THE FASTNET RETOLD
The Fastnet and other crazy dreams.
This year’s Fastnet race is something I will remember and smile about for the rest of my life.
The race played out in a way I never could have imagined; who would think it was possible to lead this race in a 20-year-old boat? But we did and I am still grinning.
Warning: this is a long one.
Searching back through my memories, trying to find the words to describe the race as it happened, I’m struggling to identify specific moments in time. Rather than three days defined by the rising and setting of the sun this was 57 hours of intense activity, the pace was relentless, our brains and our bodies never stopped moving and the race evolved into a beautiful story that will never leave my memories.
For those that need a bit of a recap, this was my second race in class IMOCA and I was sailing double handed with world speed sailing record holder Paul Larsen. The Fastnet is the shortest race of the IMOCA series, it’s just 600 miles – a near sprint for boats of this calibre – and completion of this course goes towards the cumulative mileage that qualifies a skipper to take part in the Vendee Globe race next year.
We left Poole early on Saturday morning, heading eastwards back along the first part of the course, with a delivery crew of friends onboard and making our final preparations for the race ahead. Arriving at the starting line we through ourselves into the mix of noise and activity as all manner of yachts filed through the identification gates with storm sails hoisted, then started jostling for position as the starting time drew closer. I was surprised by how many people shouted hello’s in the hour we spent getting ready for the start – I’ve never had that much social interaction pre-start before – but then realised it comes from driving a large boat with your name on the side; an easy target to greet.
As part of the official IMOCA globe series the Fastnet race this year drew an impressive entry from our 60 ft class. There were 20 in all, including the newest foiling boats in the fleet and many Vendee Globe race veterans. The fleet comprised of 12 foiling boats and 8 without foils. The age of the boats spanned from year 2000 to freshly launched. Superbigou was the oldest boat in the fleet and is of course non-foiling. At the start of the race Paul and I carefully laid out our objectives. This is a vital part of every race performance; it gives you perspective, a reason to keep pushing, a bench mark to work against. It defines what could be considered to as doing well and allows you to compare ‘apples with apples’. Our objective was set in relation to the non-foiling boats; we acknowledged we were the oldest boat and there were others in the fleet who had had their boats for longer, putting more hours than us into the development and training. We bench marked 15thout of the 20 as a good result and set Group Setin – a well prepared and well sailed non-foiling boat as our target to try and keep up with.
If you are scratching your head about the difference in boats here is a quick jargon buster to unravel the mysteries.
IMOCA: This is the class we race in. The boats are not the same but have to conform to the same set of rules. Loosely this means all boats are built within the same parameters: length, height, draught, beam – but so long as they fit these rules anything goes. As one would expect design develops over time making the newer boats more powerful and theoretically quicker.
FOILS: The latest development in the IMOCA class is the use of foils which are effectively ‘wings’ that stick out of the side of the hulls, increasing the righting moment when under sail and working to lift the hull out of the water. Foils increase the potential power of the boat and when working properly have greatly increased boat speeds especially with the wind on the side or behind. Foils however, do not work in low wind speeds and in these conditions can sometimes add more drag and slow the boat down.
As the starting time neared, I became less and less aware of my surroundings until the world had shrunk to me, Paul and the line. In total contrast to starting my first race of the year the Bermudes 1000, and despite this being the first time of really lining up against stars of the fleet I was completely calm, focussed on making a good start and it all felt natural. Paul and I agreed on our strategy, he took the helm, I managed navigation and the sails and as the final minute counted down in the background we charged for the line, like we had a right to be there crossing in 3rdposition with grins on our faces and excitement to show the world what we could do. Leaving the Solent was an incredible buzz, we were surrounded by chase ribs, helicopters hovered over the fleet and we were in the pack, in the game.
We held our mid fleet position out of the Solent, making a last-minute decision to head north of the shingles sandbank and over taking a few foiling boats in the process. The breeze was dying as we headed across Christchurch bay, the entire fleet was expecting the wind to shut down through the night and our sole objective was to get as far west as possible before it did.
Somewhere between the Needles and Portland Bill, about five hours into the race, Paul and I made the decision that shaped the whole story of our race. Our fleet – indeed the entire race in general were all choosing to reach offshore in the belief when the wind shut down it would fill in more quickly the further South you were on the course. Our plan had always been to get as far down the rhumb line as we could. We needed to make Superbigou sail as fast as was possible which meant using our biggest sail, and as I don’t yet have the budget for a full wardrobe of sails I had only one big sail to choose from and the shape of this sail would not allow us to head South with the rest of the pack. We had to split from the fleet and make our own tracks.
So, we peeled to the big spinnaker and sailed the boat hard, pushing through the evening, watching the rest of the fleet melt into the horizon – the foiling boats streaking away under all of their power and the rest gently splitting tracks. With no phone signal we could not see positions on the tracker and very soon most boats were out of AIS range. The wind started to die as we sailed into the expected transition, but Superbigou just keep trucking on.
There is only so much of sailing your own course a person can take – at some point the desire to know how your competitors are doing becomes overwhelming, it eats away at you so just after 9 pm, despite having resolved to keep satellite airtime to a minimum, I logged onto the tracker to see just how we were getting and immediately laughed out loud. ‘You’ll never guess how we are doing’, I called up to Paul on the helm, ‘go on…’ he said. At the news that we were first in the IMOCA class and 2ndoverall in the entire fleet he also burst into laughter. We couldn’t believe it, everyone had parked up to the south of us and were drifting backwards on the tide, meanwhile we continued to sail.
It was a moment of glory for sure…. But it would be short lived, these things always are.
The wind died away to the feintest of zephyrs as we approached Start Point, it was dark, we had been fully focussed for nearly 12 hours and we knew we had to keep the boat moving at all costs. We changed sails, moved all the weight to the front of the boat, every movement was considered, we hand steered focussing hard on the sails; my nerves started to jangle with the pressure of keeping the boat moving. That is the problem with doing better than you expected, all of a sudden you want to keep your place (a place deep down you feel know you should not have), you start to fight for what seems improbable; what I thought would be impossible, to be ahead of the fleet at this stage was suddenly a reality and it started to matter.
There was little moon so we shone a torch on the sails to keep track of our course; every ripple of cloth, every heel of the boat or lift of a tell-tale required a gentle and appropriate reaction from the helm. Our newly upgraded keel canting system came into its own as we trimmed the keel regularly to suit the sails. Operating in in a bubble of torch light in the inky black night enhanced the intensity of the experience. We pushed through the darkness, exchanging views on strategy and sail trim; both of us determined we should never let this boat stop. We agreed entirely on the strategy of following the rhumb line, the breeze may fill in first offshore but we had made our path and just needed to doggedly keep heading down it, never giving the opportunity to stop.
Through the night as we came in and out of mobile phone signal, my phone would periodically ping from the night owls who were up ‘dot watching’ on the tracker. Messages of dis-belief, elation, encouragement were regularly coming in. At one point we led the entire fleet on the water ahead not only of all of the IMOCAs, but of fully crewed multi-million-euro yachts. We laughed hard and sailed hard, ever surprised that we were keeping the lead over a couple of hours.
Paul and I taking it in turns to snatch 30 mins sleep on the beanbag in the hatchway. The wind never dropped to below three knots, it pushed us into the bay off Plymouth then lifted us back out to round the Lizard. At the Lizard we caught the last of the tide to push us around the headland and once again were in mobile phone range. It was seven in the morning, we had been racing for 19 hours and we were still leading the IMOCA fleet.
It’s hard to put into perspective what an incredible event this was. We just shouldn’t have been there. In an old boat, with a scratch budget against the kind of competition in our fleet. We hadn’t just broken the odds we had smashed them – getting ahead at start point seemed like a blip, it was something to laugh about, a different tactic that had paid off but we fully expected the moment to pass by quickly and for normal service to be resumed. But to still be ahead after a full night of racing seemed unthinkable. We were slightly stunned by the whole thing but fully engaged in keeping our lead. The fleet offshore were now starting to move and all of them coming in to join us. One boat ‘Arkea’ a brand-new foiling machine had come in early and we could see them behind. The rest were heading inshore to take up positions following our track. We knew it would be over soon …. The turning point around the Scillies was not far ahead, what if we could hold our lead until then?
As we beat our way across Mounts bay more of the fleet appeared on the horizon, it was like watching an advancing army or a pack of hunting animals. They started out as blips, but slowly grew, at least heading upwind the speed differential was less and we fought for every tenth of a knot to hold these newer boats off. With just four miles to the Scillies we knew our time was up when Charal – Jeremy Beyou’s fulling foiling machine appeared much further to the south, reaching in at an angle that maximised power from the foils and with a clean view of sky between its hull and the water beneath. This boat was flying in every sense of the word and our moment of glory was near its end. By the time we reached the Scillies three boats had over taken us, Charal, Banque Populaire with Vendee Winner Armel Le Cleac’h and finally Sam Davies on Iniatives Couers who along with co-skipper Paul Meilhat (who once coached me in my mini transat) came out on deck, waving and showing us clenched fists in a congratulatory salute of strength. Rounding the Scillies several more boats passed, we were now reaching, the most powerful point of sailing for foiling boats and though we pushed the Superbigou hard, on straight line speed she could not match.
The rest of the race we fought hard for every place, through the grey murk and building breeze to the Fastnet rock Superbigou was fully powered up, too much at times. The ride was wet and physical across the St Georges Channel. This stretch of water between the UK and Southern island repeatedly seems to serve up the foulest conditions, few are the times I have sailed to the ‘Rock’ under a blue sky and this year’s Fastnet was not one of those times. Rounding the Fastnet rock, once more in the dark, we were overtaken by Group Setin – my bench mark for a good result. The positions were slowly slipping through our fingers but the boats we had always aspired to originally beat were not gaining on our position.
The sun rose on a blustery day, we flew back towards the Scillies, taking it in turns to sleep allowing the autopilot to drive while the other sailor stood in the cockpit, eyes darting between instruments, sails and the sea ahead. Standing and watching is a hard mode to stay locked into when you are tired. Though not steering the boat to maximise performance you need to maintain full engagement, to feel and react to every change in the environment so as not to allow even the slightest drop in performance. When the pilot is driving it is easy to let your mind wander, to even dose off, and to lose that vital connection with the boat. I like to stand, and I jig around if I am tired, moving my body reminds me to ‘move my mind’, I talk to myself and sometimes sing. Anything to stop my brain and body from signing out. I appreciate when sailing double handed this may look a little freaky to your co-skipper though we were both so exhausted by this point I doubt Paul ever got a glimpse of the cabaret and the Superbigou sped on to the Scillies.
At the final rounding of the Scilly Islands, Group Setin was seven miles ahead with another newer non-foiling boat between us. We were not losing ground on either, and the fight to gain just one place back rose in both of our veins, there was one hundred miles to run and we were not going to take our medicine. The forecast had been for moderate breeze – around 18-20 knots and dead downwind. We both agreed Superbigou could handle our biggest spinnaker and we dragged it off the transom to the front of the boat ready to make the change as we turned the corner.
Just as we hit the corner, and rolled away our smaller reacher, a black cloud appeared on the horizon, not giving the cloud our full attention, we plugged in the new sail, and prepared to hoist, then bang! The cloud reached us with winds up to 30 knots, driving rain and low visibility. Superbigou hurtled off, there was no way we could hoist the big kite now, but neither was the small spinnaker we’d just taken down the right solution.
The wind persisted and the rain kept falling and there was nothing for it but to pack up the two sails on the deck, reach for another spinnaker and set that one up instead. This sounds like a three-step process but it was the hardest graft of the whole race. The sails which weigh enough dry were now utterly sodden and weighed I would guess in excess of 100 kilos each. Even when using my whole-body weight to drag a bag across the deck, I could only move it inches at a time and to lift this sodden, lumpy mass on my own was just impossible. Every rope on the boat was tangled around another one or jammed on something at its other end. The deck seemed to grow by at least 20 ft with the repeated trips from back to front to untangle ropes or fetch extra parts. I had stupidly skipped breakfast that morning – the end was in sight and I just didn’t stop to eat. My limbs were empty, full of lactic acid, every step required a push and exhaustion was nipping at my heels. In the pounding rain we could hardly hear each other, having to shout commands, it’s difficult not to get tense in such conditions, both of us were swearing, me in my head and Paul to the wind. We were both annoyed at having made a bad decision and all the work we had incurred for ourselves. Paul broke the tension by suggesting, ’why don’t we make a list of every rope on the boat we have not touched during this manoeuvre.
It’ll be a short list it won’t take long.’ The laughter was good. We had messed up but we knew it and we would come back.
On the final run in to the finish we never stopped believing we could take that extra place, choosing a different track to the boat ahead, we started to gain on them and eventually narrowed their lead to just 24 mins, our finishing time was two days, eight hours and 39 minutes. We finished 13thin the IMCOA fleet and were the 26thmonohull to cross the line.
Everything about this race was incredible. To have led the fleet for so long, to have finished ahead of one foiling boat and been 13thin class was an objective we could not have considered at the start of the race. We made this result from sailing our own race well, yes there was luck involved, things were serendipitous but by staying ahead for as long as we did we have made our mark, shown our resolve and proved that anything can happen.
I need to thank Paul Larsen on record for being such an incredible co-skipper during this race. This was our result, we made every step and every decision together and it was an utter privilege to sail with someone so focussed and aware. Sailing with such an experienced individual as an equal has given me a huge amount of confidence in my ability to step up and perform. I learned a lot, I laughed a lot and I listened a lot (because he doesn’t often stop talking). Thank you, Paul, – Great race!