Racing: The Fastnet 2007

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Its early Friday morning ,  two days to go ,  and we have just crossed the channel at the end of an idyllic 2 weeks of weather. I idly look at the forecast expecting more of the same .

Bloody hell! I am staring at the forecast from hell! A deep and unpredictable  set of lows are due to cross the course on Tuesday with 50 knots on the grib ( which means 60 in fact).  A few phone calls later and it seems no one else has spotted it  yet , so a council of war is summoned that night.

Plainly this is beyond my experience, and indeed that of my dinghy sailing crew. We hatch a plan based on  getting as far as we can before the weather breaks and taking shelter until the conditions moderate.

At Saturdays briefing there is general feeling of relief  as the race is postponed  25 hours , and I spend the time making the loo seat gale proof. We decide to go with our Dacron main and the cockpit tent to help dry out if we stop.

Its Monday , and we are off , with 17 knots, rapidly building to 22. This is significantly more than the grib. The island shore just pays so we are 4th out of the Solent , but only have a French 332 ahead by the Needles. After an hour and a half on starboard , the first backing shift comes in and we tack , laying a course that will pass 6 miles off Portland , and in plenty of time to be ahead of the gate. So far so good. We are racing the weather more than the fleet but still need to get every inch of speed to take us to the relatively benign waters west of Start

Each piece of weather information is anxiously analysed , and the hope is that we can get past Start before it really blows. We change down to the No3 and 1 reef  at dusk to keep ahead of the game.  At 2000 an updated warning comes through , S 8 soon and SW 9 later. The wind is now South and we are fetching at 7.5 knots for a point 5 M S of Start. It increases to 28 and we slab the second reef  and soon after its 35. We have 1 hour to Start Point and will soon have a lee shore . Its decision time .

The night is pitch black and the waypoint just off Berry Head is downwind and offers a safe approach . I don’t see us carrying on with this new forecast and make the decision to bear away . We surf down some impressive waves and anchor just west of Brixham harbour.

Was I right?  In retrospect we had another half an hour to make decisions before we came near a lee shore and should have snugged down – probably to trysail and No 3, and got more crew below. Most boats reported 40 knots off Plymouth and no particular problems off Start ( although we believe the Salcombe lifeboat went out for 3 boats –including  a broken mast and a broken leg) . We probably should also have mentally rehearsed the scenario and decided on a more corporate way of reaching this sort of decision. Perhaps also , a core part of the crew should deliberately seek experience in these conditions. Of course the retrospectoscope is coloured by the fact that a Sigma 38 crew with significantly less experience than us carried on to win the class.

On the positive side , we had a nice few days thrashing about the West country , boat and crew are in one piece  – and the loo seat is now rock solid!,



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