Solo sailor Pip Hare competed in the last Fastnet Race on an Elan 40 and shares her experience of completing the bluewater classic double-handed
It is over. We crossed the finish line at 21:09 last night coming in 17th in double handed class and 33rd in Class 3 which all things considered is probably the result we deserved in the Rolex Fastnet Race.
The atmosphere at Plymouth Yacht Haven is incredible, boats are just everywhere, rafted up to every possible piece of pontoon, hundreds of Rolex Fastnet flags flying in the breeze and a load of punch drunk sailors wandering around in a happy, tired haze.
After the race, the chat on the dock was about the weather, the tide, good luck, tales of woe and “What about those French in their JPKs?”
On Flair IV, the Elan 40 I was racing two-handed with my partner, Ashley Harris, we were up and down the results like a yo-yo. We had our fair share of bad luck, but also made some bad decisions.
At Land’s End we chose to go north around the Traffic Separation Scheme when the majority of the fleet went south, believing we had an opportunity to ride up around the top on the tide and get ahead that way. However, when the wind completely died out and other boats around us were managing to ghost, anchoring was our only option.
Anchoring in 50m of water is quite an art; you need to find every spare piece of string on the boat and tie it all together. For us this included a spare halyard and some reel ends of 4mm Dyneema which, when under load, are a bit like cheese wire. It is pretty easy to drop this down, but once the time came to pick it up again anchoring didn’t seem so great a thing to do.
By the time the breeze filled in and we had managed to get the anchor back onboard we were well back down the results again. The boats to the south had all started moving and it was again time for us to roll up our sleeves and have another stab at sailing fast.
The Irish Sea soon kicked up messy seas, rain, low visibility and grey skies and before we knew it we were beating to ‘the Rock’ in 25-knot gusts. I have sailed around the Fastnet Rock five times now and every time the conditions have been the same regardless of the time of year.
The chase back down the Irish sea was great: we had boats in our sights and set our minds to slowly pick them off one by one. Then in the middle of the night, there was a huge bang and the Code 0 dropped from the top of the rig into the water.
Ash had been sleeping below and was up on deck like a flash. The boat was still making six knots under pilot, but luckily as the head of the sail was completely free it was just streaming along on top of the water next to the boat so we reached over the side and hauled it back in with no damage. The splice in the top of the torsion rope for the sail had blown apart. The top of the furling gear was still up the mast but there was no alternative way for us to hoist the sail anyway so we would not be able to use it again.
This really was a blow, without the Code 0 we were under-powered and still had 50 miles to sail to the Scillies, which had to be done under jib instead.
From the Scillies onwards we would need to try and fly the spinnaker to gain any chance of staying ahead so we took the opportunity to bank some sleep.
Things started to look up again once we had the spinnaker up and we screeched past the Scilly Islands with the boat heeled hard over, reaching with spinnaker to the absolute limit, straining shoulder muscles steering hard to keep going in a straight line. We were going like a train, on the edge but it was great sailing and we were back in the game.
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This time I was below taking a 20-minute power nap when there was another big bang and this time the spinnaker fell down from the mast head. The halyard had chafed through.
By now well practissd at this recovery, we had the sail back on board in a couple of minutes but now we had 60 miles of downwind sailing to the finish and no ability to hoist a spinnaker, the Code 0 halyard was still at the top of the mast with the furling gear attached and the other halyard was a goner.
After some deliberation we decided the only option was to sail bare-headed and send Ash up the rig on the jib halyard to go and get the Code 0 back down.
Climbing a mast at sea is a horrendously scary thing to do, even if you are rock hard. If you are halfway up and let go of the rigging you will be swung like a pendulum as the boat rolls, with no control. Ash had to climb all the way up and then somehow use a free hand to grab the furling gear and halyard. It was not fun. He was successful, but in coming down holding on with one hand he was catapulted twice around the shroud above the second set of spreaders, which meant although I could still lower him down we would now not be able to use the jib halyard.
I dropped Ash down to the spreader, which he sat on, then with the spare carabiner on his harness he hooked directly onto the shroud, undid the jib halyard from his harness and unwound it from the shroud. I can assure you performing all of these feats some 15m above the deck and while being rocked around in a moderate sea state is not fun.
All went well and after about half an hour we were back under spinnaker again and charging for the finish line. The final leg into Plymouth and the finish line rewarded us with some classic downwind surfing conditions. We did short stints on the helm as surfing the waves was physically hard work and we were both exhausted and starting to suffer from intense neck and shoulder pain from working one side of our bodies so hard on the steering wheel.
When we crossed the finish line we felt like we had given it everything. The Fastnet Race has a justified reputation. It is tough, the calibre of sailing is incredible, the course is demanding and with so many boats in each class a mistake or misdemeanour can lose you positions in a matter of minutes. Sailing the course double handed is incredibly tough and we found that even more so in a boat that not designed to be sailed in this way.
I am really delighted to have taken part and, yes, I am revved up to do it again.
The RORC has made the Fastnet an incredible event to participate in, the atmosphere both at the start and the finish were incredible and the race organisers make you feel really special.