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James Hardiman Blog 6: Offshore Races 3 & 4 (Cowes to Guernsey)

by James Hardiman 6 Aug 2018 12:00 BST
Fastrak and Roxanne after start of the SORC Cowes to Guernsey race © James Hardiman

For any newcomers to this blog, I'm writing about what it's like to race yachts, solo, in an offshore series with SORC (Solo Offshore Racing Club). I'm hoping to give readers an insight into the level of preparation needed for the boat, (and skipper!), and how doable it is for the time pressed racing-sailor.

This season I've had my fair share of problems, mainly because of my boat; a 16 year old J-105 that I bought over from Holland to Hamble just before the season started. I've had to completely set up Fluke IV from scratch, and turn her from 'lake-sailed J-boat' into 'single handed offshore racer' in only a few weeks. Her inaugural race was the Solo Round the Rock and we managed a respectable 8th in class. Not bad for a first race in a new and un-tested boat, in which I was still commissioning the instruments on the way to the start-line! So, now we've completed our second and third races, from Cowes to Guernsey and back, how did it go?

Round the Rock repairs

During the Solo Round the Rock, Fluke IV sustained a few breakages that needed fixing for the next race. These were mainly from a collision I sustained during night 4, and some strengthening problems that were developing from the new sail set up. Various mods had to be done to the bowsprit, so that it could take the load of a furling Code 0 and A5. And more mods to the bow stem plate which started parting from the deck when I used it for hank-on jibs, which replaced the furler. With the help of Yachting Sports in Hamble, we carried out further deck-gear mods to make my sailing routines easier, improving line angles, upgrading cleats, sheets and adding some ideas borrowed from Figaro sailors I've met in the past, just to make life easier when soloing.

In terms of boat-prep, I must admit that I'm pretty fastidious. I like boats to be right because you need them to work properly when you're solo. It's also a trait from my work with Ocean Elements where our dinghies and charter yachts have to be tip top. And the preparation is paying off as I'm (surprisingly) getting some good results. Not something I expected in such a new boat which always needs a period of sailing to get to know her ways.

Cowes to Guernsey race

With 20 entrants, a light-ish forecast and 92 miles to run, this night race to Guernsey was going to be hard work for me, mainly because I managed only 6 hours sleep the night before and spent much of the day exhausting myself with the last of Fluke's mammoth job-list. So, I was yawning my head off as I motored to Gurnard (off Cowes) for the 18.25 starting sequence.

Setting up for a race always seems to take a day of prep; whether it's digging sails out of storage, cleaning the hull, finishing running repairs or doing the routeing. Provisioning is always easy: just grab another Expedition freeze dried meal from my stores, load up with chocolate, drinking water and the token apple to curtail scurvy and we're done. I'm not sure my sponsors Plastic Free Oceans (Surfers Against Sewage) would entirely approve of my plastic bottle consumption, but I do re-use and buy in bigger containers.

A tricky start

With a strong ebb tide, my burn time to the line needed to be negative, (I didn't want to arrive too early and have to wash off speed). But in spite of electronic assistance, I opted for the conservative approach and hung back to start my run 30 seconds later than estimated. The last thing you want to do is find yourself sailing back against a 4 knot tide if you over shoot the line; and washing off speed is never easy with a strong tide when a gust hits.

With a clean and conservative start for all boats, the fleet was led down the Solent by Nigel Colley (Sunfast R2, 'Fastrak XI'), at 8-9 knots over ground and competitors enjoyed a 12-15 knot headwind as we traded tacks and gained (and lost) valuable boat lengths in a series of mini-duels and personal races down to Hurst Castle. Sadly, the fun slowed down a notch as the breeze started to die off around Hurst. Then, (as predicted), at about 10pm a few miles south of the Needles the wind almost completely switched off and we all prepared for a long night of working our boats through light airs. Not an easy task when the surface of the water is near invisible to the eye!

After two frustrating sail changes and a couple of hours of (mainly pointless) tweaking sails under head torch, Fluke IV and I finally found a little breeze and escaped the mini doldrums. As soon as possible, I hoisted my big A2 running kite and we enjoyed a fast night of sailing across the channel with only Nikki Curwen (J-105, 'Voador') ahead.

A battle to second place

Approaching Alderney at dawn is always one of my favourite sailing moments and this was to be no exception. The sun shone as I changed down a gear to whites [sails] because the angle to get around the Casquets and its various outlying rocks looked tight. As I approached on a tight fetch, Stephen Thomas (C&J 37, 'Azure'), was a little more cracked off the wind and had more speed on me. He nipped in front to assume second position through the over falls and into cleaner water. I fought back with my code 0, (which is a real weapon on a J-105 in light air), and took back my 2nd position. Nikki on Voador still had a good lead on us in the favourable tide, and catching up with her with only 20 miles to go was going to be a hard gig. I did manage make some ground back, but nowhere near enough and it was lucky for me that Nikki overshot the finish by trying to douse a code zero in gusty winds off St Peter Port. It allowed me to save a little face by gaining a valuable minute or so on corrected, as I sailed second across the line, into second place overall.

The race back

The race back was a day later, and again the forecast was light. So light that we had a running start several hours after the allotted start time and almost 30 miles north of it, as the fleet motored north looking for breeze. The start eventually got underway somewhere past the Casquets, close to the TSS, (but safely south of it), and all boats hoisted spinnakers as soon as the starting sequence had ended. I managed to get Fluke IV into second position soon after the start by staying well away from Simon Mitchell's dirty air, (Sunfast 3200, 'Roxanne'), to take a position just behind Nigel Colley on Fastrak with his symmetric set up. We settled into a groove; trying hard to maintain speed by using the gusts to soak off to leeward, and the lulls to come back up and maintain boat speed.

Happy with my position, but weary of the constant work, I grabbed a few moments shut-eye and when I regained full consciousness - lo and behold, a very well sailed Voador crept up from leeward with a big kite and sailed through us all. Arrgh! Frustrated at Nikki's sudden progress, I elected to break away from the pack, who were all sailing an almost rhumb-line route to the finish, to seek more wind, which my gribs showed to be coming in from the east. After gybing out to begin the wind-hunt, I was only to be greeted by another shutdown (of the wind) at about 11pm. Frrrustrating!

A frustrating night

Racing at night with no wind and little sleep is always painful. Especially as you tend to spend most of your time analysing other competitor boats on AIS for their speed over ground rather than sailing your own boat. After a painful couple of hours tweaking sails, finally things started to happen at about midnight. Nigel on Fastrak (whom I'd passed during the night) was now doing 6.5kts over the ground and was well and truly north of me! So too was Simon Mitchell on Roxanne, and many other boats. How did that happen? I could barely push Fluke IV along at 1.5kts! Of course it hadn't occurred to me that many of them had thrown in the towel and switched on their engines to get back to work for Monday. As tired as I was, I assumed that everyone west of me had found some wind and was on a roll.

Nevertheless, I wasn't going to give up. It's a common mantra at home that I have with my 5 year old daughter Libby: I often tell her to 'never give up', and with that in mind I darn well stuck it out! Finally a long night of being bowed west, then east by the tide, (and very little northing being made), the shortened finish at the Fairway buoy hove into view and we plugged the last few miles under code zero with a can of Red Bull in hand. Nasty stuff, but it does work!

It really was a race to the finish, because the tide was about to turn, and with no wind I would probably have not made it back to work until Tuesday... All-in-all, it was a painful race but I wasn't going to race all the way from Guernsey just to bin it off 15 miles from the finish.

About the author

James Hardiman is MD of mid-size operator Alpine Elements Ski holidays and Ocean Elements Beach club holidays and yacht charters in Greece. James has around 18,000 miles of solo racing under his belt and his favourite holiday is a sailing break in the Ionian. There's not much wind and its very relaxing. A proper sailing holiday from his normal sailing activities.

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