This blog is about my journey through a solo yacht racing season. I’m hoping to give readers an insight into what it’s like to race yachts singlehanded, inshore and offshore in the UK’s top Corinthian races. I’ve got a few solo miles under my belt, (about 17,000 in total), but this season I’m having a shaky start. I’m trying to set up and learn a completely new boat whilst recovering from serious shoulder surgery and keeping up with the day job of running a largish London based holiday company [Alpine Elements ski and Ocean Elements sailing] and of course – being a dad to four great kids at our family home in Devon.
Getting to the start line
Fluke IV, my J-105, is a new boat (to me) but 16 years old and plagued with old boat problems. I’ve also had to turn her into a solo offshore racer from her original spec as a ‘freshwater-lake-sailed J-boat’, and I’ve had an absolute mission doing it in time for the SoloFASTNET. Never underestimate what it takes to make a boat race-ready for solo sailing, where everything needs to work perfectly. You haven’t got crew to help when things go wrong.
I had a heap of stress in the run up to the big race, still with a list of jobs as long as my arm in the 5 days before the start. In the final week we had to re-step the mast after a full rig rebuild, finish wiring in the boat’s dodgy electrics, rebuild the sail handling systems and generally make her safe and compliant with Offshore Safety Regs. The Fastnet is a gruelling race, dubbed the most challenging solo offshore race in the UK, and not one you want to enter unless boat and skipper are well prepared.
It was a fight to the last and although we made the start line it wasn’t without event. In fact I left the dock with screwdriver in hand and some instrument commissioning still to do – which had to be done on the motor out to the start line with a helping hand from Deb Fish, (thanks Deb!). But it didn’t end there….
Ten minutes before the gun, I noticed a spreader poking through my mainsail… Argh…! As you can see in the pictures, the professional photographer covering the event captured all the other boats powered up and sailing across the start line; but his images of Fluke IV are of me ripping down the mainsail to do running repairs as I crossed the line! I was the last boat to cross by about 4 minutes, so not a great start for Fluke’s inaugural race. To begin a race like this is in itself an emotional battle, but having a position of last-in-class as we tacked down the Solent for the first ten miles of a 610 mile race is a real downer.
As soon as I crossed the line, (still hoisting my newly patched mainsail) my stresses from the previous few weeks of boat prep miraculously began to wash away. The relief was almost immediate, I can’t explain it. It was great to finally sail Fluke IV solo and learn her ways.
But really, there was no time to relax. We had a job on, to catch the rest of the fleet as we tacked down the Solent in 14-18kts true wind against tide. As we approached Hurst castle, Fluke IV started to gain the fleet and even pass a couple of the trailing class 1 and 2 boats. I also witnessed a fellow competitor on Fury, a Sunfast 3200, already having to retire after being T-boned by a cruiser on port tack! (Fury was on Starboard). After shouting an “are you OK?” to the skipper, he replied that she was taking on water but able to head back to shore. Richard’s race was already over.
To say the Solo Fastnet is a tough and challenging race is no understatement, but sometimes getting out of the Solent can be the trickiest part. There’s lots going on, lots of boats around you and often a sea breeze and wind against tide to contend with. As soon as you get out into Christchurch bay it’s a relief to get the boat set up and know that you’re finally on your way and committed.
Light winds, heavy fatigue
This year’s Solo FASTNET will be remembered for its light winds and lengthy run-time. It took competitors 6 days to complete, and many ran into a 7th and an 8th day. Many skippers said it was a harder race than 2016’s edition, in which we experienced two gales before even reaching the half-way mark.
When the wind is light you have to work the boat hard, more concentration is required and keeping that up for 6 days is a tough gig. At least in moderate air, you can set the boat up, flick on the pilot and generally get into a good sleep pattern for the days ahead, which for me is 10-20 mins on and off.
A further challenge to fatigue which we all faced was the easterly breeze that pushed us west for the first 2-3 days. Normally, this is a great wind direction for traveling west, but spinnakers are not conducive to easy sleep. In fact the one time I attempted some rest with the big A2 up, I managed a really tight wrap around the forestay.
From then on, I gave up trying to sleep, and forced myself to stay awake until the Scillies when I could point north, pull down the spinnaker and enjoy a welcome fetch across the Irish Sea to the rock. A J-105 loves a reach and with the sails cracked off I managed to overhaul a couple more competitor boats during the next 20 miles and make up some distance on the leading class two boats being plagued by lighter airs.
Snakes and Ladders
It was a real snakes and ladders race, the light winds causing boats to trade places and lose big gains made early on. Some of the best gains could be made in the night, so if you could stay alert, you could make miles on other fatigued skippers. Hearing Rupert [Holmes] tales of kedging in 80 metres depth when the wind died only reinforced this point.
When others spent a long night going backwards with the tide, Rupert started the next day with a 3 mile lead, and his only issue was hauling in about 100 metres of rope, spare halyards and various mooring warps he’d knitted together to get his anchor and chain down to the seabed.
I spent much of my Fastnet, closely racing and trading places with a French sailed Sunfast 3200, Barcavela and British JOD 35, Tweak, sailed by Richard Breese. Having to race in such close quarters with other boats for 610 miles is hard work and doesn’t allow you to relax, which you tend to do when boats are out of eye sight.
On the night of day 4, fatigue was really starting to set in. And as we came within the last 50 miles to the rock Fluke IV sustained a collision with a competitor’s boat at about 1am. It wasn’t a biggy, but it was enough to crumple the push-pit and set all kinds of alarms off. The wind was very light, so both skippers deemed it safe to be down below at the time.
Before anyone gets their Colregs trumpet out, the decision to get some shut eye [down below] was only made because conditions were mill pond flat. We were in a wind hole. Had I stayed on deck to sleep, as I normally do, I believe my senses would have kicked in and a collision would have been avoided.
A race to the end
On the race back from the rock towards the Scillies – the Code O was a valuable commodity. It’s a real necessity in lighter airs on a J105, which is quite a sticky boat and consequently I was able to reclose the gap between Barcaleva and Tweak.
However it was probably the last day, which was the hardest. I still had a comfortable 3 or 4 mile lead over my closest rival, another J-105 sailed by Nikki Curwen. A lead I had maintained since before rounding the rock where I snuck past her in light wins. But there was no time to rest. She’s a good sailor and Voador is a fast J-105. I knew she’d reel me in.
On approaching the Lizard the wind started to die. After downloading a high res grib early in the morning it was looking like the breeze would build and back into the south-east to provide a useful lift around the Lizard and allow me to reach the finish line 48 miles away in Plymouth without another tack. So I elected for this inshore route, which, with the breeze as light as it was and a tidal gate to make [around the Lizard] was always going to be the riskier option…
Voador however was further offshore and elected to stay offshore. Even though I maintained a good lead through the day – Nikki gradually closed in over the last few miles as the finish line approached. Predictably, my wind died as I approached the finish to under 6kts and Voador was able to nail the mark from a position further offshore taking a slightly deeper angle in a little more breeze.
After a long hard battle – she finally passed me with no less than half a mile to go before the finish! After 610 miles of racing, it’s a pretty cruel end! Also quite coincidental that the only two J105’s competing – finished within two minutes of each other after six days racing! Well done Nikki, for sailing so well and making a better call than me.
This was Fluke IV’s inaugural race and my first solo outing in her. The Solo FASTNET was a long and tiring race but I’m thankful I had lighter weather to test the boat and get to know her foibles. All in all, she’s proven reliable and thanks to the professional help I had from various riggers and boat jigs in Hamble, my confidence in her is 100% more than when I started. I’m not a person to take silly risks when sailing, my fastidious nature with boats comes from running RYA Training Centres and yacht charters in Greece, and I can recommend careful preparation – it always pays off.
James sailing Fluke IV – Ocean Elements made it round the course in a shade under 6 days and achieved 8th in class, 13th overall. There were 28 boats entered. Two retired. Some boats took 8 days to complete the race.