But they were wrong! Friday night in Cowes had rumours buzzing of 70 knot winds forecast and a possible postponement. The concept of RORC delaying the start seemed preposterous so we continued to work on the basis of a Sunday start. We did however add extra food (bread is cheap, light and easy to store) in case we needed to run for cover in Ireland and sit out a storm, which race rules allow.
And we were wrong - on both counts. At the skippers' briefing on Saturday afternoon RORC announced that they were worried about small boats being caught with nowhere to shelter in the Irish Sea on Monday night - so they would delay the start. for 25 hours. We also ended up throwing a lot of bread away after the race. Our work on changing Nisida from Cowes Week to Fastnet Race mode slowed to a standstill once the postponement news came through; deadlines can be useful and we filled much of Sunday with boat prep.
Swapping the mainsail
The weather forecast did force us to review our sail wardrobe. No need to take our sexy lightweight no1 genoa. Not a weight decision but more one to save space in the cabin - which can so easily turn into a well of sails and water in a blustery race. We also toyed with sparing our lovely new North 3DL mainsail and just taking the dacron one - but there is a big difference in performance when beating and our 3DL is offshore spec (kevlar and taffeta) with 2 large reef points. The main held up fine and we never used our heavy no 1 genoa; our dacron no 3 and staysail proved perfect workhorses. We did however use our full stable of assymetric spinnakers.
Monday morning finally saw a very excited crew (for 7 of whom this was their first Fastnet) set off. The forecast for that night had now moderated to force 5-7 , initially from the south west so we would be beating to Portland Bill. Forecasts further out were still looking very confused - the only thing we were pretty certain of was that we shouldn't be becalmed. But we've sailed Nisida over 14,000 miles in the past year or so, seen 65 knots of wind racing off Italy and crossed the Atlantic twice. So we were pretty confident that we'd get round the course, just not of how fast.
Since 1979 (when no one knew exactly who had actually started the race) all boats have to go through a pre-start gate with their storm sails up. Very sensible but very amusing to see quite so many orange sails filling the Solent. With the wind fast picking up we then elected to start with our no 3 headsail.
The start gate
58 boats on the port-end-favoured squadron line was very exciting, even more so when several of those leading failed to leave Gurnard buoy to port and had to try and squeeze back in. We were at that point feeling very pleased with ourselves and near the front of the class.
Close tacking after the start
Our other favourite moment of the Solent was forcing Alfa Romeo, on port, to duck behind us. But then the wind picked up further and we decided to reef ahead of the inevitable scrum of the Needles Channel. The inner forestay made tacking slow as well as a very hard task for those on winches duty, and we had to take a rather slow route out. But we kept reminding ourselves that our time would come once we could reach! Nisida was designed as a downwind flyer by Californian Bill Lee, whose motto is 'fast is fun'.
Swapping the mainsail
Approaching the Needles Channel
Once out of the Needles fairway the fleet split into those going south and those of us who stayed inshore. We tacked up towards Weymouth and made Portland Bill as the tide had just turned against us. That evening as it grew dark the wind started to free us and we took off - overtaking boats at a rapid rate. The wind picked up through the night and helming became quite entertaining. More concerning was keeping an eye under the sails for any other race boats while there was also plenty of non-racing traffic to keep us all busy watching and avoiding.
Helming was great fun!
We heard of a few retirements, including very sadly of Jump's split mainsail, and of another chartered J133 asking for help with turning off their engine, but were more concerned with our own sailing. Changing down to the staysail along with a lot of waves coming over the boat meant that, the navigator apart, we were all very wet come the morning. But at least it wasn't cold and, along with the knowledge that we'd made it fine through the forecast storms, crew morale was further boosted when the skipper (who has an iron stomach) served up porridge. And then there was Richard Anderson, an LCSC member who hails from Lerwick, standing at the helm with a grin on his face and commenting that this was the best weather he'd seen all summer but 'surely the visibility was a bit good'.
On the latter point he was right - shortly thereafter the cloud cover dropped to sea level and we hoisted our radar reflector. Rounding the Lizard we were sailing with more tidal influence than wind when another boat appeared out of the gloom. This was a Class 40 - which rates more than us so we were pretty pleased. Little did we know this was the only boat we'd see for most of the rest of the race.
The trip across the Irish Sea was pretty uneventful, except for the skipper commenting as the wind shifted onto the nose that 'sometimes sailing is a very stupid way to get anywhere'. But excitement mounted as Ireland came into view, the wind and sea moderated as we neared the rock and we beat our way round it almost tempted to hoist the no 1 genoa. We did get the reaching spinnaker up for about 10 mins (it takes longer than that to pack it) after the rock along to Pantaenius, the spreader mark, but then the wind picked up again, the sea state worsened and we opted for a poled out genoa for the trip back across the sea.
A deserted rock
What astonished us at the Rock was the absence of competitors. We knew we would not be amongst the first and hoped we weren't at the back - so where was everyone? Switching on mobiles to pick up the Irish network gave us messages of the number of retirements which explained all.
Downwind sailing in the sun is always fun and, combined with the realisation that we were now heading home, the mood on the boat turned into full party spirit. The cockpit was littered with our drying gear while, since going down below was no longer a feat of mountaineering, we could tackle our food mountain properly. The boat would have done credit to a church fete - not only did we eat home cooked dinners every night but our crew had baked flapjacks, brownies and banana cake in huge quantities that even 12 very hungry people struggled to do justice to. Picking up on the party mode (or more likely enjoying the much faster speed of the boat) were dolphins playing in our bow wave - a treat we were to enjoy all the way back to the finish.
We saw more dolphins than fellow competitors
But we were of course still racing. Stephen Gear-Evans' emails give us much credit for planning our course back. It does otherwise look difficult to understand the wiggling. But we were just trying to sail as deep as safely possible and on the making gybe in a wind which was shifting around but broadly dead behind our desired course. We didn't want to gybe much in those seas; the wind - a south easterly force 7 turned northerly force 7 and now north westerly 7 - made for some tricky waves, which there was no moon at all to help you see at night.
Come Wednesday daybreak we were rounding Bishops Rock (the Scillies) and were on the last leg home. The sun was out, we could see four other race boats and we could smell the beers in Plymouth. For the first time in the race we were in full race mode - spinnakers up and down all day as we managed to pass the Challenge 67 ahead of us and draw away from the others behind. The wind obliged by staying up all day and allowed us to cover the last 22 miles in 2 hours (meaning to our huge disappointment that Tim Wright failed to come out in time to photo us with our reaching kite up). We did however get filmed by the Rolex video camera, and at the prize giving we got to see ourselves in full action as we shot towards the finish. .
Our big spinnaker (208 sq metres)
It took us 29 hours to get back from the Rock (the skipper's fastest in nine attempts)- which meant for a 620pm finish time and for a last dinner on board (Peter Horton's chilli) before hitting the bar. There however we found very few to swap tales with. We did meet the RORC race officials and congratulated them on the race. They did look a bit startled when I said it was the most enjoyable RORC race I'd ever done. Testimony to a great crew and a boat we had complete faith in.
A happy crew
We also learned to our great surprise that we'd got 3rd in our class (19 started, 13 DNF, one very carelessly missed out Pantaenius, two (Class 40s) have even nastier IRC ratings than Nisida). This ensured a very jolly crew day on Friday- shopping, eating, drinking, prize giving, drinking, eating, collapse into bunk. We were also delighted to meet the crew of Persephone as they came ashore. Nigel Goodhew had raced with his wife and two teenage children, winning the Hobo prize for the first Sigma 38 that Peter along with David Edwards and Martin Richmond Coggan had won four years ago.
Peter will shortly be doing a briefing at the club where you can hear a much more technical version of events as well as ask him more detailed questions. And Nisida will be setting off back to her homeland, the Mediterranean, next month for racing and cruising in warmer waters - more details soon.
Photos courtesy of Tom Partridge
Crew Peter Hopps (skipper), John Kewley, Louise Kewley, Trudy Netherwood, Emma Ascroft, Hilary Cook, David Edwards, Richard Anderson, Tom Partridge, Neil Palmer Guy Hammond, Peter Horton
The Irish Sea