Paul Larsen talks about life on board the maxi-cat Maiden II during her recent record-breaking sprint around Britain and Ireland
The Maiden II campaign has been moving through the gears in recent months, ever since we confirmed that we meant business when we captured the 24-hour speed record in July. We’ve been based at Ocean Village in Southampton throughout the summer, waiting for the right conditions to attempt a host of local records including the cross-channel, the Fastnet, the round Isle of Wight and the most difficult, the Round Britain and Ireland.
But as well as being on continual stand-by, we’ve had our hands full on the corporate and general hospitality side of things. Tracy’s been busy trying to tie up the final elements of funding needed for our Jules Verne attempt early next year, and there has been a continual stream of potential sponsors and other corporate guests eager to be taken sailing on the newly-crowned ‘fastest yacht in the world’.
While we as a team love tearing around the flat waters of the Solent, regularly hitting over 30 knots and flying hulls like a Hobie cat, there does come a stage where we have to let the cat out of the cage and back into the offshore wilderness for which she was designed. As nice as it is to finish a day’s sailing and retire back to the comforts of a bar or home, we as a crew also soon long to go for an extended blast to blow away all the land-based cobwebs and keep our ‘eye in’.
After some discussion it was decided that we would sail around Britain and Ireland as there was a weather window developing which may lend itself to a record attempt and even if it didn’t materialise it was still a good course for training purposes.
We had all closely monitored Orange’s recent unsuccessful attempt at this record and knew that we only had to have slightly better weather in order to topple Steve Fossett’s eight-year-old ‘hurdle’. The speed potential of these maxi-cats isn’t in question; it is all about weather. The ideal system is one where a low of suitable size passes slowly over the UK allowing the boat to travel anti-clockwise and hence downwind around its outside all the way around from start to finish while never having to deal with its centre. Dead upwind is obviously slow, dead downwind a bit better but nice wind angles of 120 to 135 and strengths of 20-25 knots are perfect. Although the perfect system might one day happen, we couldn’t afford to wait.
Our regular Navigator, Adrienne Cahalan, couldn’t join us on this trip as she had an important exam to sit so she chose to do our shore-side weather routing and send along Sue Crafar instead. Adrienne monitored the weather throughout the days that led to our eventual departure. She was concerned about us encountering light winds near the northern corner off the Shetlands. She was also worried that the return up the Channel could turn into another parking lot. We all prepared the boat with the essentials. There really was not a lot to do to Maiden II, as she is in good sailing shape. So, after adding a bit of fuel, some food, making a double check of all our safety gear and the inclusion of every sail for every scenario, we were off.
The World Speed Sailing Record Council were on standby off Ventnor to record our departure. We had only just become aware of the plans of Olivier de Kersuason with his 110ft trimaran ‘Geronimo’ and the radical 60ft French foiler Hydroptere to attempt the same record at the same time. This was rapidly turning from a training session into a full-on event. While we were starting from the back of the Isle of Wight, as was Hydroptere, Geronimo was starting off the Lizard lighthouse some 180 miles to the west. This is an advantage as it allows you to pick the weather with which to navigate one of the trickier sections, the English Channel. They started 48 minutes earlier than us at 1300 while Hydroptere crossed our line at around 1700.
The crew of 14 on Maiden II that crossed the start line stretching a mile out to sea off Ventnor under maximum sail area, consisted of 11 original members from the first tentative sails off La Ciotat seven months ago. Brian Thompson was once again taking the reins no doubt eager to capture the record both he and Helena Darvelid had helped establish with Steve Fossett onboard Lakota.
The conditions were for fast downhill VMG sailing as we navigated the shipping channels and settled back into our watches. When we turned the south-east corner of England and headed north, the gybing stopped and we changed to the reaching sails.
Down below decks the ride was incredibly smooth with only the perfectly steady roaring swish against the hull to hint at the speed. Sometimes it just seems to rock you to sleep.
The watches are broken up into three watches of four rotating every four hours from ‘off’ to standby to ‘on’. Brian and Sue sat out of the cycle. Our watch came back ‘on’ for the midnight to four session and by this time we were smoking up the east coast threading our way between sand banks, offshore oil rigs and their associated supply vessels. Despite having ‘a bit on’ with every one wearing masks of concentration, everyone was having a ball.
The wind angle began to move abeam and even slightly forward so we decided to drop in a reef. A couple of hours later things changed again and we went flat out to get it out again. Half an hour to the end of our watch we went from around 23 knots of wind to 15, 11 then 6. We sat there for five hour before the wind filled in again and we were off heading on the rhum line for the Shetlands. We were all concerned that Geronimo had missed this hole and were made aware that Hydroptere had to pull out of her challenge with structural problems. Adrienne told us that from the information she had, with the weather buoys around us registering breeze, the conditions were fairly local.
We experienced another brief park-up on the way to the northerly turning point but it was minor compared to what we expected at the start. We did the only two necessary tacks to get the remaining few miles around Muckle Flugga and that was it for upwind work for the entire trip – a mere few hours – and then out came the big gennaker again as we trucked off around the fantastic scenery, way up at 61, 52 north. We had reached the Shetland corner from Ventnor in 44hours and 49 minutes. St Kilda was the next mark on the course and we headed straight at it in lovely conditions with all the big gear up. We had been warned of a possible rough ride down this side but then the forecast had softened and it was just fast and easy. We hoped that Geronimo had missed the shift and was in for a longer beat north to the Shetlands but we really didn’t know where Olivier was. The nine girls on board Maiden II were all extra keen to beat Olivier because of his well-known views about women on boats.
The third night of the trip was pretty damn full on. Sea conditions had begun to build so we filled the aft ballast tanks to help keep the nose up. The boat instantly felt better. We gybed around St Kilda and headed down on a nice course which would intersect Ireland’s north coast. Steering became more difficult but nonetheless still on the fun side of manageable. Adrienne gave us information from the various upcoming weather buoys from the shore. All indicated that we should be getting less wind than we already had. We gybed once more to head down the west coast of Ireland while the Northern Lights began to shimmer overhead in the deliciously moonless night. Still the conditions built but still we decided to leave all the big gear up. Changing gennakers on these boats is a lengthy process because you have to undertake a bareheaded change rather than a peel. We were already sailing over the 25 knot TWS (true wind speed) limit of the big Cuban fibre gennaker but that wasn’t a problem because we just run deeper. The problem was the sea state and having to weave around a bit to keep the apparent wind forward.
By this time, Brian was tired and went for some well-earned sleep. He left the decks with the words: “Be careful, this is where it can all go horribly wrong.” A bit of a side sea had begun to develop and I was finding it harder to keep the boat in a groove. The wind hit over 30 knots and although I felt in control most of the time, every now and then it just felt wrong. My instincts told me we were pushing too hard. Everything was stacked aft, both ballast tanks full, up to 33 knots of wind in building seas, full main, staysail and No.1 gennaker. I had to take a very wide stance at the wheel as this beast of a boat took off down wave after wave continually hitting the 30s. All the while the Aurora Borealis is going off casting a flickering glow over the whole scene. It’s covering two thirds of the sky with this huge explosion like a frozen firework directly above the mast. This thing looked like some sort of ‘time warp’ that we had just dropped out of. It was real Doctor Who stuff.
I didn’t feel comfortable anymore and need a second opinion, so I woke up Brian! I doubted whether it would be possible for the boat to do a full nosedive capsize, but I did believe, however, that the nosedive could quite easily start the chain of events where the boat could rotate during the dive to a more side on angle where she could then just blow over sideways, especially in this strength of wind with so much gear up.
Brian arrived on deck typically calm believing the wind was about to drop. He took the wheel for a while and we pushed on. The sea state seemed to settle a little and Fraser took over. However, the winds reached up to 35 knots and shortly it was decided to change to the intermediate gennaker. Naturally, the wind then decreased!
The boat was a different girl under the smaller sail and in hindsight we should have changed sooner. I don’t think it cost us much but it was definitely a more comfortable ride. We continued under this rig, gybing down the Irish coast.
The next day brought fickle conditions as well as a bit of carnage. On one of the gybes we went in with not enough pace which meant that the full main, despite being sheeted in well, didn’t flick through cleanly. Instead, the leech folded around before the forward section of the main putting a big ‘S’ through the sail which culminated in a sickening sound as six out of the seven full length battens snapped. We all cursed as it was a stupid mistake.
At the pace we had been travelling, the race was now much more against Geronimo than the clock. The decision was made to push on with the sail. A repair would be pretty lengthy and obviously involve the mainsail being down for quite a while. There was now a huge crease running up the line of broken battens, but Sharon assured us of the strength of the batten pockets reckoning that they should hang in there. Just after midday we passed behind a large and ugly cloud line which really messed with the wind. Gybing now with a crippled main was questionable so in our efforts to get out of the gusty, fickle breeze we decided to ‘Granny’ the boat (tack around instead).
The wind swung on us and it took a couple of extra gybes to clear the tip of Ireland for the dash across the Irish Sea to the Scillies. The wind decreased as we headed into our fourth night. We debated as to what sails we would need up when we turned the corner and eventually went once more with the big gear. Within sight of the loom off the Fastnet lighthouse, we ran out of wind again and spent a couple of hours just trying to keep moving. Eventually we gave up on the more coastal route and opted instead to head out in search of new breeze. This paid off some time around 0130, so we hoisted the Yankee headsail and pointed the bows at the Scillies which we comfortably laid.
The Irish Sea was crossed at a good pace but the wind was up and down. We were not expecting much for the Channel and were very aware that this may be our downfall. All on board were taking guesses as to the whereabouts of Olivier de Kersuason. We figured that he would also have to deal with the fickle parts that we had just negotiated but the fact remained that he only had to reach the Lizard while we still had to gybe the extra 180 miles up the Channel.
Now into the fourth day of the trip we found ourselves VMG running under the big gennaker in 10-12 knots of wind. This was not ideal and we began to feel the pressure. Barring disaster, smashing Fossett’s old record was now in the bag but the possibility of losing out by minutes to Geronimo weighed heavily on us all. We did everything possible to ‘ooch’ the boat on. We stacked every last thing just so and willed the boat on. It must have worked because the breeze began to strengthen with the onset of our fifth night. We were blessed with a solid following wind all night and we worked it for all it was worth. We gybed on the shifts with all hands on deck for every manoeuvre in order to save seconds.
Earlier in lighter conditions we had tried a tentative gybe and found that the main coped alright so now we were just going for it. With every gybe we dragged sails from side to side and hauled the huge gennaker through without furling. The boat was mowing down the Channel sitting on speeds always over 26 knots. It was dead smooth which made for some great steering and it was easy to get the boat all trimmed up and then just hold the required apparent wind speed within fractions of a knot with the slightest touch on the wheel.
We feared the arrival of the news that Geronimo had finished as we knew that if this god-sent breeze held we were only hours from finishing and establishing a very worthy record. The tide was just beginning to turn against us in earnest when we gybed away from the Cherbourg peninsula and dashed for the other side where we took advantage of a big lift coming into Poole. The wind was building even more, so we did a flying change to the intermediate gennaker and headed for the finish, now only a handful of miles away. There were plenty of squally clouds around as the new day dawned. The morning light was fantastic making for a dramatic sky as we approached the finish line off the back of the Isle of Wight. Sharon Ferris had a ‘bit on’ as she negotiated our last squall so we dropped the gennaker and crossed the line 4 days 17 hours 3 minutes and 23 seconds after we started, under full main and staysail.
We were all elated at what had been a great run home, and amazingly our ‘blessed’ wind that carried us over the finish line seemed to die out as magically as it appeared. Although we were all inwardly delighted, we kept our elation in reserve until we heard about Geronimo. Sir Peter Johnson from the WSSRC hadn’t been able to contact their man who was waiting down at Lizard Point so it wasn’t known if they had finished or not. The fact remained that they had to finish some 48 minutes ahead of us but we weren’t going to get carried away until it was a known fact. It was like waiting for exam results! Everyone was getting on the phones trying to find out and telling of our arrival and it wasn’t until over an hour later as we motored up the Solent in windless conditions that I heard the cheering on decks. Geronimo had not finished and was in fact still hours away.
Ratification aside, the new record was ours and one worthy of these fantastic craft. The mighty Maiden II had done it again in style. The crew of 14 including nine girls and five guys had done both her and Tracy Edwards proud and had a fun ol’ time doing it as well. These are the trips that you remember during the bad ones. And this is one in particular that I won’t forget for a long, long time.
For more details of Maiden 2, the crew and their project, see their excellent website at www.maiden2.com