Pip Hare describes the joy of constant sail changes on the Shetland Round Britain & Ireland Race


Report from Pip Hare, racing her Oyster Lightwave 395 with co-skipper Phil Stubbs

54° 24.6’N
10° 19.4 W

180 miles from the finish of leg 2 of the Shetland Round Britain & Ireland Race to Barra and it’s a drag race.

Today and last night we on The Shed have been mostly changing headsails, and considering I only have a selection of three upwind headsails on board and one of them is a storm jib, it has been taking up rather a lot of our time.

The conditions have been trying!

We went into last night beating into the dark and out to the west waiting for the wind shift from the west to arrive. Most of my class is grouped together and we all had the same strategy by the looks of position reports, to head west and tack on the shift when it arrived, which would hopefully then lift us over the top of Ireland and into the North Channel.

That was the plan anyway.

On The Shed we did a bit of head scratching and decided to hedge our bets a little and stay a bit closer to the rhumb line than the rest of our pack by putting in a mini tack back to the east for a couple of hours.

As the night fell, seas were getting lumpy and waves regularly crashing over the boat. The breeze started building and we ploughed off into the dark, sailing closehauled, making a note of our heading every half hour so that when the wind did change the fact may not pass us by.

Computer said ‘ tack at one thirty’ so around twelve I started to get all nervous and jumpy, where was that shift. Was it coming at all, had we just sailed half way to America for no reason?

Waiting for a forecast like that always makes me nervous. My knowledge of meteorology is not nearly good enough. Sure I can look at the sky and identify different clouds, tell of an approaching front and I teach Yachtmasters all about the ‘RYA’ low; that perfectly formed round circle of low pressure with a well defined warm and cold front that mythically exists in text books.

For the most part I am able to interpret forecasts and grib files, get basic information from conditions and make a plan using these things but I hanker after the confidence that a more in-depth knowledge would bring. That will be the next area that requires coaching I think.

Anyway no need to worry the shift approached at around 1.45 and we tacked with it, and changed up from our no 4 (smallest headsail) to the number 3.

The rest of the morning has consisted of shifty conditions under bands of cloud where the wind has been having a laugh at our expense. Changing strength every hour or so sufficiently to require us to change the headsails over.

I will enlighten you as to what a performance this is.

The Shed has hank on headsails which means that if there is no requirement to tack the boat during a change it must be done bareheaded, one down and then the other up.

When Phil and I decide we need to change the headsail one of us has to go up to the bow to pull down the old headsail and the other stays in the cockpit to let the halyard down.

We have no strict rota as to who does which end of the work but as the job at the front requires battling your way along the deck of a bucking boat and then standing on the bow while it plunges up and down through the waves, with bucket loads of water crashing over your head and more annoyingly up the legs of your trousers as the bow sinks deep into another wave, there is normally an element of hanging back to start with

An interesting piece of fluff on your jacket sleeve, or an urgent rope to coil in the cockpit, until one of us breaks and goes up the front to get wet.

The halyard is released and the old sail is wrestled to the deck tied up with sail ties and then unhanked from the forestay. This job can be excruciating on cold fingers. Meanwhile the other person is removing sheets and bringing the new sail along the deck, normally soaked and heavy, the bag catches on everything and tired legs stagger along the deck dragging the burden behind them.

Once the old sail is off it must be dragged up to the high side of the boat and tied onto the rail to be sorted once we are sailing again.

The new sail is unbagged, taken to the foredeck, hanks on, sheets on, ties off and then hoisted.

Once the boat is sailing and up to speed again our final job is to try to flake the old sail which will be flailing around in the wind on the side of the boat and bag it.

This job is particularly fun when it is wet and windy as you have to kneel and the lie on the sail once you have folded it to stop it from blowing away while the other one gets the bag.

But my sails have a finish on them which is super slippery when wet and you are on the high side of a boat that is heeling by at least 30 degrees, so you slowly slide down the slope and end up like a star fish across the deck, arms and legs trying desperately to save the sail from blowing away and nose or chin planted on the deck to try and stop yourself from rolling down the hill and into the water.

So headsail changing is no mean feat and today we have done six in about eight hours.

There is a little demon on my shoulder that whispers to me every time I consider a change not to bother; that it will either blow over and I can just cope with the boat being out of control for a while, or to just go slow and wait for the wind to fill in.

The demon was definitely on Phil’s shoulder when I suggested the last one. That was not a happy face, so much so I even volunteered to go and do the underwater bit at the front.

However one thing is for sure, if we want The Shed to stay ahead there can be no compromise on performance. It is tough with just two, very tiring and not enough time to catch your breath before the next round of tasks begins but we are being chased.

I feel like a proper Hare on the run. We were given a head start and the pack is after us. Fastrack VII in particular is nipping at our heels only a few miles behind. We must sail the boat at her optimum and not give away a second of speed and that means changing sails up and down at the right time and not leaving it too late.

This leg is quite different from the last, when I was actively looking to see the other boats, to know if we were ahead or behind. This time I am looking over my shoulder at the distant Irish coast and scanning the horizon for a mast hoping like hell not to see one as that will mean they are catching up.