A helicopter shot of Jumbuck, flying in lumpy seas around the Fastnet Lighthouse
I've started typing this whilst sitting up in bed, mid morning Saturday 22nd. It was almost this same time that six days back - Sunday 16th - that we were motoring up from Lymington to Cowes for the start of this bi-annual classic.
We finished Thursday 20th, 20:51 in the evening, achieving a 48th place overall under IRC, a 24th place in a very competitive 90 yacht Division Three, and 6th place from our 23 x J109 entries. Securing a spot in the top 25% of each group means we did ok, improving on our last efforts in 2013.
Although with a little bit of good fortune, methinks we could have done even better.....
It was a big race this anniversary year, with a record breaking fleet close to 400 yachts. We experienced every weather condition you could think of over the 630 mile course, and spent four days at sea. Early on we had solid light to medium breezes and medium waves. Then a few very frustrating wind holes. Sunny days drifting over mirror like seas. A day of soaking wet rain on a long lumpy upwind bash, and a day and a half on a longer off wind blast surfing before reasonable seas.....
All over a course which had seven tidal gates to manage. Portland Bill, Start Point, Lizard, Lands End, Fastnet Rock, and again Lands End and the Lizard.
The experienced say if you get these right, then you just might win the race......
We tried hard. Secured a brilliant start Sunday midday getting clear of our crowded Division 3 line under sunny skies with the start of an ebbing tide making it easy to get penalised, and continued to do really well right through to nightfall. We were up front, close second of the 109s, beating out of the Solent heading west in the afternoon with the full ebbing tide giving us all and extra knot or two of SOG. The bigger boats that had started ahead of us in what was then a flooding tide had suffered also with the lack of wind, so we found ourselves dicing amongst them even before we got out into Christchurch Bay.
Pretty steady medium NW to W winds until late evening allowed us to consolidate up in the front of our fleet, but it gradually died and backed SW as nightfall fell, just as we drew level with Portland Bill. Maybe 5 miles off - and well south of the dreaded overfalls!
Unfortunately this lighter patch coincided with the tide turning up Channel, so we had a frustrating four hours of darkness still pointing west, but being swept backwards and south in a course resembling a reverse C. Lots of others around were experiencing the same, but it would have been impossible with our kit to think we could consider anchoring up, unlike many of the bigger boats, as we were in 70+ metres of water. As we were swept south east past the lights of the anchored boats it gave the impression they were the ones overtaking us! But guess their crews were sitting below sippin brandy and smoking cigars after enjoying a roast dinner on china plates - whilst we continued working hard in the dark trying to make some W'ly motion.
So in the tidal gate score, it opened at Tidal Gates 1 - Jumbuck 0.
It was still very dark in the wee hours of Monday that the flooding tide began to ease and we began to claw our way from the bottom of our C towards the SW. A few hours on saw the wind nudge gently up and we got a little faster, eventually feeling comfortable on our beat westward across Lyme Bay. The next headland of Start Point. Our goal was to get past that headlands tidal gate with the next ebbing tide.
Lovely night sailing through to dawn. Clear skies. Millions of stars. Flat water. Moderate winds, and by the time we could see the Start Point lights, the tide had turned again and the ebbing flow began to speed us onward. Better. Score Tidal Gates 1 - Jumbuck 1.
Couldn't see our supposed J109 rivals on the AIS, but reviewing the race tracker afterwards it seems we were all still right up there, basically level pegging within a few miles of one another. We had assumed somehow they might have got further ahead of us, as Portland is not usually on our side, but this time seems we did ok.....
But then the weather Gods must have thought we were all having it too easy. They flicked off the wind fan maybe 0900 Monday fortunately after we had Start Point behind.
We and the other boats around coasted to a standstill under hot sun on a glassy flat sea, in what resembled a large yottie parking lot of westerly drifting yachts. The AIS system showed everyone around was more or less stationery - and it looked as if it was a wind hole at least ten miles across. More and more boats came up from behind to join in, and despite feeling frustrated it was pleasing that lots were larger Div 0/1/2 boats that somehow we'd overtaken the previous night.
Guess our race was setting up for a restart at that time, but some of our rivals got away early.
The 109 we were the most worried about - Just So - is crewed by good light wind sailors anyway. As I've detailed, up to this point we had jockeyed for the lead 109 spot with Just So and a few others. Jolly Jack Tar, Jolene, Boo, Jolenko, Mohito, Pure Joy, Jai Alai, we all drifted to a halt pretty much in line, still representing the front part of the 109 pack.
We were all pushed gently SW through the morning by the tide, us ending up perhaps 6/10 miles offshore, and Just So who angled much closer towards the shoreline, ending up close in. Speaking later, they explained they went in there hoping for some early coastal sea breeze, and they found it. An escape path.
Seems they had a rig problem, and in the drifting conditions took advantage to send a man aloft midday in a bosuns chair. He not only fixed the rig, but had a good look around from his high vantage point and identified a light wind 'roadway' rippling the sea and winding off towards the Next headland of The Lizard. So down he came and off they went short tacking down that coastal pathway making ground over nearly everyone else around. Jai Alai and the others, closest to them followed on. Guess Boo followed her. Jolene II joined the party. We weren't invited. Couldn't tell what was happening at that time, so just sat offshore with the bigger boats and let them all get away. Couldn't see them on AIS, so totally unaware.
We spent the afternoon trimming hard countering the turned flooding tide, but it was early evening before the group we were with offshore got any real forward motion. By which time those inshore 109s were round The Lizard and heading for Lands End and the Scillies. We weren't even close. Score Tidal Gates 2 - Jumbuck 1.
We enjoyed soft winds through that night, and we all slid past Lands End at dawn on the second half of the easterly / northerly tide. Those closest in did better than those further out. Tidal Gates 3 - Jumbuck 1.
Those leading 109s got to the Scilly Island east about passages perhaps two hours before we did, they did so on the last of that flooding tide.
In the very light breezes it meant those ahead just managed to get up the favoured eastern passage (it's the shortest route to Fastnet) with the last of that tide gently pushing them north, but as we arrived the tide was slackening and about to turn west / south, and that risked bringing us to a standstill if we followed their obviously shorter course.
We agreed we might get the predicted SW winds due to come in later in the day if we forgot about following them north, and continued heading west to meet the hoped for stronger breeze. So our plan was to go south about the islands to then head up the western passage. We did find that slightly fresher wind before those we left behind, and despite loosing more time on the 109s ahead because we sailed much further, we could see on the AIs that we overtook 12 yachts in the three hours it took us to get around and out into the Celtic Sea. Checking the detail charts since, I actually believe we could have gone right up through the middle of the island group and overtaken a few more..... next time, eh?
Wasn't looking good. The chances of catching those leading five 109's was low, but never say never.....
The beat NW out across the Celtic Sea saw the winds steadily build under a sky that was now filling with grey clouds. We felt well positioned on port tack, closer to the new wind than other behind us and knowing we could sail slightly freer if we had to. It didn't take long for stronger wind, rain and resultant waves, to arrive around midday Tuesday. Those conditions remained with us until race end.
Smashing along first under 90 sq metre A4 then down to 70 sq metre Code 0, then regular AP headsails, with rain soaking the crew perched on the top rail, we ever so slowly made decent time on our way west north west towards the rock - keeping very close company with lots of larger yachts. Right through Tuesday night with multiple lights from other yachts close around us, we bashed and crashed to windward to finally end up going down to our old No 4 headsail, and eventually see dawn break Wednesday with only a final few miles to make the Irish mainland.
By then we had a new south running tide helping lift us towards the Fastnet TSS that we were required to leave to port. Suspect we lost a little more time using that No 4 than the 109's ahead who clearly carried their No2/No3's, but with the tide helping us along, it felt really fast.
Helicopters whirred overhead (hence the good shot plus a short video clip of Jumbuck at http://www.rolexfastnetrace.com/Race-Videos-2015/video-rolexfastnetrace-day5-2015.html...
) as we stormed up and around the lighthouse at 11.30 in the morning still with the tide pushing us from behind.
So score Tidal Gates 3 - Jumbuck 2.
We just shaved the rocks ducking some fishing and media boats, maybe 30 metres off with tidal flow still helping us south at pace, and it gave us some great photo opportunities. We freed up to reach around the Fastnet TSS to quickly enjoy a swift whisky with chocolates, before sailing deeper still and throwing up the spinnaker for the long off wind run back. We were still pretty focussed trying to catch some fellow 109s during that run, as we had done so two years before.
We were positioned 52nd overall in IRC on our time at the rock, and had the following 109s' ahead of us. Jai Alai (0914), Just So (0945), Boo (1019), Mohito (1035), Jolene II (1046). Then there's the the pack of chasers close behind we couldn't ignore.
J-T'Aime four miles back and just ahead of Wakey Wakey (1158), Pure Joy (1202), and Bonfire IV (1236).
J-T'Aime charging on....
That downhill leg proved an absolute blast. The SWly shifted regularly towards the S and back, but remained solid around 15/18 knots. We went through the full off wind sail wardrobe several times over. Big 120 sq mtre A2, 90 sq mtre A4, Staysail, 70 sq mtre Code 0, back to A2, back up with staysail, and then repeat it all again. The constant changes helped us retain our maximum pace, and we certainly overtook quite a few larger boats with top speed logged of 13.4, but then the other 109's were performing just as well.
Kept at it right through that last night at sea, having swapped from a 3 man up 3 man down 3 hour watch system to rotating 2 men off and 4 on. Having 4 up allowed us to really work helm, main, and foresail relentlessly - but via AIS it didn't seem to give us any gains over the 109's ahead - and only just kept us away from those behind.
Dawn broke and saw us sliding south around the Scilly Islands still scudding along before fresh SW winds. Got the tide timing right, so score at Lands End was Tidal Gate 3 - Jumbuck 3.
By this time the combined fleets had converged on the Scilly Islands western TSS, and from there effectively we all sailed the same straight course towards the final headland of the Lizard - and then across the bay to Plymouth and the finish. So lots of fun finding clear air opportunities to overtake those slower boats we came up on.
I was hoping to hear our huge offwind efforts might have got us at least a few minutes on the other 109's ahead, but clearly not all of them. Seems every other 109 was sailing just as hard as we were, and some doing it better!!
Rounded the Lizard, last headland before Plymouth on the last of an ebbing tide, so final score Tidal Gates 4 - Jumbuck 3. A last five hours then jousting with fellow club boat Zarafa, who held us off to cross just ahead, and then we were over......timed in at 2031.
Jai Alai had finished at 1736! A very very fast time but then she is a totally carbon rigged and optimised 109 from Holland, with a handicap much much higher than everyone else. She certainly goes like a rocket downhill when its fresh but with that huge handicap resulting from her high spec rig, she only got placed one 109 spot ahead of us.......
But with the more conventionally rigged Just So finishing close behind Jai Alai (1804), they were rightfully awarded first placed 109 on corrected time! A well deserved victory, as they had sailed both fast and smart. A top, top job. Well done David, Mary and crew.
Mohito got 2nd place (1905), Boo got 3rd (2000), Jolene II got 4th (1931) then Jai Alai 5th, Jumbuck 6th (2031), J-T'Aime 7th (2104), Jaganda Too 8th (2132), Wakey Wakey 9th (2143) and Bonfire IV 10th (2243). Would loved to have done better ourselves but not a bad result, and absolutely brilliant to have ten well sailed 109's in the top 100 boats overall............the class is clearly still a force to be reckoned with!
In those leading ten on that last blast home, we had taken time from Boo ahead, Wakey Wakey, J-T'Aime and Bonfire IV behind. But then lost more time to Just So, Jolene II, Mohito ahead..........So despite all of our extra efforts, all the grinding, pumping, surfing, max men on deck, plus having overtaken other IRC boats to get back from 52nd at the rock to 48th at the finish, the end order of 109s remained as was at the Fastnet rounding. A pretty level pegging class eh!
Unshaven, unshowered, bit smelly in race clothes, we had a liquid late afternoon, evening and night in the village crew bar with fellow 109ers and the French crewed JPK's who dominated all the results. Rum with dry ginger and an added shot of gin were the flavour of the evening.
The self inflicted head whirls meant Chris G and I bailed at 3 am. Dave had left earlier to catch a train home, but Fergus, Rupert and Will joined some from Just So to drink on. Youth with stamina aplenty. All good stuff.
The stop-outs were first sighted again Friday 0900 as Chris and I headed out for breakfast and we all crossed paths with them heading back to the boat with drinks and homeward provisions in hand.....
A huge thanks to all the mob on board as everyone played their part and more. Especially Fergus. Superb helmsman and all round sailor. Rupert a tremendously skilled sailor in his own right. Well done Chris, and a big thanks to last minute replacements Will and David. Everyone contributing to make it an entertaining four days and getting us a more than satisfactory result.
I wanted to be top 6 in 109's. We achieved that. Without breakage or one cross word.
Who could ask for more? Well I could, had we been able to improve on our score against the Tidal Gates.........