Racing: The Fastnet 2005

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There is a theory that you have to try everything once, except perhaps incest and Morris dancing, and it was pretty much this theory that led us to be on the Fastnet start line with all the boxes ticked on the qualification form , 9 sets of kit stowed into stuff lockers around the boat and enough food in the bilges to feed us for weeks. There should have been an equivalent amount of water - but thats another story.
The start went well and we led our class up to Beaulieu where we lost the lead to the 47 foot "Sleeper" . A light Northerly wind , 2 hours of foul tide and a tidal gate at Portland 8 hours later put a premium on getting away smartly and by and large we succeeded , drifting down the Needles channel and getting first into the sea breeze. Most of those behind us held onto the Northerly by going out of the North channel - and by St Albans it seemed they had marginally the better of it - but by no more than 1/4 of a mile.With 2 hours of ebb to go , the Portland tidal gate looked just about manageable , until the wind started to soften suggesting that a safe offshore route was in order. Suddenly I noticed the boats ahead and inshore were lifted hugely on starboard , so we tacked back in to hook into this shift.
It was a disaster ! We hooked into the NW shift as planned , but it died to about 5 knots , whilst offshore the boats romped away in the sea breeze which seemed to be retreating with them. In desperation we tacked into Portland and flew down the eddy on its Eastern shore . But we were too late . Despite passing within spitting distance of the rocks , the current roaring down the Western edge of the Bill whisked us off to sea leaving us to dive back into the eddy and try again. Pretty soon we were joined by boat after boat doing a bizarre nautical version of an eightsome reel , circling round and round . Each newcomer would come racing in certain that they were onto a good thing only to be swept cruelly SE as they met the ever increasing current and joined the party of circling boats. Most eventually broke off and sagged off into the South but I fellt that the breeze would fail sweeping them into the race with no chance of anchoring - and instead we chose to anchor within spitting distance of the Bill to await a change in tide or wind. I was wrong on every count. The NW wind was just enough to keep the boats clear of the race and when it veered into the North they were out of the worst of the tide and romped away. We meanwhile watched as the tail enders came through and eventually a Sigma 33 seemed to be stemming the tide so we upped hook and followed . The wind had increased and veered since our last attempt and we painfully inched our way North and out of the worst of the tide before hoisting a kite and starting the long chase .
washing up in seawater due to the... er... issues with the water...

This whole experience had made us fairly allergic to headlands , so plan B was to get offshore and keep the wind whilst those inshore lost it as the Northerly fought against the sea breeze. This was fine in theory , but in practice the wind went down as the sun came up and with infinite patience we struggled from catspaw to catspaw. Were we last? In desperation I climbed to the mast head in search of wind and other competitors but saw neither. The second night saw a return of the Northerly and we tuned into the Net to plan our Irish sea strategy. It seemed that a NE wind would eventuall back NW to W so we dove off well to the South of the rhumb hoping to be to weather when this eventually happened.

It was a long crossing. By Tuesday night we were able to guage our position as the fleet reported in to the safety boat on the Labardie bank. We were not last , and were within 5 miles of No Fear so perhaps our Southerly course had already paid some dividends - but there were plenty of boats well in front. By now , what wind there was was from ahead and the forecast was for it to shift sometime on Wednesday so watch after watch obsessionally inched the boat forwards. It was about this time we discovered that we had inadvertantly drained one tank of water at the start - would it last to the end of what was now looking to be a very long slow race?
Actually if it wasnt for the fact that we were struggling at the back , conditions were very pleasant. Light winds are perfectly bearable in flat seas - and these were as smooth as a babies bottom and teeming with wildlife. Families of dolphin and porpoise , sharks and sunfish all swam gently around us whilst the offwatch had plenty of opportunity to sleep read and eat prodigiously. The sun shone , and there was none of the squalour that happens in rough weather so all we needed was that shift and life would be perfect.
After several false starts it did indeed come , and gradually built to a solid 17 knots that delivered us to within a mile of the Rock with suddenly large numbers of boats under our lee. It seemed that there were 5 class 3 boats ahead of us and we had dug ourselves back into the race. The forecast promised us moderate to fresh NW winds all the way home which was a mixed blessing . On the one hand it would be nice to be swept home under kite - but on the other hand it gave little chance to reel back the leaders. Nonetheless we set off surfing downwind and trimmed like the very devil all night to be rewarded by a Sigma 38 just under our lee at dawn . It proved to be Premier Cru , and she told us that Vitesse was about an hour ahead. Through the day we dropped Premier Cru astern and by the Scillies could just make out Vitesse 5 miles ahead. From the Lizard it was a tight spinnaker reach so we stacked the rail - brewed endless pots of strong coffee , turned the stereo up to full volume and raced off through the night at 8.5 knots.
Vitesse beat us in by 20 minutes , leaving us 4th in class 3A and 26th overall and 100 places ahead of Maximus! We fell badly at the first hurdle - but picked ourselves up and probably sailed a very good race from Portland onwards to get a respectable , if not spectacular result. It must have been the most comfortable Fastnet for years , and everyone seems to have thouroughly enjoyed it , which brings us back to the Morris dancing analogy - we did it once and could have done it much better . Dammit , we might have to do it again!
Oh , and the water ran out at Penlee point , 1 mile from the finish!



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