Phil Sharp reports from the Mini Fastnet Race aboard Slovinian entry Adria Mobil Too 12/6/06

British Mini Transat sailor Phil Sharp who finished a creditable fourth overall in last year’s Mini Transat, stepped back on to an Open 6.50 as crewman for one of the two Slovenian entries and finished 3rd overall from a record-breaking 100-strong fleet in the recently concluded Mini Fastnet race.

“After fulfilling my Mini Transat ambitions last year and selling my Mini, I thought I was now on track to leaving those mad 21ft ocean surfboards behind for good. Easier said than done however, for it did not take much persuading to find myself agreeing to an offer to crew in the prestigious double-handed Mini Fastnet race, with Team Adria 4Ocean. I was racing aboard 510 Adria Mobil Too, the second of the two Slovenian entries skippered by Andraz Mihelin, who finished 3rd in last years Fastnet and was naturally aiming to better this result.

“The 700-mile course takes competitors from the bay of Douarnenez, up through the strong tidal waters of the Chanel de Four, between Brest and Ille d´Ouessant, and heading north across the Western Approaches, rounding Wolf rock of Land’s End, and heading north-west up to the infamous Fastnet Rock, 15 miles south of Ireland. After rounding Fastnet the course back to Brittany is clear and simple; sail direct to Douarnenez as fast as possible and try not to break too many things.

“By race day the forecast was very light winds for the majority of the race, not what we were hoping for having one of the fattest and stickiest boats in the fleet – hardcore Manuard designs are definitely not designed for light-hearted conditions! The start was pretty crazy, with 100 Minis lining up for position in the biggest fleet to date. And still everyone barges for the committee end as though every second is crucial in this five-day long race.

“After two general recalls we were eventually off in some good sea breeze, and having got a good clean start we then proceeded to make abysmal tactical decisions sailing out of Douarnenez Bay, rounding the first mark in barely the top half. With neither of us having raced since the Transat in October, it took a while to get into the groove but eventually we were soon hauling our way up through the fleet. By nightfall we were into the top 15 and sailing offshore from north-west Brittany towards Land’s End in ever-decreasing winds.

“By next light we were somewhat surprised to see very few boats around us, and hoped that the leading pack had not vanished over the horizon in front of us. As we neared Wolf Rock later on the wind headed and we found ourselves tacking up along with Vecteur Plus, the favourite for the race, and also Mini Minx, sailed by Raeffer Govoni and fellow Brit and Open 60 skipper Alex Thomson doing a fine job in their first Mini race. Both boats had the speed advantage in light airs, but we managed to squeeze around Wolf Rock in front of them having caught a few good shifts, in about 6th place overall.

“As the second night closed we were soon in downwind conditions now heading for Fastnet, and could see the next morning that Vecteur Plus and Mini Minx were still safely astern of us. The Vecteur Plus branded spinnaker then started steadily gained as the wind dropped to 5 knots and soon it was to be realised that this wasn’t actually Vecteur Plus at all – Raeffer and Alex had borrowed one of their spare spinnakers for the race, for which the Vecteur Plus crew were undoubtedly having big regrets about after being overtaken!

“The wind stayed light all day. This was bad for our relative boat speed but I can tell you it’s great for sleeping. The best job for the crew is to lie down up in the front of the boat and basically just go to sleep. I’ve never got so much sleep in a Mini race, total luxury in comparison to my 1st leg of the Transat, where I only managed to average one hour sleep per night for a whole week. Generally we were sleeping during the day and working hard during the night to keep the boat going at 100 per cent and make up places. So far we were very happy with our position considering the conditions, especially since we were quite sure that Adria Mobil our team mates were behind us, on which Sam Manuard was crewing for Kristian Hajnsek. Sam is pretty much the man to beat in Mini sailing, having won two of the last three Mini Fastnets, so we figured if we could finish ahead him on an identical boat of his design we would definitely be doing well.

“On a misty Wednesday morning at 0600 we rounded a very gloomy Fastnet, for which we could just make out its shadow in the fog. We were both very alarmed to see it suddenly jump out of the thick fog from nowhere, and 20 seconds later there was just fog again. All this way for 20 seconds of Fastnet?.whoopee.
After setting the spinnaker and gybing to the East, by late morning there were less than 4 knots of wind and soon we were helplessly watching Finots and Magnens, including Brossard, sailing away from us again as we struggled to stop our boat’s fat-ass dragging in the water.

“By mid afternoon we had dropped from four places to 8th. At last our prayers were answered however, and the wind filled in from the east until we had a lively 25 knots close-hauled. Normally I find little fun in sailing upwind but knew that with both water ballast as well as a swing keel, the boat was relatively quick in these conditions. Before long we were getting thrown around by the occasional breaker over the boat, and at last it was back to the wet and wild sport of Mini sailing, where all concept of ‘living’ on these boats goes straight out the window.

“For a day and a half more we pummelled our way upwind and after an extremely cold final night at sea, we were at last quite relieved to see Isle d’Ouessant on the horizon. With the wind having headed us slowly, as it does, we were then tacking up near the shore in the direction of Douarnenez Bay. Having seen no boats for two days, we suddenly saw Ecover sailing in from offshore, who tacked over and covered us about 50m ahead. Peter Laureyssens was doing a great job on this new Finot design in what was only his second race with the boat, and unfortunately we weren’t able to make any impression until we got into Douarnenez Bay, with just 10 miles to the finish.

“The last 10 miles of the Mini Fastnet are by the records usually the hardest part of the race. Normally the wind drops completely leaving the door wide open again as the fleet compresses, but this time it was the other end of the scale. The wind picked up and the bay became violently gusty, with gusts up to 35 knots. Minis are so light that in these winds they literally just get blown over flat like dinghies unless you completely dump all sheets. Ecover had a few problems reefing which enabled us to make up some ground and we sailed as high as possible to try and stay inside him on the tack. Whereas Ecover opted for one tack we decided to do a dog-leg to the other side of the bay in the last mile to the finish in the hope that he’d overshoot slightly.

“At this stage things were getting very hairy in the violent gusts, tacking was a serious issue, and the stress was now very high as we realised this was going to be a very close finish and there was no room for error. Fortunately everything went smoothly and we soared across the finishing line just in front of Ecover, so overpowered that the keel was fully out of the water and we only narrowly avoided broaching into the committee boat on the line!

“Overall we were very happy with third place considering the light conditions we had 60 per cent of the way round in which our boat struggled. The Fastnet once again lived up to its reputation of being a light wind but tough race with very changeable and challenging conditions, although I really can’t say I would prefer it this way! The two Magnens, Vecteur Plus and Brossard finished first and second, Vecteur Plus sailing an incredibly quick last leg back from the rock, this design definitely being much better in the light stuff. One thing remains though: I’ve realised it’s impossible to just walk away from racing these awesome 21ft offshore weapons. Whatever the weather, the sport is just crazy and thoroughly addictive.”