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.