They may look like eccentrics, but the sailors in the Jester Challenge are the heart of simple ocean sailing
To some they are eccentrics, maybe even crazy. But if you want to see what a real group of adventurers look like, there is no better place to look than the Jester Challenge.
This is the event – you must not call it a race – that runs biennially (and alternately) to the Azores and across the Atlantic, and it is open to single-handed sailors in yachts of 30ft and under. It was formed in spirit of Blondie Haslar and the first OSTAR – a race that now has no place for sub-30ft yachts
Strip away the professionals, subtract the sponsorship and wodges of ‘other people’s money’ and even the paid-for yard work that keeps the moneyed reaches of sailing going, and this is what you have: amateurs in small boats on tiny budgets with huge, horizon-less dreams.
The event that begins on Sunday starts in Plymouth and goes to the Azores. How many will start is anyone’s guess, as this Challenge, uniquely, has no rules, no safety inspections, no organisation, no entry fee and no prizes. It simply is a collection of people sailing individually who choose to go together at no cost.
One of the few organising touches is a start gun fired by co-founder Ewen Southby-Tailyour. He goes out into Plymouth Sound and, he says: “I take my oldest 12-bore gun, with cartridges filled with baby powder and I fire both barrels so there’s a big puff.”
The boats are the sort you might remember growing up or racing on in years gone by, that are now easy and inexpensive to find in the brokerage pages: a UFO, She 31, a Westerly 22, a little Gib’Sea. Most of them are 30 or 40 years old and, in many cases, somewhat scruffy batchelor pads.
The sailors themselves are mostly retired and on a very tight budget. But it would be a grave mistake to underestimate them, their accomplishments or their seamanship. It’s a common error to mistake a yacht’s price tag and smartness with experience.
One of the more scruffy-looking boats has been across the Atlantic four times and to the Azores and back once. The skipper is an extremely experienced sailor. One spent ten years building his boat in his back garden. Most have extensively refitted or rebuilt from keel bolts up.
A regular Challenger has covered 60,000 miles and sailed to 80°N in his junk-rigged Corribee 21. Roger Taylor is not doing the event this time, but has come to help the 20 or so already assembled ready for the off. “The spirit of it is the simplicity,” he observes. “Most people here are not well heeled, but part of it is they like the frugality.”
That sets the Jester Challenge apart from most other sailing events, as does its ultra low key profile. By choice most skippers don’t have satellite phones, emails or even chartplotters. There is no real-time stream of information when they go.
Most don’t send emails. They don’t phone home. They don’t tweet. They just go sailing.