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breathtaking

Anarchist Rail Meat, owner of the Class 40 Dragon, has plenty to say about their Fastnet…

With all due respect, I think Brian Hancock has spent too much time Dreaming about Speed and perhaps has forgotten what sailing and racing truly is all about (see Breathless ed).  This year’s edition of Fastnet was a spectacular challenge, a tricky and challenging competition from start to finish, and a most excellent adventure.  Had the only purpose of participating in Fastnet been a speedy trip to the southern Irish coast, we all could have chartered helicopters for what it cost to get to the start line.  But that is not the reason we do this, is it?

Some races are sent off in howling winds, with brutal fights for survival as you bash uphill or worry about what piece of hardware or sail is going to explode under unending pressure and frightening loads.  Others see light air, calling on patience and the delicate skill of minute adjustments in weight, trim and rudder movement.  Sometimes you even see champagne conditions, with the sun on your face and wind in the mid-teens and the luck of a reach to some distant way point.  But is all sailing, and it is all racing and it all demands skill and technique and luck and perseverance and grit to do well.

This Fastnet was a strategic and tactical challenge from start to finish.  Sunday’s start was a classic, on an outgoing tide with a massive fleet and in winds that were less than 5 knots.  It was an apparent wind challenge, and called on knowledge of tide and bottom contour. For Dragon’s start, the tide had turned on the south side of the Solent and was still flooding on the north side so smart money stayed over by Cowes and very-carefully positioned the boat in the pre-start to be just above the pin and about 800 meters out.  Using tide to generate apparent wind, it then became a trade off between coming up a bit for apparent speed and then soaking down to stay in the very narrow band of ebbing water.  Maybe 5 boats could fit across that band initially, and those 5 made good.  Then it was a matter of keeping the wheels on the bus as we rolled past Egypt point and made distance on the favored starboard board down towards the Isle of Wight shore, and then not getting too far out into the Solent during our hitches out to the north.  As we approached Yarmouth, that strategy evolved to moving further out into the main channel to leverage the strengthening ebb, and then as we got to Hurst the breeze saw current effect in building to the high teens and moving forward to tight hauled.  We moved fully over to the north and tried to ride the edge of the Shingle out past the Needles.

The tide gates play a huge roll in Fastnet, and there are many of them.  Once out of the Solent you have St. Albans then Portland Bill followed by Start Point.  Moving down the Channel the next gate would be the Lizard, followed by the gap between Lands End and the Scilly’s.  Then finally the Scilly’s again on the return and the last shot at Start Point as you enter the bay headed into Plymouth.  Then add to it the challenge of the Traffic Separation Schemes and you effectively end up with four additional tidal gate features to deal with headed out or back in from the Rock.  Having done a bit of sailing, and more than a little bit of dealing with the Gulf Stream, I am reasonably familiar with figuring out the benefits and perils of tide and current but I have never experienced a race where it plays such a huge role in success or failure, Nor any other event where the names for various headlands made me wish for Google so I could learn their backstory.

Dragon exited the Solent nearly even with the Imocas’ and at the front of the Class 40 fleet, and then made one of our few mistakes.  Given the conditions, none of us were going to reach Portland Bill before the tide turned, and the question was if we could use the still favorable tide on St. Albans.  We let the tactics of that potential benefit blind us to the larger weather strategy, and took two hitches to the north while the rest of the fleet slid off to the south.  They benefited from stronger pressure in what was a slowly fading breeze and the ones out front even gained a lift that put them past the TSS without having to tack.  Meanwhile, we spend Sunday night moving far more slowly than we would have liked and went from hero to zero.

Monday’s sailing got us back in the groove and holding our own against the rest of the fleet but also saw challenging and light air the entire day.  The goal was keeping the wheels rolling, and it meant getting weight forwards and leeward while deploying mostly the code sails and double headed staysails to squeeze speed out.  The shoreline offered tantalizing small cummulous clouds that suggested sea breeze, but a quick check of shore observation points revealed them to be siren calls of even less air and soul crushing unhappiness.  It was not until we got up to the Lizard that it seemed to make sense to take a short hitch to the north to use the favorable current on the point as an apparent wind slingshot.  It worked well, and helped us compress back into the front of the Class 40 fleet as we came towards the Scilly’s on Monday night.

Another TSS came into play at the Scilly’s and had an effect on the fleet as it tried to maintain momentum in winds that dropped to near zero.  Our northerly position and momentum allowed us to slingshot past fully 6 boats as we made the turn, and Tuesday morning saw us at the top of the Scilly’s and back in the game.  A tricky transition there meant once again going into extreme light air mode and getting south as quickly as possible, and paid huge dividends as the front boats managed to grab on to what turned into building air.  We managed to find ourselves in a pack of 7 boats that managed to use the advantage to move away from the rest of the Class 40 fleet and into champagne reaching conditions all day long across the Celtic Sea under Code sails and even sunny skies.

Our tactics had worked, but our strategy was slightly off in our second mistake of the race.  In retrospect we should have swapped over from the Code 0 and footed off into the A5.  The increased speed would have paid well as we approached the Rock, as evidenced by the amazing leg that Stella Nova saw in this stretch, cutting through us and the rest of the front pack like a knife through butter.

By the time we hit the Rock, it was 20 knots and a near reach, raining and heavy fog.  The light itself reaches some 40 miles, but this evening we did not see its glow until we were within a half mile.  We cut over the top of it, passing under the tower by less than 300 meters for an amazing and spooky sight.  Yet another TSS had and effect, keeping us pointed higher as we approached and then sending us into a reach as we went across and then a gybe in traffic on the other side.  We screwed that up a bit and it cost us maybe a quarter mile as we sorted it out and sent out a search party for our mojo.

Mojo found, we went into the Code sail and started back towards the Scilly’s as the sun dawned on Wednesday.  This far up the track, it was still too early to call which side of the TSS we wanted, or so we thought.  We were right in the crossover zone for both wind speed and wind direction between the Code 5, Code 0 and Spinnaker, with just a bit too much wind for the A2, a bit too high an angle for the A5 and a bit too little wind for the Code 0.  This choice was on me, and I screwed it up.  I should have strapped on a bit of courage and gone to the A5 early, but instead stuck with the Code 0.  While I don’t know that we could have maintained or improved distance and position on the top four boats had I made the right choice, by sticking with the Code 0 I certainly sealed our fate.  Thankfully, Andy and Simon ultimately prevailed on me to get the A2 put up as the wind died a bit, and that kept us in the game with the rest of the fleet.

Using the A2 meant soaking, and soaking meant we had to go to the north end of the TSS that is down by the Scilly’s.  That move paid well for us and the three or so other Class 40’s that chose that path, moving us ahead of the four or so boats that went to the south side using their A5s.  We rounded the corner at the Scilly’s in seventh at sunset on Wednesday night. moving well and with two boats within 4 miles of our bow and four boats within 2 miles of our stern.

That last stretch of 45 miles turned into a classic duel of deep VMG running in light air and (once again) strong tidal forces.  Moonpalace and Visit Brussels smartly stayed between us and Plymouth, and while we were able to claw a couple of miles out of their lead we never really had a shot at them.  Meanwhile, using some smart current decisions and good GRIBs as well as Dragon’s light air advantages, we made all the right choices to be deeper and faster than all of the boats that were chasing us.  We slid across the finish line at dawn on Thursday, comfortably in seventh.

If heavy air events are akin to fights with broad swords on an open field of combat, then this year’s Fastnet was more like duel with stilettos.  It called for finesse, close tactics and smart strategy.  And patience.    While those watching might have regretted the light air that visited the course at some points of the race, for those of us on the course it was another feature and challenge, no different than the tide gates, the TSS, the Scilly’s or even the Rock itself.  It was a most excellent race.

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