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Virgin Media Business SORC Round the Rock Race - Overall

by Rupert Holmes 11 Jul 2016 15:13 BST 11 July 2016
Will Sayer's Sigma 33C Elmarleen beating out of the Needles Channel a few hours after the start of the SORC Round the Rock Race © Rob Packham

Punishing weather on one of the world's most challenging race courses made the first Round the Rock race, sponsored by Virgin Media Business, one that will go down in history. It proved a mammoth test of skippers' mental strength, emotional reserves, technical sailing ability and seamanship skills. It also tested their boats and equipment to the extreme.

The fleet was plunged into horrible conditions on the first day and night, battling against headwinds of up to 35 knots, accompanied at times by standing waves of 8-10ft. The early retirement of a number of competitors was therefore not a surprise, with many citing autopilot or battery/charging problems. Nevertheless, 19 of the 43 starters completed the course, while all those that retired were able to reach shelter without the need for outside assistance.

The entry list encompassed a huge range of talent, including some of the most successful Corinthian short-handed sailors on both sides of the English Channel. Among them were winners of both the OSTAR and TransQuadra trans-Atlantic races, as well as the double-handed division in the Royal Ocean Racing Club's Rolex Fastnet Race.

The sailors racing the larger newer and better funded yachts, particularly in the Sun Fast 3200, 3600 and JPK10.10 fleets, had incredibly close tussles with each other throughout the course. However, they were repeatedly challenged by some of the more modest older and slower boats.

As the fleet passed Lizard Point on the second night one of these, Will Sayer's Sigma 33C Elmarleen, led the fleet on corrected time. However, he failed to make the tidal gate at the headland, where he was trapped for six hours along with Charles Emmett's Sigma 36 British Beagle. One of the challenges – even attractions – of long-distance offshore racing is in managing the many emotional ups and downs. This is magnified when alone and few skippers were immune to moments of despondency.

Sayer dropped a crushing 15 places at the Lizard, but worse was to come thanks to a tactical error between Lands End and the Scilly Islands. "Why, why, why did I go for the far side of the TSS?" he posted at the time. "Tired maybe, not thinking straight, or some rubbishy excuse for going on some stupid, stupid flyer. Instantaneously I handed over my control of Class 3 to British Beagle.

"I have been debating whether to retire based on this mistake. 160 miles to Ireland each way for the fun of it doesn't sound that fun. For some reason though I haven't got round to pushing the tiller over. I don't seem to be able to do it. Let's hope the entire fleet gets headed and, with me now being the most westerly boat of the fleet, I manage to pull something truly spectacular out of the bag.

That evening the wind did indeed head the fleet, and increased to again pummel the skippers with gusts of 35 knots and more massive waves with breaking crests. "I got hit by a NW storm out of the blue and it raged for most of the night!" Emmett reported from British Beagle. "This was compounded by a couple of hiccups. As the wind built quickly, I got my heavy weather jib rigged on the inner forestay so it was easy to hoist if needed. As the wind continued to build I went to furl my genoa, but could not. I put the line on a winch but only succeeded in breaking it. So I am now left in 35-38 knots with a full genoa and flat on my ear. I had no option but to go on the foredeck and drop it. Well I cannot tell you how much water was breaking over the deck, but I could have done with a snorkel!"

The storm left a calm zone in its wake that snared both Elmarleen and British Beagle at the Fastnet Rock. They each took some six hours to cover a couple of miles while tacking around the lighthouse against the tide, when the rest of the fleet was making good progress back towards the Scilly islands.

Soon after dawn on day five the first finishers were closing the finish line in frustratingly light airs. They were led by two Sunfast 3600s, with Rob Craigie's Bellino taking line honours at 0719, 36 minutes ahead of Ian Hoddle's GameOn. Cragie's lead on the water was also sufficient to secure victory in Class 1 on corrected time.

The rest of the day saw a constant stream of boats crossing the line, with changes of place right up to the finish. The first Class 2 boat, Louis-Marie Dussere's JPK10.10 Raging Bee, finished just 26 minutes after GameOn. Dussere sailed a stunning race to take an advantage over Craigie of three hours 37 minutes on corrected time, as well as taking victory in his own, hugely competitive, class.

However, Dussere faced a tantalising 18 hour wait for the slower boats to finish before the overall winner could be determined. At 1700, Elmarleen was just past Lizard Point, 45 miles from the finish and making 5.1 knots. Sayer needed to average 4.7 knots to finish before 0430 and claim overall victory, However, the already light wind was predicted to decrease overnight.

Eventually, Sayer's tenacity paid off and Elmarleen crossed the line at 0226 to win Class 3 by more than four hours and take the overall lead at the head of a formidable field. "It was a cracking race with lots of highs and lows," Sayer says. "We had a fantastic beat out of the Solent – my boat was flying. But on the second day we were all becalmed, so that was a bit of a low. In the Celtic Sea we saw 30-35 knots again – it was another cracking evening. Most people don't like it, but I quite enjoy it and my boat seems to enjoy it – I just batten down the hatches and off she goes.

"For four-fifths of the race I didn't know how well I was doing, so the real highlight for me was coming into the Scilly Islands on the way back, and seeing that I was doing well in class and overall. The last 12 hours was really tough – the wind was up and down all over the place, so all the way into the finish I didn't know whether I would make it in time. Fortunately, the wind held up in the last 5-6 miles, but at any moment it felt as though any chance of an overall win could have been snatched from me."

Sayer wins a holiday for two from Ocean Elements/Alpine Elements, whose MD James Hardiman was a fellow competitor. Other competitors gained Spinlock Deckvests, Bartz sunglasses and Ursuit drysuits, while Pontos winches generously fronted the bar bill at the prize giving.

Sponsors included Virgin Media Business, Pontos Winches, Spinlock, Expedition Foods, Ocean Elements and Alpine Elements, Barz Optics, Sea Ventures, Ursuit drysuits.

This race was always about more than simply getting round the course in the shortest possible time. It's an adventure that instilled a palpable sense of achievement among all the skippers, irrespective of their final result. At the same time, old friendships were strengthened and many new ones forged, while many of those who had been forced to retire have a determination to complete the second edition of the race in 2018.

www.solofastnet.co.uk

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