A Tale of Salt and Light – by Stephen Hill
The 50th edition of the Rolex Fastnet Challenge Race attracted the largest fleet to start than ever before by a considerable margin with over 450 yachts taking part. Getting to the start line is not a given. Each crew must earn the right to take part in the race by having sailed at least 350nm together in qualifying race conditions and ensured the requisite offshore safety training has been completed by crew members. For the crew on Lutine this consisted of various training weekends, offshore training lectures plus in water life raft simulations, RORC Cherbourg Race, RORC Cervantes Race and RORC Myth of Malham Race in the months prior to the Fastnet Race. These were not without challenge and with hindsight invaluable given the voyage we were about to embark on.
James Close – Skipper
Note: Nigel Ford was regrettably unable to compete having tested positive with the dreaded COVID in the days prior to and including race day. A massive disappointment for all. He would be sorely missed.
Day 1 Saturday 22nd July 2023
Crew mustered the day before to prepare Lutine for the voyage. All essentials taken off, victuals put on board and sails plus rigging in order. Lutine’s hull cleaned below the water line and race-ready. So here we are, race day. Heart in mouth time. This has been a long while coming and everyone is excited and nervous in equal measure. At 09:00hrs we assembled for breakfast at the Creek Restaurant in Haslar Marina. The crew learned that Nigel Ford was not able to join us which was a real blow but a reality we had to deal with. It was our final chance to get a debrief on what lay ahead in terms of weather and navigation. The chart below shows three fronts chasing each other barrelling in off the Atlantic so we knew conditions were going to be very challenging with wind over tide at The Needles out of the Solent that afternoon not to mention the rest of the race. The mood was pragmatic. We had prepared and we had a plan.
Forecast Chart Sat 22 JUL 2023 12:00 UTC
11:00hrs we cast off and made our way out into the Solent. The storm sails were hoisted to pass through the Safety Check Gate with all-hands on deck wearing life jackets. Two reefs in the main and the storm jib up for the race start. Headed out toward the start line. An incredible armada of yachts jostling around accompanied by ribs and other small motor craft. Helicopters buzzing the fleet from above. All action but not too messy given stiff conditions.
13:35 warning gun.
13:45 BOOM! We’re off and in safe position back from the melee of other yachts vying for position. We headed west wanting to take the north channel. Conditions deteriorated fast with 35 knots plus wind and severe chop. Other vessels took emergency tacks blocking our intended manoeuvres. Tacking was proving extremely challenging given the standing walls of water off Hurst Castle and Skipper James Close took the initiative and we sought refuge. This was a good decision given crew were literally being thrown around the deck and luckily nobody overboard. Lutine’s boom even took a wetting as we heeled over, it being so challenging to generate enough power to take the tack fully round. Some bruised bodies and vexed minds but nothing too serious. Adrenaline high and emotions running sore. We had all had a real taste of salt by now and had thankfully preserved ourselves but at this stage postponed going further in the race until conditions subsided a bit. From here we had to look for a safe line of passage through traffic back towards Yarmouth. Not easy.
Eventually we took a mooring outside Yarmouth to decompress and collect ourselves. A range of emotions on board. Some bitterly disappointed being under the impression the race was over, others simply glad to be alive while a few intelligent souls, especially Christopher Bailey, kept their composure and reached for the race rule book. On further inspection it became clear we had not fallen foul of race rules by withdrawing to our mooring and therefore had the opportunity to continue once RORC had been informed properly. Despite the challenges of the day, we collected ourselves, decided to rest in Yarmouth until that ruinous storm had passed and then rejoin the race. At the time this seemed very much off plan but during our qualifying races it had been discussed on more than one occasion as to what we would do in an adverse weather scenario and what manifested is exactly what we had agreed should happen. Back on plan.
Dinner: beef bourguignon. Oh how good was that? The radio cackled full of distress calls and the lifeboats were very busy. We all felt concern for those in trouble. Some encouragement was taken from others mooring up nearby. We were not alone in choice of plan. A chance to rest and sleep while the storm outside raged through the night. It was horrendous!
Day 2 Sunday 23rd July 2023
Wake at 04:30hrs and set off at 05:00hrs having put away the storm jib. Sleep was disturbed by some youths playing dance music through the night on another vessel close by. Conditions less severe but still needing respect. Head out of the Solent due west. Plenty of other yachts in the distance. News came through that over one hundred others had retired, one boat had sunk, four had broken masts and various others in trouble with broken safety equipment, torn sails and such like. We however were intact and on track to catch up with the rest of the competition taking shelter at anchor further along the coast fully vindicating the prior day’s actions.
08:00 Breakfast – sausage baps. Well received. Watch system on.
Good progress made and caught up with remaining field of yachts who had taken shelter outside the Solent.
1 crew member seasick. Rest of crew seem to be ok.
25 knots and strong sea state through the day. Plenty of water over the bow. This is what we came for.
Watch system working well and into rhythm as per previous races.
Dinner: Ciabatta Pizzas. Evening heading into Lyme Bay. Some tacking to north and south to get through tidal gates. Sailing 45 to the wind.
On through the night with winds still stiff.
Day 3 Monday 24th July 2023
08:00 Ham and cheese croissants for breakfast.
Lutine’s bow into the waves. Anyone on watch not on point is up on the guard rail. A very soggy start to the day. One more crew member very seasick but stoically pulls through. Winds ease off through the day.
Lunch: Cornish Pasties off Cornwall. How apt!
We pass Portland Bill, Exeter lights, Eddystone light house, then Lizard Point. Finally Lands End and Scilly Isles later in the day. Good hard progress.
Dinner 19:00: Chicken and mushroom pasta pots.
Strong northerly wind into Irish Sea. Starboard tack. Long rolling high waves. We’re really offshore now and into the night achieving 7 to 8 knots perhaps even 10 at times. Wind and tide on side.
By this time, we are all getting tired but remain cheerful and the watch system is working properly. Some concern over Skipper James Close who has a cough and needs rest.
Navigation going well. Lutine’s poltergeist turned up at 02:30hrs while Christopher Bailey sat at the chart table. The third draw down for no explicable reason flew out and slammed into the galley pot cupboard. Christopher took it in his stride and was observed diligently replacing it to its position which took some time and several attempts all without one single expletive!
Day 4 Tuesday 25th July
Early morning wind drops. Becalmed for several hours which was frustrating. At this stage we are 100 miles from the Fastnet Lighthouse. We used the time wisely. A chance to clean up, check the deck and make repairs. Spinnaker lines rigged up. The outhaul had snapped at the end of the boom so James Close set about making repairs. On it went confined to no wind and strong sunshine with the occasional dolphin to cheer us up.
Early evening wind starts to trickle in. Code zero sail goes up. We’re back in business. Slowly at first but after a while enough wind to make good progress.
Dinner: Bailey’s famous hearty Ginger Vegetable Curry. Warming stuff!
Sundown through gentle clouds into the west a treat for the eyes as light shines through in beams to the sea.
Late evening – a shout, “Land ahoy!”. We’re off the Irish coast. Tantalisingly close. Darkness falls. Other yachts congregate in our vicinity all hunting position for the rock. Some good sport as darkness falls and wind picks up a little. The immediate approach to Fastnet Lighthouse needs attention given TSS exclusion zones. Careful navigation and adherence to bearings taken. A beacon of light pulsing in the distance.
Code zero furled away and jib unfurled.
A soft shower of rain gently tumbles. The light pulses on a four second chime from Fastnet Rock Lighthouse with long beams striding out into the mist.
00:10 hrs Careful helming taken through the gap. The lighthouse and Fastnet rock standing tall against the dark night sky. Lutine has circumnavigated! A moment to celebrate and commit to memory for all the crew.
26/07/2023 00:10 hrs BST Fastnet Lighthouse
Halfway. More race to do! Time to tack southwest then southeast to avoid the second TSS exclusion zone. As we distance ourselves from Fastnet we look back at a genuinely incredible view of Fastnet Lighthouse doing its job: a beacon, a signal, a warning light – important information for any vessel approaching.
Wind up, sea state good, Lutine in her element cruising at 8 knots in good conditions. The fleet of yachts soon disperses. We’re on our own into the night and into the rain. Through the night with no stars, no other yachts around, no ships nor any reference point on the horizon. Just instruments to guide us into the abyss.
Day 5 Wednesday 26th July 2023
Wind building through the night across the Celtic Sea from 11 knots at 02:00hrs to 23 knots by 09:00. Visibility about 1 nm with rain and drizzle the order of the day. Some sport with Flycatcher and Boracic too whose crew tried to kite in those conditions to chase us but ultimately had to take precautions and put it away. Wind continued to build and gust to 35 knots by 17:00.
Dinner at 19:00 James Brady’s Ratatouille and Chorizo with Tortillas.
Waves building too and this was tricky for those on helm having to essentially surf Lutine on and over towering waves as they swept past. More sport to be had with Challenger 3 and CV3 both in our class. The sea state as we sailed by the Isles of Scilly was particularly challenging with truly enormous waves which Tom Bailey had to tackle on helm reaching 34 knot boat speed surfing one of them according to the log. Top wind speed recorded was 37 knots during this stage. For the record the author was blissfully fast asleep in “The Bear Pit” otherwise known as the port side aft cabin when this occurred! Yes, we were all exhausted by now but the sea, wind and rain are relentless and besides there was a race to finish. No choice. Keep at it.
Day 6 Thursday 27th July 2023
Relentless wind and heavy swell. More rain. Respect for the smaller craft stuck out in the Celtic Sea with a force 7 storm over them. Richard Laver on helm through dawn. Now about 100nm from the finish line at Cherbourg. The swell still needed attention with waves chasing us but as the morning went on the seat state improved and we were able to attack rather than defend. Just north of the Casquet Rocks we had Alacrity, Challenger 4 and Von Bremen behind us and ahead were Albatros, Casamayas and Jago with 29nm to go at 14:00 hrs. We gave chase and James Close took over from Tom Bailey on helm at 15:00. The rain turned to drizzle. Land visible starboard side. The final push. All hands-on deck. Richard Trevethick still diligently guarding the main sheet. Others on the rail as detailed in a race.
16:00 hrs on the nose Lutine crossed the finish line having sailed a total of 857 nautical miles in 5 days, 2 hours, 15 minutes and 41 seconds. That achieved 168th in Line Honours Monohull, 179th in IRC Overall and 23rd in our class IRC Zero.
27/07/2023 16:00hrs BST
We moored up in Cherbourg, raised the sponsors’ battle flags – Knight Frank, Aon and Ark then headed to the race village. As you can imagine Thursday evening was a time to celebrate and decompress a little. Reality bites though and imperatives don’t go away so with the crew splitting up, Lutine set sail again that night to be brought back to Haslar Marina, Gosport arriving in to dock at 08:00 Friday 28th July 2023.
The above is a basic outline of how the race went. There were some brilliant moments which will come out in the fullness of time through conversation at Club gatherings and I look forward to regaling some stories. Special mention should go to Tom Seaman for making sure we were well fed for the race as he planned that well and made the extra effort to make it happen. If I had to pick someone from the crew who I thought pushed themselves to a new level, then Richard Laver stands out for me with his diligence on deck and efforts on helm. Having the Bailey clan on board was a great dynamic to the crew. George Bailey at only 15 years of age really has done something special here.
As I sit here on the beach at Cahadaniel on the west coast of Ireland looking out to Bull Rock across a calm sea with the sun setting in the west after one month since we raced, I am still finding it hard to digest. On a personal level I wanted to be part of a team and learn the basics of offshore racing. To that end I feel I have come away having been very lucky to associate with a remarkable group of people and have been truly baptised into the sailing world. You learn a lot and perhaps the biggest lesson is that to compete effectively and safely in offshore sailing it is very much a way of life not just a token thing. I’m in! As a crew we made every effort to preserve our energy, Lutine and our course through the race like salty sailors should do. I also like to think we kept our heads level in challenging conditions using the light from prior sailing knowledge and information to hand – thank heavens for instruments and GPS! There was of course the occasional mishap, but we learned from these and kept our composure which is a great accolade to Skipper James Close and the two watch leaders Tom Bailey and Tim Blackstone. That race has made its mark on me, and I feel very lucky to have had the chance in life to take part.