Finally, the post you’ve all been waiting for! The one I get emails about asking when it’s going to be posted. Well it couldn’t be posted before as I hadn’t written it yet! Are you sitting comfortably? Good. It’s more than we were during the Fastnet!
Just about everyone knows about or has heard of the Fastnet Race. The disaster in 1979 saw to that, which may explain why when you say that you’re doing the Fastnet to a non-sailor, they look a little pale and take some convincing that we’re not completely insane.
It’s an iconic, legendary ocean race. It’s a 605 mile course that leaves Cowes, heads out into the Solent, into the English Channel, past Land’s End into the Celtic Sea, across to the Irish coast, round Fastnet Rock and then an exhilarating fast downwind sail back to Plymouth. The weather is notoriously changeable, it is the world’s largest ocean yacht race and can be more than a little tough. But then, the best things always are are they not?
I’d wanted to take part in the Fastnet for some time. If you love ocean racing, wanting to do the Fastnet is always going to happen sooner or later. You’re generally either a really experienced sailor or you pay for the privilege. If you take that route, it’s not a cheap experience.
So I’d resigned myself to not taking part until after I’d done the Clipper Race, was more experienced, had won the lottery, pigs flew at night etc etc….
Then an opportunity came up and I would have been stupid not to grab it with both hands. Thankfully I’m not known for my stupidity. I also thought it might actually impress someone in particular who is really hard to impress. Which is totally the wrong reason to find yourself cold and wet, heeled hard over, bouncing off waves, beating into the wind, heading out of sight of land into the Celtic Sea.
Anyway, literally the day after we had our Team Reveal at Downing Street, I left at 5am to head down to Plymouth to meet my skipper and the boat I was joining for the Fastnet.
Skipper Stu, Jeff and myself sailed out of Plymouth that Thursday afternoon heading for Hamble, where we were joined by Mike and my fellow Clipper Crazy buddy Liz. The next day we headed to Cowes where we were joined by Tim. There were boats everywhere in Cowes, rafted up to six deep on all the pontoons. The atmosphere was amazing, everyone was buzzing about the forthcoming race.
There was live music in the marina and most of the bars were packed. We went out for a crew meal then headed down to the Royal Ocean Racing Club for drinks.
The morning of Sunday 6th August dawned bright and sunny. Liz and I wandered to the showers early and then sat on the deck in the sunshine, watching the entire marina slowly wake up and start to get their boats ready for the upcoming race.
The morning flew past and it wasn’t long before we were off the pontoon and out flying our orange storm sails as required to be checked, which we could then drop before the start of the race. There were over 300 boats lining up for different start times. The sea looked like it was almost boiling with all the movement.
It’s really intense with lots of close quarters manoevering and constant tacking to keep everyone moving without any collisions. Half the time you’re looking out for the famous boats trying to get pictures of them, the rest of the time you’re calling out distances to the skipper and yelling at other boats when they got too close.
At the 10 minute warning it all gets serious with boats trying to get into a good position. It’s worse at 4 minutes. Skippers will be quite brutal with their attempts for position.
We crossed the line in the Class 4 start in 11th position, which was an incredible start from Skipper Stu. The first stage of the race down to the Needles is really intense, there are boats everywhere, pretty much all following the same course.
The weather was beautiful and all of us sat on deck enjoying the incredible experience. It’s quite a feeling to know that you’re taking part in the same race as the likes of Alex Thomson and Dee Caffari. Highlight of the day was Alex Thomson replying to one of my tweets. (Sorry Stu). OK, so it was his media team – but still, it had his name on it!
We took a more northerly course than some of the fleet so it meant we weren’t quite so packed in with other boats which was nice in one respect, but it did mean lots of texts from people looking at the race viewer going “where are you going?”. At one point we were in 8th position in our class, with evidence provided for posterity by Cllr Jackie Westrop via text!
At some point we went into a watch system of 2 hours on and 4 hours off but I couldn’t tell you when. My unique ability of not getting seasick meant I could have the forepeak berth all to myself.
It can be challenging to dress in the most bouncy part of the boat but you get used to bracing yourself at unusual angles. This may go some way to explain why my inner thighs were black at the end of the week. It’s possible to brace your inner thighs either side of the cupboard! Sleep is interesting in the forepeak when heeled over beating upwind. It’s fine if you stay on the same tack the whole time you’re off watch. You can put pillows down one side of the berth, get all comfy and make yourself a nice little nest. Trouble comes when you tack. That’s a big V berth to find yourself thrown unceremoniously across, leaving all your pillows behind on the other side!
By the time we’d done a solid 500 miles upwind, I found it was possible to half wake up really quickly if the boat levelled out, reach up quickly to grab a handhold, use your other hand to move all the pillows to the other side, then let go landing on the other side, all without totally waking up.
“Top Secret” is a very different boat to a Clipper Yacht, not just in size. She’s beautiful, well kitted out (even if the microwave doesn’t work!) and very comfortable, but she’s not really a racing boat. We were used to having handholds everywhere, where we can effectively swing from one end of the boat to the other when below decks. It took a little while to get used to doors that actually open and close. They open really quickly when you lean against them and accidentally move the handle too – You land in an undignified heap on the low side swearing profusely.
I suspect Liz and I drove Stu mad for the week talking about Clipper, but everyone was very tolerant of our “this is different to Clipper” observations and demands for more clipping points and hand holds. Still, you can have no idea how much of a revelation a proper flushing heads can be! That’s before I even mention in mast furling, electric winches and an en-suite shower. I seriously need to have words with Clipper about comfort levels and potential upgrades!
The next few days passed in a blur of sunrises and sunsets, sunshine and showers, big seas and winds, then being totally becalmed the next. On and off watch, in and out of foulies. With many, many laughs in between.
Stu, Mike, Jeff and Tim are all funny guys, sometimes it was hard to know how to take them, as they are somewhat unique, but I love them all. Most of the time anyway! You soon get used to their sense of humour and sarcasm levels, especially when it became obvious I’m easily distracted by just about anything while helming!
By the time we reached Fastnet Rock we’d been on an upwind beat for 500 miles. Then the wind died out and the only thing left to do was look at the Fastnet lighthouse off in the distance and watch the dolphins. We saw dolphins every day, some small family groups including babies.
After a few days on a boat you have strange conversations and end up googling lots of random information as soon as you’re within mobile signal range. Such as the difference between dolphins and porpoises, which suddenly becomes very important a couple of hundred miles from land, when there’s nothing else to do as the wind has died and you’re desperately trying to find a tiny bit of wind that will keep you doing 0.1knot faster than the boat you can see off to your port side.
For a lot of the race, you’re within phone range so can receive messages and importantly post pictures on Facebook and Twitter! It was also lovely to hear so many people were tracking us on the race viewer, it means a lot to receive those best wishes when you can.
You have to take an exact time when you pass Fastnet Rock on a certain bearing, so there we were with phones, camera’s and Liz on compass watch. You see lots of amazing pictures of Fastnet Rock at sunrise and sunset on the RORC website, but it was grey and cloudy when we passed.
Still, thankfully it was daylight and not foggy so we could see it at all. It’s an amazing feeling looking up at the towering rock and knowing that you’re following some incredible, inspirational sailors.
It’s downwind most of the way after the Rock. We weren’t out of sight of the Fastnet Lightnouse before Stu had got the kite up, running back to Plymouth as fast as we could. The watch system changed to 1 hour on and 2 hours off as the weather changed and it became harder to concentrate on helming and managing the main. I do so love a bit of fast mainsheet management!
We came back across the Celtic Sea an awful lot faster than we went. Making 12 knots under Stu’s helming at one point. It was still very much a race, including having a few tussles with other boats trying to round us up when we wanted to come past them flying our big pink kite.
The last section into Plymouth was by far the toughest part of the race. The weather closed in, it was cloudy, cold and foggy. Once the sun set, there was no moon or stars and it was completely pitch black. The sea was confused, the wind got up one minute, dropped the next and kept changing direction. We had to ditch the kite as it would have been difficult to control it and we couldn’t see the Eddystone Lighthouse until we were virtually on it.
It was a mixture of joy, relief and sadness when we crossed the finish line and heard the horn signalling we had done it. We had completed the Fastnet Race, an achievement in itself. We’d heard of so many boats that had been forced to retire, due to everything from holes in the hull to dismasting, so we were pleased we had finished what we had set out to do. Stu had taken us all a total of 764 miles across to Ireland and safely back again and we were all still talking, laughing and joking! Even if we had run out of crisps and twix bars!
We were also a little bit sad that our adventure was over, especially as we heard via VHF after we crossed the finish line that we’d missed the after party and the bar had just closed! RORC did manage to find us some beers to celebrate with the next day to make it up to us though!
So my first ever proper yacht race was the Fastnet Race. I learnt a great deal and would absolutely sail with all those guys again. Especially if it happened to be more of a relaxing cruise type experience!
In hindsight, I possibly wouldn’t have chosen to do a race less than a week after coming back from Level 4 training. Especially as it meant I went into the race tired, with a shoulder injury sustained during training, that is going to take a few months to heal, so I was always going to find it hard. But it was the Fastnet. I’m sitting typing this still wearing both my Fastnet Competitors wristband and the Fastnet Finishers Wristband and I can’t see them coming off anytime soon!
So huge thanks to the Skipper and Crew of “Top Secret of Plymouth”:
Stu – always quick to notice if you’re off course, gives brutal feedback but loves my mainsheet skills and is the greatest on boat karaoke performer ever.
Mike – who for some reason can always manage to sleep anywhere, at any angle, whatever the weather.
Jeff (Woody) – the coolest dude, always calm and relaxed, even if you screw up. Often found on the bow battling a kite solo without complaint.
Tim – fast learner, sickness sufferer, amazing breakfast chef, bearer of lots of random film facts.
Liz – cool tough lady with ability to keep fiery councillors temper in check! Great downwind helm. Manages to cook amazing meals out of strange eclectic mix of leftover ingredients.
We did it!
We finished in 267th position overall. From 288 finishers. 24 boats did not finish.
And finally – this video was taken on the way back to Plymouth. It is Top Secret Sailing perfectly captured:
Picture Gallery –