May 16, 2012
The UK Mini Fastnet Race heads out from Plymouth England to the Scilly Islands and then makes a northerly turn to the Fastnet Rock. To get there you must cross the Irish Sea. Then after you get around the Fastnet Rock, you make your way along the southern coast of Ireland to the Conninberg Light Vessel, make a sharp southerly turn and head back to Plymouth England, again crossing the Irish Sea. The Irish Sea is a convergent zone of the Atlantic Ocean, the Celtic Sea, the English Channel and the Scottish Sea. Low pressure systems spin up over Northern Ireland and Iceland and feed cold winds into their lows. The lows get pinched in up there with the lows coming across the North Atlantic and the effects from the lows that pile in to the Bay of Biscay in France. In Ireland those lows build, get cold and typically move off East, or South East. This is what makes the Fastnet Rock races famous and so incredibly treacherous at times.
The wind prediction for this Fastnet Race would prove to be accurate. We started off in light wind in a little in port race, then headed out to Eddystone Rock and Bishop’s Rock (Scilly Islands). The wind was from the North West at a pleasant 10 knots and going North throughout the next two days…..and building to force 7, which is close to 30 knots. 30 knots isn’t the end of the world. But 30 knots in a mini, in the Irish Sea is horrendous. The boat pitches insanely. 30 knots in the Irish Sea is a massive whirlwind of sea state. Nothing is consistent. The wind was going to blow cold from the North in a fairly large low that we were just touching the edge of. Going in to the first night the wind started to build. We started reefing, first with the main, then at 20 knots we took a tuck in the jib and continued reefing with the wind building. It was going to be a really really slow slog. Our primary mistake was not eating tons of food during the good weather so that we were prepared for the weather that was to come. Our other mistake was not fully appreciating how cold it would get. We had thermals, and thermals, and mid layers, and fleece layers, and fowl weather gear, and then the now famous “Canadian Bear Suits”…otherwise known as an orange Mustang floater suit. This would prove to be insufficient for the onslaught of cold wind. During the night the wind continued to build and howl. The seas cranked up and the temperature and barometer dropped. The pilot was handling the sail changes well, but we hand steered as much as possible in the confused sea. By Monday we were in full blown 27 -30 knots of consistent wind and into the Irish Sea. We speculate the sea state was randomly between 8 and 20 feet at any given moment and the waves often came from opposite direction. By Tuesday morning we were free falling off of waves and then having side waves break and crash along the side deck. 10 and 15 foot waves would just “pop up” randomly anywhere and then pancake out right in front of you. By now we were both sick, and incredibly cold. The weather forecast was to be on the nose all the way up to Fastnet Rock and then to clock and follow us upwind out to the Conningberg light and then continue to clock all the way back to Plymouth with us. This was the kind of epic stuff that you read about in books. I talked with single handed ocean racers here at the bar that say the Irish Sea can be worse than the southern ocean when it gets confused like that. We slogged it out all day Monday. Monday night the wind would hit 30 knots, but then started to ease off a little back down to 25 knots. Now the free falling started. We would climb up a wave and the boat would drop. There wasn’t enough wind through the troughs for the small sail area and the pilot would get confused with the apparent wind and try to tack. We were spent. Tuesday morning we looked at the 120 miles left to get to the Fastnet rock, the prediction of the wind being on the nose all the way round, our state of sickness and decided that we had learned a huge amount, but that it wasn’t safe to keep going. We would come back to battle the Rock another day. The boat of course was fine. She was bashing along with no problems at all. Deciding to turn around and go back was a safety decision for us. After we decided to come back we learned that another boat had come in before us with a mangled winch. We also were followed in shortly after by our friends on Mad Dog who were coming in with rudder damage and cracks in the hull from the free falling off of the waves. A fourth boat, Mad Spaniel, was just behind them coming in with hypothermia. Jeff on Mad Spaniel was down below working his way in or out of his gear when the boat crash tacked. In the panic to deal with the tack he came flying out of the cabin and instantly took a full body wave and was soaked to the skin. Shortly after stage 1 hypothermia set in and they decided to retire. Jeff also proclaimed today that in all his years of racing around here that he’s never scene conditions more unbearable. The race should have finished on Thursday (tomorrow). The lead boats are only just around the Conninberg Light Vessel and have a little over 200 miles to go…upwind in light air that is going to build again and clock as they make their way back to Plymouth. It’s unfortunate that we couldn’t finish the race, but we have learned TONS from it. This is the reason that we brought the campaign to France a year ahead. We will challenge the rock again and be stronger and faster from this experience (and warmer). We’ll get our qualifying miles in, but we’ll do it with a new found piece of knowledge and be better prepared. This is all part of training…:-)