In 1979, 18 people died, 125 yachtsman were rescued and 25 of the 306 yachts participating in the Rolex Fastnet race sunk when a Storm Force 10 ripped through the fleet.
In a couple of weeks’ time, I will be crossing the start line of the 45th edition of this prestigious offshore race onboard the 101-year-old gaff yawl Duet to raise money for The Cirdan Sailing Trust, who take young people on life-changing residential voyages.
Given the notorioty of the Fastnet race, all entrants must now take special preparations and complete qualifying races set by race organiser Royal Ocean Racing Club to show they are capable of taking part.
At the end of June, we set off on Duet to take part in the Morgan Cup cross-channel race as one of our qualifying races. It was only the second time I had sailed aboard Duet, having previously spent a week aboard as a volunteer Group Leader, facilitating the voyage of four youngsters aged 12-16. It was a fantastic but challenging week, teaching the young people everything from basic cooking skills to tying bowlines.
I couldn’t wait to get back aboard Duet and sail her again, this time amongst a crew of experienced sailors rather than trainee teenagers.
We will have a crew of eight for the Fastnet race but at the time of the Morgan Cup only four of us were confirmed. Four people on a 70ft gaff yawl is a lot of hard work – and that’s without the 24/7 racing element thrown in!
The course was set a couple of hours before the race: our start line was off Cowes, with the finish across the channel in Dieppe. The race started at 7pm and the committee had given us turning marks around a couple of buoys just outside of the Solent to add a tactical element to an otherwise straight-forward course.
Conditions were perfect and we had an amazing start: a nice F4 breeze, the first boat over the start line, about to fly down this first downwind leg of the race.
The other 100 or so entrants were typical 40ft GRP cruiser/racers, with eight crew to a boat, all dressed in matching Musto gear. They had their spinnakers set and full mains up as they crossed the start line. For us, full sail meant carrying our main, mizzen, genoa, reaching staysail, jackyard topsail and mizzen staysail. And don’t forget – there were just three of us to work on the deck and hoist all of those sails!
Our first turning mark was around the Owers buoy just off Selsey Bill to the East of the Solent. We had a magnificent sail there, watching the rest of the fleet silhoutted against the setting sun on the horizon behind us. We were proud to be the only classic boat in the fleet, doing so well, with such a small crew onboard.
Because we were short-handed and we’d need to do a lot of sail changes as we rounded our first two turning marks, we’d decided not to start a watch system until we were on our way across the channel. It was a couple of hours to our next mark so I went down below and cooked up some chicken fajitas. This was met with some surprise – “I don’t think you’ll be able to cook a proper meal down below, jelly!” – but because I have lived on my own boat for five years, sail regularly and enjoy cooking good food aboard, it was no different to me and my fajitas were gratefully received.
As we neared the Owers buoy, we knew that the heading for our second turning mark would take us on an upwind leg. We had so many sails set that we had to start early in preparing to take some of them down and swap the headsails. There’s not a single winch or roller furling gear onboard, so everything was done by hand… including trying to un-jam the jackyard topsail which had wedged itself behind the mainsail topping lift, just as the wind decided to pick up into an evening sea breeze, the sun had well and truly set, and we were coverging with the rest of the fleet as we approached our turning mark.
Myself, Gavin and Alex worked frantically on deck trying to drop our jackyard topsail and sort out the rest of our sail plan before we made it to the buoy. There was spray coming over the foredeck, it was pitch black, we were working our socks off and could have used the help of double the amount of crew, but what happened next was something I will never forget.
It must have been about 10.30pm by the time we were reaching our first turning mark. We had been working so frantically that none of us had had a spare 30 seconds to stop and take in the atmosphere or look around us to see what the rest of the boats were up to. But something caught my eye. I stopped what I was doing, looked up, and no further away than 20 metres were the entire rest of the fleet. I could see around 50 red port lights and 50 green starboard lights, each heading towards each other, as half of the fleet had rounded the mark and the other half were about to do the same. What an amazing sight. Gavin and Alex were still struggling with a sail so I told them to stop and look – Alex frantically replied and said no, there was no time to stop, but I grabbed her sleeve and made her look. We might have been serious about our race, but it was supposed to be enjoyable after all – a ten-second glance was well-deserved. A smile crept across our faces as we realised this was what racing was about. The whole fleet converging around one buoy, in the middle of nowhere, in the pitch black, with people yelling and shouting and screwing up spinnaker drops and calling for water at the mark… a sight I will never forget.
We struggled to hold on to our spot at the front of the fleet from this point onwards. As a long-keeled gaff, Duet doesn’t sail to windward very well. As the only classic boat in the race, the rest of the fleet easily beat upwind to the next turning mark, the Nab Tower, leaving us trailing behind. I went to get some sleep and came up on deck two hours later to find ourselves almost back at the first turning mark. Oh no! The tide had begun to turn and now we were fighting both wind and tide. The situation didn’t improve overnight; by sunrise, the wind had dropped off completely and we were making incredibly slow progress. The rest of the fleet were long gone across the channel on their way to France and we still hadn’t reached the Nab Tower.
I don’t think we were quite going backwards, but the wind completely died and we hadn’t even lost sight of the Isle of Wight yet. We gave it until midday until we decided to retire from the race.
It was a pretty diffcult decision to make, but we all decided together and we prolonged our decision by a few hours to give the wind a chance to come back. Retiring sucks, especially when we did so well in the first part of the race! But as far as I’m concerned, it was all worth it for that moment in the pitch black when all you could see were one hundred tricolours lighting up the night sky, no more than metres away from you, in the middle of the sea.
I can only imagine how magical it will be rounding the Fastnet Rock, the rest of the fleet converging after being spread out for days leading up to it. Bring it on!
Related Article: Rolex Fastnet Race - a Truly International Challenge
Official site Rolex Fastnet Race