Fastnet Race Done

It is over. We crossed the finish line at 21:09 last night coming in 17th in double handed class and 33rd in Class 3 which all things considered is probably the result we deserved.

The last couple of days have been hard work in every way and at no point could I justify half an hour out to write about what we were doing, we were far too busy doing it.

The atmosphere at Plymouth Yacht Haven is incredible, boats are just everywhere, rafted up to every possible piece of pontoon, hundreds of Rolex Fastnet flags flying in the breeze and a load of punch drunk sailors wandering around in a happy, tired haze.

The chat on the dock and in the bar is never ending, the weather, the tide, good luck tales of woe and ‘what about those French in their JPKs?’

On Flair we have been up and down the results like a yoyo. We had our fair share of bad luck but also made some bad decisions.

The first half of the race to Lands End was definitely about tactics, we made some good choices and some bad choices.

We worked amazingly hard to try after our bad first night finding wind along the shore line up to the Lizard, we changed headsails diligently swapping between code zero, spinnaker and jib, letting the pilot drive a straight line and both of us hands on trimming sails constantly.

At Lands End we chose to go North around the TSS when the majority of the fleet went to the South, believing we had an opportunity to ride up around the top on the tide and get ahead that way, however when the wind completely died out the tide was taking us to Wales and where other boats around us were managing to ghost along Flair IV with her two toilets and heavy interior refused to budge and anchoring was the only option.

Anchoring in 50 metres of water is quite an art; you need to find every spare piece of string on the boat and tie it all together, this for us included a spare halyard and some reel ends of 4mm dyneema which when under load are a bit like anchoring on cheese wire. It is pretty easy to drop this down but once the time comes to pick it up again anchoring didn’t seem so great a thing to do and when you are struggling with a tiny thin piece of string which the boat is now trying to sail against the words ‘cut it’ are constantly on the tip of your tongue.

By the time the breeze filled in and we had managed to get the anchor back onboard we were well back down the results again. The boats to the South had all started moving and it was again time for us to roll up our sleeves and have another stab at sailing fast.

The second half of the race then became all about boat speed.

The Irish sea soon kicked up it’s usual offering of grey sky, messy seas, rain, low visibility and before we knew it we were beating to the rock in 25 knot gusts.  I have sailed around the Fastnet rock five times now and every time the conditions have been the same regardless of the time of year.

The chase back down the Irish sea was great, we had boats in our site and set our minds to slowly pick them off one by one, then in the middle of the night, there was a huge bang and the code zero dropped from the top of the rig into the water.

Ash had been sleeping below and was up on deck like a flash, the boat was still making six knots under pilot but luckily as the head of the sail was completely free it was just streaming along on top of the water next to the boat so we reached over the side and hauled it back in with no damage. A quick check of the head showed that the splice in the top of the torsion rope for the sail had blown apart. The top of the furling gear was still up the mast but there was no alternative way for us to hoist the sail anyway, we would not be able to use it again.

This really was a blow, without the code zero we were under powered and still had 50 miles to sail to the Scillies which had to be done under jib instead. There were no other options

From the Scillies onwards we would need to try and fly the spinnaker to gain any chance of staying ahead so we took the opportunity to bank some sleep on those final miles ready for the spinnaker at the corner.

Things started to look up again once we had the spinnaker up and we screeched past the Scilly Islands with the boat heeled hard over, reaching with spinnaker to the absolute limit, straining shoulder muscles steering hard to keep going in a straight line.

We were going like a train, on the edge but some great sailing and back in the game.

This time I was below taking a twenty minute power nap when there was another big bang and this time the spinnaker fell down from the mast head. The halyard had chafed through.

By now well practiced at this recovery, the sail was back on board in a couple of minutes and we were left with 60 miles of downwind sailing to the finish and no ability to hoist a spinnaker, the code zero halyard was still at the top of the mast with the furling gear attached and the other halyard a gonna.

After some deliberation we decided the only option was to sail bear headed and send Ash up the rig on the jib halyard to go and get the code zero one back down.

The sea state was starting to pick up so it was important to do this sooner rather than later, so we set the pilot to steer a little higher, harnessed Ash up and off he went.

Climbing a mast at sea is a horrendously scary thing to do, even if you are rock hard. If you are half way up and let go of the rigging so will be swung like a pendulum as the boat rolls, with no control. So for Ash having to climb all the way up and then somehow use a free hand to grab the furling gear and halyard was not fun. He was successful but in coming down was only holding on with one hand and so was catapulted twice around the shroud above the second set of spreaders which meant although we could still lower him down we would then not be able to use the jib halyard.

The only solution to this problem was to drop Ash down to the spreader, which he sat on, then with the spare caribena on his harness hooked directly onto the shroud, undid the jib halyard from his harness and unwound it from the shroud. I can assure you performing all of these feats some 15 metres above the deck and while being rocked around in a moderate sea state is not fun.

All went well and after about half an hour we were back under spinnaker again and charging for the finish line.

The final leg into Plymouth and the finish line rewarded us with some classic downwind surfing conditions. We did short stints on the helm as surfing the waves was physically hard work and we were both exhausted and starting to suffer from intense neck and shoulder pain from working one side of our bodies so hard on the steering wheel.

The carefully balanced diet of the rest of the race flew out of the window and we lapsed to drinking coffee, Lucozade and eating another we could get our hands on in an effort to just stay on it long enough to the finish. If you were not steering you were pumping the main down the waves, or making rocket fuel strength coffee or trimming the kite.

We crossed the finish line feeling like we had given it everything, the Fastnet race has a justified reputation, it is tough, the calibre of sailing is incredible, the course is demanding and with so many boats in each class a mistake or misdemeanour could lose you positions in a matter of minutes.  Sailing the course double handed is incredibly tough and we found that even more so in a boat that was not designed to be sailed in this way.

I am really delighted to have finally taken part; and yes I am revved up to do it again. Next time, more practice, more preparation and perhaps no Cowes Week just before.

The RORC have made the Fastnet an incredible event to participate in, the atmosphere both at the start and the finish have been incredible.  There is good reason this race sold out of entries in half an hour, not only is it an incredible achievement to have sailed the course but the racing is hugely competitive and the buzz at created by the race organisers makes you feel really special.

 

I’d rather be Sailing

 

I have to admit this race is not exactly going the way we had hoped.

Despite the lack of breeze the start of the Fastnet was an amazing experience. From early in the morning when the first crews in the marina started rigging their storm sails, passing through the identity gate with all the other boats, the noise from helicopters and spectator boats, and then finally that gun.

A complete lack of wind left an amusing spectacle of the incredible MOD 70s starting the race and then just staying put just metres from the line, proving that even the sailing gods have lead boots at times.

With absolutely no wind and a strong tide running our only concern at the start was at all costs not to be over the line. There were tense moments as with a minute and half to the gun we had no steerage and had turned side onto the line but with no hope of stemming the tide.  Ash was driving and silently was mulling over in his head whether he could cope with five days on a boat with me had we been over. We weren’t so civil relations are maintained.

Sailing out of the solent took patience and skill however with a few practice days of light wind sailing in Cowes week under our belts we were away and able to pick our way through the boats upwind and be in the first pack of IRC yachts leaving the Solent.

The big boys caught up with us in the Needles channel which included a port and starboard with Comanche, who according the racing rules ducked behind us as the Starboard boat leaving me at the helm feeling slightly terrified as a bow sprit followed by a bow man wearing a headset staring at us loomed over the back of our cockpit.

We all made the most of the dying sea breeze, tacking through Poole Bay until the tide turns and then heading offshore.  That’s when it all went horribly wrong.

Life was good until midnight, we had great boat speed and were holding our own against the whole fleet but in the early hours of the morning Flair IV started sailing very slowing and became a victim of the tide.

As part of the course and as a safety consideration yachts taking part in the Fastnet race are not allowed to enter any part of the Traffic Separation Schemes along the course. These TSS areas are where ships converge from all areas to enter a defined channel and all non-commercial traffic is obliged to keep clear.

Onboard Flair IV last night we were left with no wind to guide the direction of the boat and the tide was slowly sucking us sideways into the TSS.  For a couple of hours there was nothing we could do, we felt resigned to taking the 20% time penalty that is dished out to any competitors breaking this rule; however at the last moment some breeze kicked in to save us and we were able to make just enough ground against the tide to sail up and over the North corner of the TSS. Though relieved to have missed this fate our great standing in the race to that moment was utterly destroyed as we sailed backwards to get out of trouble while the rest of our competitors made ground to the Fastnet Rock.

This morning we have had to take stock, we are both deeply disappointed to be so far back in the fleet, these places will be incredibly hard to make back again and over the next 36hrs we are expecting more light and patchy breeze and calms with a chance for the tide yet again to have its wicked way.

Trying to race in no wind is one of the most frustrating and heart rending things you can do, it’s not relaxing, it’s tense, it seems unfair, hours and hours of steady work can be undone in a couple of hours.  This is some form of torture.

But the sun is shining, we are coaxing the boat along under code zero, we had a top breakfast benefitting from the fact with only two on this boat we do not have to be hugely weight sensitive so frying pans are allowed and we are back on the track and chasing from behind. Even when things are really disappointing, it’s not all that bad.

 

Up or Down a gear?

 

Yesterday was not a day I am going to cut out and keep in my scrap book of memories.

It should have been a really nice day.  Following six days of demanding racing with a new crew on every day, I peeled off on Thursday night leaving Ash to bag our Cowes Week 2nd in Class on Friday  while I had a wonderfully chilled out sail across Poole Bay bringing our Fastnet entry Flair IV up to the Solent.

Thank goodness we had the forethought to prepare the boat so thoroughly a couple of weekends ago, tools, spares, food, water, clothing all neatly boxed and bagged down below it really appeared there was not much to do on Saturday to prepare for the race start Sunday.  Cowes Week is tiring at the best of times but this year seemed especially challenging with lighter and variable winds the focus and concentration required to keep the boat moving was immense and at the end of the day my brain just wanted to relax, not start thinking about a 600 mile race to Ireland and back.

The plan for yesterday seemed so simple: go through the safety checklist, buy fresh food, top up with diesel and water then prepare the race navigation. The sun was shining, there was a gentle buzz of activity around Cowes Yacht Haven as Cowes week boats left and those flying the white and green Rolex flag arrived to take their places but the Gremlins were seriously ripping it up on board Flair IV and my mood descended from quietly confident, through slightly stressed to complete despair by 1700.

The boat was fine, all physical sailing things were in good order however yesterday my aged lap top which I brought with my earnings from Cowes Week in 2009 decided to finally let go.  In truth it was about time; this lap top has had a more exciting life than most, it came round Britain and Ireland on the Shed and even did my qualification for the mini transat. Perhaps a Fastnet was just one offshore race too much for an aged machine.

The palaver that followed I am not sure I will ever be able to look back on and laugh, phone calls, emails, downloading programmes, finding they won’t talk to other programmes on your new computer, trying to recreate all of the familiar settings and short cuts into the night when you are stressed and tired will never be considered as fun.

Perhaps it wasn’t the wisest of decisions to compete in Cowes week and then go straight on to a double handed Fastnet race.  Cowes week is an entirely different pace of racing it is intense but short, you have time to turn off between races, opportunity to put things right the next day. Offshore racing is always on and we are looking at days of sailing to cover this 600 mile course. Yesterday I was struggling to find the right gear to move onto a very different sort of racing.

Thanks to Nick White at Expedition in New Zealand who was helping me on a Sunday (thank goodness for the time difference). I am all set up and ready to go.

The skippers briefing last night was rammed full of expectant sailors clamouring to hear an encouraging word about the weather; the talk on the dock is of super yachts stashing more water and food and sailors being removed from crew lists as this race is looking long.

Light and Variable winds force three or less’ was the well-used phrase in our weather briefing last night and the grib file I have downloaded this morning is saying nothing different for the next couple of days.

This race is going to be a long one, but finally Ash and I are ready and we are up for it. And for those that are wondering, despite the fact we will be sailing the same size boat as in Cowes week but with 10 crew less on board, there is no gear change required. We will still be pushing as hard as we can, but lifting our gaze to the horizon instead of the next mile of water.

Follow our progress on Flair IV here

 

Follow our progress on Flair IV here

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Hudson Wight step on board for the Fastnet

Cowes week is in full swing and with a 2nd and a 3rd in the bag we are feeling buoyed up on Cazenove Capital Management. The weather for the last weekend has been amazing and the blistering hot sunshine has left us without much of a thought to what the Irish Sea might have to offer up to us next week.

Our Fastnet preparations to date have been very boat focussed; any boat owner will know there is a never ending job list attached to every vessel, always something to change, service, or upgrade.  It is easy when thinking about making your boat as race worthy as possible to forget that the crew driving the boat also need to be race worthy, this is especially pertinent when slogging to windward for days on end offshore.

This week however, someone else has stepped in to prepare Ash and I for the Fastnet and we are really pleased to announce that Hudson Wight have become our official clothing sponsors for the Fastnet Race.  It really does add an extra layer of confidence before an offshore race knowing that no matter how bad the weather you and your boat can stand up to it.  Taking wave after wave on the chin is all well and good so long as it’s only the chin that gets wet.

The Irish sea and South West British Coast can offer up any sorts of seas and weather in August, my previous encounters with ‘the rock’ have all involved some sort of epic wind and waves but I have never been there at this time of year before.  The excitement of this race is really starting to build and there is a weird contrast of focussing on the inshore racing at Cowes during the day with a building tension in the mornings and evenings as we start to look at the upcoming weather and go through our lists again and again. Today we will go to the RORC race office in the high street and pick up our sailing instructions.

With our new Hudson Wight kit one more piece of preparation is sorted and very soon the start gun will go and then it will be down to Ash Harris and I to make it all happen.

 

Fastnet Minus Fourteen

 

pip profileLast year I took a break from Ocean Racing; I needed some time out to take stock of the rest of my life which had been hanging around the peripheries of one race or another. Between 2009 and 2013 I was lucky enough to run a major racing campaign of my own every year but that required a unique kind of single mindedness and sacrifice, a ridiculous level of multi-tasking and often the need to stick my head in the sand about life in general and just move towards the goal.

2014 for me was about tidying up and trying to bring life back to some level of normality (though my kind of normal might not meet a dictionary definition). I enjoyed some excellent inshore racing, managed to get to the end of a 50 mile ultra-marathon and paid back my outstanding debts with the sale of my much loved class mini boat ‘The Potting Shed’. I even had a holiday.

 

But with no surprise the Ocean started eating away at my heart and my head by the end of the year; following 16 years of owning an ocean going boat (a couple of years of owning two!) it feels like imprisonment not just to be able to go out there.

Britain started out as the home of the epic offshore race.  We have kicked off the first ever Single handed round the world race, the single handed transatlantic race, the ‘Mini-Transat’ started in the UK as did the original version of the ‘Volvo Ocean Race’.  These races have now been either superseded by other bigger events of the same kind or are hosted in other countries but there is still one revered and classic offshore race which will remain forever British.

 

The Fastnet race this year sold out its full entry list within 25 minutes of opening on January 12th this and Ash Harris and I are lucky enough to have one of those entries.  We have borrowed Flair IV from our good friend and sailing legend Jim MacGregor who himself will be competing fully crewed aboard Premier Flair.11755239_877587872278150_8580699659741668587_n

The Fastnet, has a fearsome reputation and the sad tragedy of the 1979 race changed the way offshore racing is managed worldwide forever, and taught the whole sailing industry many hard lessons about yacht design and safety practices.  But still sailors from all over the world will line up to start this race on the 16th of August having sailed many miles and jumped through many hoops to meet the qualification requirements.

The course will take us from the start line at Cowes, along the South Coast of the UK around the Fastnet Rock off Southern and then to the finish in Plymouth.  It is 600 miles of water that can dish up the most brutal conditions a sailor may ever face.

 

Ash and I will be among a class of 30+ boats (numbers still to be confirmed) who have decided to sail the race two up, pushing ourselves and our boat as hard and as fast as our bodies will allow.

Race preparation for us has been more than just the qualifying races and safety training, over the past six months we have been working to adapt Flair IV, originally designed to be raced by a crew of ten, to a boat that can race these 600 miles with just two on-board.

Among other modifications we have needed to fit an autopilot and once again the amazing team at Raymarine have stepped up to support my racing.  I signed up as a Raymarine Ambassador in 2011 when they supplied the entire electronics package for my Pogo 2.  In fitting out Flair IV I have required a trustworthy autopilot that could be integrated with existing electronic systems already installed and the Raymarine Evolution Autopilot has exactly met our needs. Many thanks to Raymarine for again supporting British Short Handed Racing.

The next two weeks leading up to the race start are of course complicated in a manner that only my life seems to be with travels to the Isle of Man for work, visits from Parents, a full weeks racing on a different boat in Cowes Week and then a one day rest before the Fastnet.

This weekend has been a frenzy of organisation, I have packed four separate bags for different events, we have run through the safety checklist on the boat including deployment of storm sails, I have cooked and frozen meals for five days of racing, written endless lists of things I must not but surely will forget and mapped out a crazy schedule of moving around on cars, boats, trains, ferries and other boats to make sure that at least most of our kit does not end up abandoned on the Isle of Wight when we start on the 16th.

For most of this year the Fastnet just felt like something in the distance, it was not the same as my other campaigns which have been the main focus of everyday life, this race has been just a detail.  But now having pulled out my charts with so many stories and had them in my hands once again, having planned and thought through repair kits and spares galore and tried to think through every detail of the race, I can visualise it and feel the excitement starting to build.  I am bursting to go,  It is less than two weeks to the start of the Fastnet race and I cannot wait!

I will be blogging throughout the race so check out this site and my Facebook page for updates and you can follow the race tracker here.

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Preparation is everything