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.


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