the hoover, heater, dehumidifier, tools and a car. So we took him to the pub.

Today the sun is shining everything is on deck drying. Ian has taken our sail away and had it repaired, he has just bought the shopping and Phil and I are working on getting the boat shedshape for the next leg.

Around us are all the fleet, flags flying, engines running, the Forties and Figaros, neatly parked with sails on deck, down our end of the dock there is a little more mess, a sign of leaking boats and broken kit. There is happy industry, a sharing of tools, light hearted banter and the odd beer floating around.

We are all friends again until we step on the water when no matter how relaxed the sailor, the competitive spirit will kick and we will sail to win.

6th June

50? 34.6’N 7?07.36’W
Crs 330 ? Spd 10 knots ( with a sneaky surf at 13.6!!!!!!!)

Well it is another typical June day in the St Georges channel between Lands End and Ireland. The sky is coming down to meet the sea in a seamless join of grey on grey. It has been raining for 5 hrs, a special kind of rain that is fine but persistent, working its way through layers of clothing, hair and skin to make damn sure you have a total understanding of the word saturated.

Visibility is poor and outside the grey there is really not a lot to see. But I know that somewhere in the gloom there are 112 total nutters, trying to race their way around Britain and Ireland and two of them are on The Shed, grinning like idiots, while we surf down the waves.

The start yesterday already feels like a million years ago. Phil and I have had less than an hour sleep each since the start gun went at 1215, every second has been important. We have worked the Shed non stop to try and achieve a winning position.

The days leading up to the start of the race have been fantastic. There was a great atmosphere between the race competitors, light hearted banter, swapping of tools, help and advice and a party atmosphere not all that conducive to getting some much needed pre-race sleep.

I have really enjoyed getting to know my fellow competitors, some of whom I met during the OSTAR, some I have raced with on the Solent and some new faces altogether.

The Shed is racing in a class of 11 boats, which looks like it could be the most competitive of the race. There are several boats, who have jostled against each other before, with similar ratings and competitive crews who race to win.

We have understood from the start that if we want to get a result for The Shed we must race from the word go, at all times concentrating on the job in hand and pushing as hard as we can.

at the startSo we have been true to our word. We crossed the start line in 5th position, sailing high to the committee boat and blocking out the band of last minute chancers who thought they could muscle their way onto the track.

Out to the Eddistone and we were working The Shed, both with brains and muscle. Every time the boat felt different we changed the settings, adjusting mast and sails for the new conditions and maintaining a balance between power and speed.

The work paid off through a long night and by the time we arrived at the Scilly Isles we were just leading a pack of boats from our class, all within a mile of each other despite having been racing for 15hrs. …..this is going to be a close race.

At the Scillies it was time to hoist the spinnaker and so out came our biggest one, the A4, and at this point we split from the fleet.

The wind is expected to back through this afternoon and to then shift to the west in the evening.

Our plan appears to differ from, the rest of our pack as we went hooning off down wind towards Ireland as fast as we could, the rest of the spinnakers disappeared into the murk leaving us alone to play in the surf.

It has been a bit of a trial by fire for Phil. We put up the big kite and then the wind increased to 25knots but I was having fun surfing the waves, pulling of 12 and 13knots regularly and grinning all over, so there would be no persuading me to take it down.

When I handed to helm to Phil I gave him a loaded Shed and so stayed on deck ready to assist should he need.

After a while tiredness crept in and I needed to close my eyes so I pulled up my colour and sat on the cockpit floor in the rain and Phil had the instruction to wake me by shouting ‘sheet’ or ‘guy’ so I could spring into action from the floor and know immediately which line to release to save us from our impending doom.

The boat settled down and so I put my head down to writing this blog at the computer.

Three lines down the page and I am being thrown across the cabin, just catching a mouse and a keyboard and knocking the contents of a coffee jar on the floor.

We had been overpowered by a wave and the spinnaker and the boat had broached and was patiently lying on its side, sails flapping, waiting for me to come on deck and let some ropes go.

All sorted, back upright and sailing today. I am into the second paragraph and again airborne.

This time as I came up through the hatch I said ‘do you want me to drive for a bit?’ To which the answer was a definite ‘yes’ and I had to take over while we were still going sideways and flat.

Eventually even I had to concede we had too much sail up, so down came the big kite; up went the little one and we are only surfing at 10 knots now, but life seems to be a lot calmer.

The finish line is 60 miles away, and I have no idea where the rest of the fleet are. All we can do is push on. When the wind eases the A4 will go back up and neither of us will sleep now until we are across the line.

I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror just now. I am a drowned rat; my fingers are so wrinkled from the rain they feel like they belong to someone else. I am drenched through but the thing that stands out are my eyes. All the lines have gone, they are bright and my face looks stress free.

It has been a mission getting everything in place to compete in this race, but now we are here I would rather be nowhere else. I may be soaked, sore, hungry and tired, but no face cream could transform me like this.

It is the competition, the love of sailing, travelling and adventures, using every resource available, brain, brawn, technology and some old fashioned seamanship, to get to that finish line ahead of the pack.