A sail, barely visible on the horizon, in an otherwise empty sea about 30 miles south of the Fastnet Rock, is gradually becoming clearer as we draw closer on the downwind leg from Pantaenious buoy to the Scillies. Grey cloud gradually lifts as we overhaul her bit by bit, and then in glorious sunshine, we overtake Hydrocarbon (a Beneteau 50 also in Class 0), passing her swiftly and leaving her in our wake. Leaving her in our wake, Peter Hopps scans the horizon for another sail - next target!
Beautiful blue skies herald a change in the weather from earlier on Wednesday 12th August morning when, shortly after dawn, we had rounded the Rock, low cloud lifting momentarily to reveal the lighthouse casting a yellow beam of light at a 45° into the gloom. The only other boat anywhere near us was an Irish TV camera launch, and as soon as the skipper spotted her he ordered us to stop prancing around like leprechauns on speed taking pictures and see if we could look as if we were proper sailors!
The weather closed in again almost immediately, obscuring the light and leaving the silhouette of the Fastnet rock disappearing into the gloom. On board Nisida our mood was anything but gloomy as we broke out the Fastnet fruit cake, which having been made some years previously, had been brought back to rude health by being lovingly fed rum for the last 3 months. Not the usual Nisida breakfast of bacon rolls but a good job there were no breathalysers around. This was only a morsel in the pastry larder that had established on Pi Nisida, which included flapjacks, rock cake, parkin, flapjacks and apricot and banana cakes and did I mention flapjacks.
As we came up to Pantanaenius buoy we had the spinnaker ready on the foredeck. Watching another yacht rounding the buoy, we saw the spinnaker twist as it went up, taking some time for the crew to sort it out. But for the grace of the Almighty (not to mention a certain amount of instruction from the cockpit) that is what could so easily happen to us. The skipper watches and tells us it is a long race and we will not lose out by being a little slower and more careful with the spinnaker. Our spinnaker is hauled up the snap-shackle breaks the head of the sail gracefully falls and we haul it in again, all within about a minute. Fortunately we have more than one spinnaker halyard. Once our spinnaker is up, Nisida accelerates, getting up to a very comfortable cruising speed of between 9 and 11 knots and although we don't know it at the time, on the third morning of our race, we were not to lower the spinnaker until we were within site of the finishing line more than a day and a half later..
The 2009 Fastnet Race was not by any means all about speed. Tactics played a very large part and our course from the Needles Channel to Portland Bill was pretty close to being a perfect choice until the wind died a few short miles from the Bill, leaving Nisida missing a tidal gate and therefore at the mercy of a foul tide, making a northerly passage instead of south westerly. An Open 60, Toe in the Water was just about keeping up with us - it's not so often you can say that, but they too can't do anything if there is no wind.
The start had been a beautiful spectacle; at 1320 hours Sunday 9th August, crossing the starboard end of the line, we had time to appreciate the beauty of nearly 300 yachts racing down the Western Solent, everyone wanting to get through Hurst Narrows and out into the western Channel. In an easterly force 3 everyone was flying spinnakers, until Lymington when the wind died, so we looked at clouds and other boats and wandered whether that wind over there would come over here for half an hour. Eventually the wind did come this time from the west and later from the south.
After Portland bill, where we seemed to spend all night hoping for more wind than tide, we made slightly better progress, but one of the crew had developed swine flu, coughing and suffering a very high temperature. Helpfully, the skipper said he had an Ensign somewhere in case it was needed for a burial at sea. Certain members of the crew were quite disappointed they wouldn't be able to try their sewing, particularly the last stitch... but luckily Mark made a recovery so the burial party was stood down. We made steady if unspectacular progress until we were just off the Lizard and creeping into Mounts Bay into another wind hole.
Fortunately one of the crew had brought a book on cloud types so we could try weather forecasting but we were spared that when finally got some wind to round Lands End for the long beat to the rock. Go west, was our credo once we were north of the Scillies, so that the tide would push us north east and when the wind came round to wsw we would have an advantage. Our strategy didn't serve us too badly, and dawn on Wednesday saw us approaching the rock through lowering cloud with very poor visibility and radar on.
On the downwind leg things improved markedly, so no more catering at an angle of 40 degrees. After overtaking Hydrocarbon that day we caught up with other boats,
John Oldland on the wheel summed it up;
"sailing doesn't get much better than this anywhere"
The wind gods heard this and as went south of the Scillies, the wind faded to almost nothing, reducing our speed to 3 knots but at least we didn't stop.
That night, the moon came up briefly and shining at low level through the spinnaker silhouetted Mark who was trimming. We were only doing 3 knots in a whisper of wind, and daren't move to get a camera to record the moment.
On we crawled slowly through the night and as Thursday dawned, we knew we were in for a long day. We crossed the mouth of Mounts Bay hoping to avoid wind holes and coming down to the Lizard, couldn't see the Goonhilly Downs for low cloud.
We tacked south for a while, Tension mounted as we crawled well to the south of the Lizard, seeking every breath of wind in the channel.
Unseen, Hydrocarbon had made up ground as we next saw them in front of us again, and as the winded picked up slightly, again we began to gain on them. We kept out from the coast, hoping to have an advantage on wind, and kept gaining on them. We inched past and with a little more wind we needed to keep in front. Inch by inch, then foot by foot we increased the lead and in the late afternoon sun we could see the lighthouse on the end of the breakwater outside Plymouth, marking the eastern end of the finishing line. Would we make the line, or would we have to give up precious yards and tack to avoid going too close to the breakwater. They had taken a line well inside us, and if the wind didn't shift we would have to tack, and they would be over the line in front of us. The wind shifted a few degrees and we made the line, 30 seconds ahead of Hydrocarbon. What a finsh, after 4 days, 4 hours 50 minutes and 56 seconds
We finished 41st across the line in elapsed time (90th overall and 19th in class on corrected time)
Later, we realised how lucky we were. A French competitor told me he had sat 400 metres from the finish for 4 hours, waiting for enough wind to bring him in. If that wind hadn't shifted.... but that's racing.
Completing the race was a challenge, physically and mentally. We had flat seas and moderate wind - only a few gusts over 20knots and very little rain, so pretty much a complete contrast to 2007. The discipline of watch changes every 3 hours at night and 4 hours during the day was easy to get into, once we'd settled into race mode.
For some of us, this marked a completion of a trip we had started more than 2 years ago, for others it was the first time and for several, it was another Fastnet.
Reviewing our race in the restaurant on Friday night, we couldn't think of many things that we would have done differently during the race. Self-congratulatory perhaps, but we achieved a Fastnet finish and that is a milestone for us.
Memories of the race:
The Fastnet light looming out of cloud just as we were coming up to it, and disappearing back into cloud after we had gone round; the pretty blond girl at the RORC race office who offered me 2 XL Fastnet shirts instead of 1 XXL Fastnet shirt because they had none left of the latter.... presumably one for each arm; lunch at the Royal Western Yacht Club overlooking the finishing line, watching about 50 or so yachts not moving very much during the 2 hours or so it took us to have fish and chips
A great crew, having got together only 8 weeks before the race, most of whom had not sailed together previously, worked really well together.