At 1110 on Sunday 6th August Fortissimo and 6 crew started the 2017 Rolex Fastnet Race. We were the second start of the day with the awesome IMOCA 60s, but with many Class 40s all jockeying for position the Class 40 fleet made for an exciting tacking session down the Solent and out towards the Needles. Typically, the wind was from the southwest and steadily building. It was just below 15 knots, but expected to increase to around 20. Combined with our headwind of 8 knots it feels pretty windy, and we, like many other race boats need to think carefully about which head sail to use. We opted for the stay sail, which according to the sail chart comes in to play when going upwind in 15 knots or more of wind. It is a much more manageable sail for the short tacking, plus you can grind it in tighter without breaking stuff. The Solent (Number 1 – big jib) is quite a beast. With our mast positioned much further aft than normal cruiser racers we have a large foretriangle, and our forestay is not as fractional as some of the newer designs. It may look a bit wussy, but our blade jib arrangement was the ideal choice for a tacking battle up the solent and we were holding our own with some top competition. Less drag, from a smaller sail equals more speed upwind!
We started at the South of the line as the line was biased so that the South side was more upwind, but more importantly, the tide was already running West on the Island side, and much stronger than to the North. With our small jib and no water ballast, we were very manoeuvrable at the start and able to do a number of slick, short tacks in amongst the action just behind the brand new Carac Class 40, and dodging a few foiling IMOCA 60s. Our start plan was absolutely not to be over the line on a down tide start, but also didn’t want to be forced into an immediate tack on to port at the Island side and have to give way to everyone. We started a little bit out, on starboard, forcing others to give way to us. As the faster IMOCA 60s came past to windward, there was good opportunity to tack back on to Port and keep clear air, before tacking back again to stay in the good tide. As our tacks became longer it was time to start pumping up the water ballast. We can pump 750 litres (750kg) of seawater into tanks on either side of the boat to give us righting moment, enabling us to power up the sails more. Unfortunately for Cat, this means someone needs to be standing by to move the ballast from side to side, using gravity to send the water through a large central pipe by opening a sluice gate. Before releasing everything, there are a number of taps to open, too make sure the water ends up where you want. This involves a lot of darting around down below, putting hands into holes to turn taps. It also requires good communication and planning, to give enough time to get the water across, and to know when we are ready to go.
All went well apart from two tacks where the ballast ended up back on the wrong side coming out through Hurst. It took a while to work out why Fortissimo’s speed suddenly dropped to 6.5 knots when we should be doing 8! A quick tack back and all sorted, but unfortunately we tacked away from being on the starboard side of the fleet. I wanted to be on the starboard side, so that on any crosses we stand on, and the others either have to tack away, or go behind. Unfortunately, this one time the ballast went wrong, meant we were now having to give way from the Port Side. This led to a second issue, whereby once the tanks were ready to go for the next tack, a scream from down below shouted “TACK!”. Because we were on Port and close to crossing, I thought this was an emergency tack required for a boat I had not seen, so did a crash tack. All because of a very enthusiastic shout! Oh well, a good learning point to have clear standard communication, and to be careful how you say stuff! These were annoying incidents but nothing major, we lost to a gaggle of boats, and in terms of distance probably lost a hundred metres. With 600 miles to go it is important to put this into perspective and not worry about it. The real race is just beginning and we are all starting together. Question is which way to go?
Passage planning is based on estimates, until you are actually out there racing, and know what wind speed you actually have, and in what direction you can tack, you don’t know for sure how it is going to pan out. To help us get an idea, we run weather routing calculations. These calculations are done on the computer, we choose a selection of wind forecasts, and enter in our boats theoretical speed at different points of sail. The computer then runs through pretty much every scenario by trial and error, this takes a lot of number crunching. To briefly explain the concept, it predicts where you will end up in 5 minutes if you go in 10 different directions. Then at the end of each of those vectors it runs another prediction of where you would be if you go 10 different directions from each of those points, as you can see the number of calculations gets big very quickly, it does this for the whole 600 mile course, using 4 different weather models coming up with the magic fastest route to take based on trying all options!
In reality, we played the shifts, and kept on the most favourable tack. We knew the general trend of where the wind will be moving next, so the plan was to be positioned on the favourable side of the shift. The same as dinghy sailing, but we are thinking about what the wind will do in the next 6 hours. The big issue for this first leg is what to do about the tide. It goes West for 6 hours, and then will go East, extremely quickly off Portland Bill. If you miss the “gate” to get round Portland Bill through the inshore passage before the tide turns you will be stuck there for 6 hours with 4 plus knots against you. 7 miles to the South, the tide is still against, but less, this is the less risky option. If you look at the tide Atlas, you can see that the tide accelerates East of Portland Bill, but West of the Bill it is less strong. The plan was to sail West as fast as possible, not necessarily close to the wind, just as long as we get West, and then seek tidal shelter in Lyme Bay. For those ahead of us, they made it into the sanctuary of Lyme Bay without experiencing too much tide against, the further behind you are, the more foul tide you get, for longer. The gaps start to stretch, the leaders get the benefit sooner, and for longer. But compared to those behind us, we made good gains.
After racing to Lyme Bay, it was time to settle down, return to good upwind VMG, have a nice home made lasagne and settle in to the Routine for the next three days. We agreed the plan with the weather, and found ourselves making good progress West. We started our watch system, which is a 4 hour on 4 hour off during the day (0800-1200 and 1200-1600), then 3 hour on 3 hour off through the night, which is an easier amount of time to stay awake and not get too cold in the early hours. This system leaves one hour left over at 7pm, which is when we have our home cooked main meal (frozen for the race). Everyone is up and on watch, which is a good time for the opposite watches to catch up, and we can all help get the food dished up and bowls washed up.
The weather was quite settled and we seemed to be making good progress West, it is always a bit disconcerting that your competitors spread apart, and disappear from AIS, you wonder if you are doing something wrong, have we dropped to the back? As we got in range of the land, we were able to get updates on the Yellow Brick tracker through our phones, and realised that we were doing OK!
All seemed to be going very well until we got to Falmouth. We were getting a great lift, as expected, as we made our way along the Bay. We were just about to tack when we got a huge header. Perfect timing! We tacked, and were able to bear off, our thoughts that we should have tacked early, soon changed to realisation that we were now reaching towards the Lizard and able to put the code zero up. Fantastic, the first time we have have not been against the wind, and speeds increasing to 11 knots, perfect! Looking ahead, you could see the water looked different, it then became apparent that we were sailing in to a windless hole, along with many others who had done the same as us. A huge shower cloud was passing over Falmouth and it had sucked all the wind away. One mile away to the South – Those who were behind us were not affected, and could be seen making good progress. This was devastating. Desperate madness comes on quite quickly, furl the code zero, put the spinnaker up, drop the sail again, try sailing over there, it looks like there is definitely wind over there, what is happening to those guys?! You have to try something! The boat was moving at 0.2 knots, to get to 0.4 knots is twice the speed and a huge achievement, then it stops again. We were stuck here for over an hour, we could see where the wind was, but could not get to it. Another lesson learned, when we next see a big shower cloud, we will keep just a bit further away from it! Ignore the shifts that suck you in!
Eventually we were on our way again, back to upwind sailing and converging with the fleet at Lands End at sunset. The next question is how to negotiate the Traffic Separation Scheme that surrounds the Isles of Scilly. Options are to go East of them and make good progress North, which is what the weather routing was suggesting we should do, or go West. The problem was the tide. We were closer to the East side of the TSS, but that meant that we would arrive there with tide against us, we were later than originally planned and had missed the tide gate to get through. We also found that the wind was dropping. According to the forecasts there was more wind to the west, plus, by the time we got to the West of the TSS, the tide would be more favourable, so we decided to change plan and go West. Another reason for the change, was that Ari Kansakoski on Fuji was further North than us, and likely to get round Lands End before us. To follow him would ensure that this would be our position, where as heading West gave us the opportunity to split, get more wind and hope it paid off. We would make our way North later to keep the weather routing happy. This process of changing our minds took a bit of discussion. It was great to lay out all the options and have a talk about it, throwing different ideas and thoughts about it. I think to put the decision on the shoulders of one person puts a huge amount of pressure on them. As it was, we had a good constructive discussion about it, and all agreed that we should try going West. A number of other top competitive boats were doing this too which helped convince us it was the right thing to do. We would find out in about 12 hours!
Heading out into the Irish Sea, you are very aware that there is Ocean swell in the mix, the sea is bigger, and when the tide is against the wind it is quite choppy, the waves seemed to be just steep enough for a Class 40 to fall in to and slam. With some careful steering it is possible to work the boat over the waves and avoid hard landings, but in the dark it is very difficult and we had a night of slamming upwind. Of course, as we rounded lands end the SW wind had veered to NW so were continuing with the upwind theme of the race! People say Class 40s can’t go upwind. That is nonsense, we do 8 to 8.5 knots upwind, the trouble is, at that speed you can launch off the waves and get airborne, crashing down hard. We have a bigger, wider hull than most 40 footers, so there is a lot of boat to crash! The trick is to negotiate the waves, go more diagonally up them, even slow down for awkward ones and then roll the boat to leeward, to heel it over for the landing, this presents a narrower part of the hull to the sea. This takes a bit of effort and skill, most people don’t make any attempt to look after the boat, but I can assure you that it is possible, and makes Class 40s a pleasure upwind, requiring lots of concentration, that is rewarded with a smooth and fast ride. Normal cruiser racers are much narrower and will cut through the waves without having to deviate course. They can also achieve 7 knots or more upwind, so our speed difference is not as pronounced as it is down wind. Class 40s are so awesome downwind, they seem a bit normal when going against.
The cross with Fuji happened the next morning, and we were ahead! Fantastic, good decision, the next objective is the Fastnet rock, which also has a TSS zone to negotiate around. The wind was fairly stable the whole time around 15 to 20 knots, just a steady slog, with a conveyor belt off waves coming towards you that you have to hop over. It is a bit like walking down a travellator the wrong way, yearning to turn round and sail at twice the speed. As we neared the rock just before dawn, you could make out Ireland, and yachts were now converging together. A Pan Pan was on the radio, as a boat had a major problem with their mast which was being relayed to the Coast Guard. A reminder to be careful, and keep concentrating and looking after the boat, still a long way to go. We rounded the rock in darkness, but looking back towards the coast of Ireland, the sky was getting lighter. We were all up on deck for the special moment and had some celebratory home made ginger cake and cup of tea.
It is a very atmospheric place to put a lighthouse, we rounded amongst a few Class 40s, and importantly were ahead of Fuji! As we bore off and put the spinnaker up the wind got light, but the sea was still quite large. Apparently, for those behind us, they struggled to get round the rock with the light wind and tide against them. For us, the further South we got the stronger the wind, once again, being ahead by just a few miles paid off big time, while those behind got stuck in different wind.
The wind steadily built to what we were expecting – a decent 17-20knots downwind with the A4 spinnaker up. The A4 is a heavy air running spinnaker, ideal for sailing deeper angles in strong wind. Combined with some decent sized waves we had an epic blast back. Downwind all the way to Plymouth. We rounded the Rock Wednesday morning and would finish on Thursday morning!
The greatest thing about Class 40 sailing is surfing. Normal cruiser racers struggle to stay on a surf, just brief bursts of speed. A Class 40 can get up on to the plane and then sit there, steadily between 15 and 20 knots boat speed. The trick is to keep on the wave, traversing across it, as a surfer would on a beach. The ideal angle is around 150 degrees, which happens to be the angle we sail with the spinnaker. Before you run in to the back of the wave you need to head up and just try and graze the bowsprit along the back of the wave in front of you. This is a great sensation and a adrenaline rush that any surfer will recognise. To do it offshore, on long waves for hundreds of miles is just brilliant. It is not easy, head up too much and the apparent wind will increase dramatically and you will broach. Go too deep and you will accelerate in to the back of the wave, loose the wind, and slow dramatically. It’s surfing, but with hundreds of square meters of canvass above your head to balance. If you go too slow you don’t have enough water flow over the rudders to be able to have the force to bear away when a big wave picks the boat up. The waves try to turn you side on to the wind, which will cause a broach.
Just before the wave arrives you need to bear away to “drop in” as a surfer would, you accelerate downwards building speed away from the wind. At this point you must head up to start traversing across the wave, and switch on the apparent wind. Not too much that you broach, but enough to stay on the wave. It takes a lot of feel, and every wave is different, with cross waves interfering with the pattern and wind speeds varying all the time. You need to have full concentration and react immediately or in many cases pre-empt what is about to happen. You learn the patterns to the waves and the way the boat reacts, becoming at one with it and totally zoned in. It is something you build up to with experience. Conditions for this leg were a bit marginal, but we were keeping up with a newer Class 40, one overtook us, but then had a problem with their spinnaker, and we shot past again. Great to still be in a drag race, at full power. The size of the A4 means that there is no margin to come out of the narrow window of control. Step out slightly and you will broach. Each wave attempts to throw you out the window! For this leg myself and Conrad did the helming, as he has a lot of experience of this type of sailing on Figaros and IMOCA 60s, you need to be able to predict what happens next, and unfortunately in all our training we had not really encountered these conditions for the crew to gain that experience. Most of the RORC races seemed upwind this year, and the weather was very kind to us!
Each wave attempts to throw you out the window!
As we got closer to the Isles of Scilly we needed to head up a few degrees, we dropped the kite and had planned to white sail reach to the East. But typically about 20 minutes after we had reduced sail and Conrad went off watch the wind settled down slightly. 20 minutes sleep is more than enough for a Vendee Globe skipper, so good training for Conrad to wake him up again! We got him on deck and hoisted the A5 that I reckoned we could carry it at 120 degrees to the wind. This is full power, more than the Code Zero would give. We went for it and lit up the sea again. The wake looking like the flames left by the Delorian in Back to the Future! Being at a shallower angle to the waves meant we surfed faster and for longer, even though there was less wind. We sailed about 30 miles in two hours getting us round the Scillies before the wind died a bit more and we reduced to Solent and Main, then after dinner, the Code Zero. It was a beautiful evening and the first time the boat was flat and fast.
The last leg of the race was a simple fetch all the way to Plymouth, We were all up at dawn, it was a beautiful morning with settled conditions, blue sky, Northerly wind at around 15 Knots and very flat sea. I love the Cornish and Devon coast, the strong smell of Cows in the air. We were all in good spirits, well fed, well rested and with no major mistakes the whole trip. Fortissimo had always been attended to and we made plenty of sail changes to keep the speed up. It was great having a racer such as Conrad onboard to make sure no one slipped into cruising mode of going through the motions. We kept checking the numbers and questioning if there is anything we could be doing to go faster the whole way.
To finish the Fastnet Race is a huge challenge for anyone. It is a long way, no stops, flat out 24 hours a day for 4 days. Anyone one who has done it will know what it takes. For two of our crew it was the first offshore racing they had ever done. For Niall it was a return to Fortissimo and the Fastnet Race, having sailed with us last time, his experience was great to have onboard, and meant he could pass on his advice and learning experiences he had been through. We all learnt from each other and contributed to the team. The result was in my opinion about as good as it could be, bearing in mind that most of the Class 40s are sailed by professionals and are run by sponsored sailing teams. For those in private hands, it is normally a pretty serious and talented sailor who chooses to purchase a Class 40, so for us to come 19th out of 26 is a Fantastic result. The Class association recognises that the newer boats were designed a lot more extreme than the first generation and have created a vintage fleet within the Class. From my reckoning, looking through the boat numbers that finished, we were the second vintage Class 40 behind Palanad II, another Akilaria RC-1 like Fortissimo which finished 16th in the overall results. The Fastnet Race is an amazing challenge and a great experience. The competitive element amongst one of the greatest Offshore racing fleets is the icing on the cake.
Replay the race on the Yellow Brick Tracker here: http://yb.tl/fastnet2017 you can turn off some of the other fleets to make the Class 40 fleet easier to follow.