The 2003 Rolex Fastnet Race produced a cliffhanger finish in the 'big boat' Super Zero Class, with New Zealand's 90' all-carbon Super Maxi 'Alfa Romeo' taking line honours in light airs from 86' US boat 'Zephyrus V' by just 400 metres and 10 minutes, after a tight boat-on-boat match race over the last 150 miles to the finish at Plymouth. Third to finish, but Class Winner on Corrected Time was the 71' UK boat 'Nokia Connecting People', followed by the 86' UK boat 'Leopard'. All four are from the San Diego design stable of Reichel/Pugh.
Ever since the first race in 1925 was won by the 56' pilot cutter 'Jolie Brise' in 6 days 14 hours, leading to the formation of the Royal Ocean Racing Club, the Fastnet Race has been one of the great classic ocean races, attracting the best boats and crews from around the world. The 610-mile course starts from the Royal Yacht Squadron's line at Cowes, leading west from the Solent down the English Channel for 200 miles, then out past Lands End across the Celtic Sea for 160 miles to round the 50-metre Fastnet Rock in the Atlantic off the southern tip of Ireland. Returning back across the Celtic Sea another 150 miles, the fleet passes south of the low-lying Scilly Isles, then a final 100 miles to finish at Plymouth, where the Transatlantic Single Handed Races start and Sir Francis Chichester and his 'Gypsy Moth' ended their epic single-handed circumnavigation in 1967.
The two open sea legs typically give fast reaching and beating, accounting for half the distance. The other 300 miles involves negotiating up to a dozen big headlands and fast tidal gates - each of which can 'park up' the unwary for hours. Success in the Fastnet Race requires not only straight-line boat speed but also tidal analysis, met interpretation and tactical decision skills of a high order. Get more than a couple of such calls wrong and you are no longer a competitor, but a participant ......'Whitebait!'
As the high-profile battle in the 'big boat' Zero class developed, those in the know were watching another battle develop in the Multihulls class, where a 'needle match' was shaping up between Richard Roscoe's 33-foot self-build Farrier 9AX trimaran 'Triohe' and Mike Butterfield's 40-foot Dazcat catamaran 'Dazzle' - a development from his 50-footer design built for the RORC Around Britain 2000, and inverted/lost while cruising off the Azores. Both owners had been racing rivals on the UK circuit for many years, and 'Triohe' had been whipping 'Dazzle' by hours in the previous 'Fastnet Qualifier' races. With new high-spec deck gear and sails, a big carbon spar, serious investment in IT and weather-routing software, lots of pre-race practice - and just a little posturing - 'Dazzle' came to the start line looking for a showdown.
Also on the start line at Cowes, with more than 240 other Fastnet boats, were 'Gleam' and 'Mollymawk' - both fast 40-foot tris - and 'Brigand', a 52-foot cruising catamaran with corporate guests. Finally, in a class of his own, came the indestructible Tony Bullimore in his 110-foot cat 'Team Pulmic' - aka Formula Tag, ENZA, Royal & Sun Alliance, Team Legato - which has had more sponsors, facelifts and remakes than Michael Jackson!
'Brigand' and 'Gleam' later retired; 'Pulmic' reached round the course, with Tony entertaining his guests from his fund of stories, and 'Mollymawk' - probably the fastest boat - failed to save her time by several hours. So it came down to 'Dazzle' and 'Triohe'.....
The multis were again the last class to start. All the monos were strung out ahead on a 16-mile brisk sea-breeze beat down the West Solent to the Needles Fairway seamark. 'Triohe' had a fast, clean start ahead of the other multis and, making the most of the 3-knot ebb tide, was quickly catching the back-markers ahead. It was soon noticed that the crew on 'Dazzle' were copying our every manoeuvre tack-for-tack, but from behind in a sort of 'reverse covering'. Puzzling - but a compliment of sorts - and they managed, with clearly improved boat speed, to stay quite close until we split tacks and wiped them off among a gaggle of slow Sigmas. In clearer air, 'Triohe' started to extend her lead down into the Needles Channel and the open water beyond.
'Dazzle', 'Gleam', 'Brigand' and 'Pulmic', with 50-60 of the monos, dropped steadily behind as we headed southwest down Channel. 'Molly' had the more power in the now-dying breeze, and swiftly stretched ahead. Halfway to the big tidal-gate headland of Portland Bill, we sailed into a persistent 'windhole' and, as the tide turned foul, down went our kedge anchor - in 225 feet of water. That's got to be a record! This old racing tactic of deep-water kedging was used successfully in the '30s by RORC legend Adlard Coles in 'Cohoe' and has largely been forgotten - but not by crafty and well-prepared crews! Before long, 'Molly' and some others re-appeared, with bare steerage way, sailing past us again backwards into the gathering murk. This was where she lost her race.....
An expected light breeze slowly filled in and, after hauling back on board nearly 500 feet of line, chain and anchor, we were away again, under spi and full main. All that night 'Triohe' worked her way steadily west, using every nuance of breeze we could squeeze from wind-field predictions, pressure trend charts, cloud observations, barometer, Druid seaweed, and our in-depth briefings from specialist weather service WCS Marine. 'Triohe's wind instruments comprised a complete set of luff/leech telltales and some Dictaphone ribbon on the shrouds. Richard had fitted a luff spotlight under glass in the bow, and the F-18 guys Rob and Mark did their tweaking stuff all night. Morning found us kedged again off South Devon for a couple of hours in another wind hole - an avoidable one, for there were boats to north and south still moving - and it was here that 'Dazzle', unknown to us, apparently slipped by. This was where we nearly lost out.....
As the sun rose, a new breeze filled in from the north, as predicted, and we were under way again heading for the big headland of The Lizard, passing slower monos, squeezing all we could from the complex tide streams and avoiding the overfalls and eddies closer inshore which could slow us. Others, not reading the water ahead, got caught in the counter-currents which run hard close in to this most southerly Cornish promontary, and found themselves going sideways. Across Mounts Bay we raced, now feeling the long Atlantic swell, watching the lethal Runnel Stone reef send white spray high into the air, with beautiful Lamorna Cove and the open-air Mynack Theatre on the clifftop off to starboard.
The breeze built all afternoon, and so did the lumpy seas, as we headed out past the jagged Longships and Seven Stones reefs towards the sunset, the big lighthouses slowly rotating their beams to our west, then south, then behind us. A long line of red and green navigation lights - and quite a few still white - stretched away towards the horizon, and Ireland......
The northerly breeze slowly backed and eased through the night and into the next day, just as predicted, and 'best boat speed' gave us close reaching a little north of the rhumb line past the huge new gas production platforms of the Ballycotton Field - which came as a surprise to some of our fellow-competitors using old charts! As we closed the Irish coast into strong tides again, we were slowly headed, and the resultant 40-mile beat became a tactical task of minimising the distance sailed. We'd certainly passed half the fleet and, now among the bigger boats, it was growing harder to catch those ahead. Light-wind beating is not 'Triohe's best point of sail, and one or two of the monos were trying to squeeze past again. That would soon change!
Adjusting laylines for changing tide and shifting wind is complex; throw in a busy Traffic Separation Scheme to be crossed just 3 miles from the Rock, and the 'minimum time track' calculations start to need a calculus all of their own..... Basic techniques taught in sailing schools were not enough. Time for a pragmatic 'Occam's Razor' solution....!
We rounded the Fastnet Rock, close in, at 0450hrs, its black tower looming above us, silhouetted against an orange moon. Richard and I had been here more than a few times, but this was - for Rob and Mark - a new and almost religious experience. It was then, checking our rounding time with the RORC team camped on the Rock, that we discovered 'Dazzle' was ahead by about two hours - and 'Molly' by more - for they had both slipped by when we were 'parked up' off South Devon. We also heard that 'Gleam' and 'Brigand' had retired, so with Bullimore in a class of his own, we were suddenly last in class! Not good! Morale plummeted, until the dolphins turned up with a show of acrobatic jumping. That helped, and we got back on the job again. The long leg back down to the Bishop Rock lighthouse, off the Scilly Isles, was a fast reach which suited 'Triohe', and with Rob and Mark tweaking and trimming, we made the most of it. But it also suited 'Dazzle' and 'Molly'.......
The bottom corner by the Bishop Rock is always a problem. There are acres of unlit, outlying reefs on both sides of the lighthouse, and the swift tides set onto and through them. Countless ships have come to grief here over the years, and dozens of race boats have misjudged the offing needed in light airs and been set on, needing to start engines - and retire! Not something one boasts about in the RORC bar!
We'd been reeling in boat after boat - big ones - all night, powering now at 15 knots to windward in flat water under genoa and full mail, close under the lee of the dark reefs, trimming all the while, when disaster struck! The off-watch pair, not wanting to miss anything and milling about in the cockpit, broke the helmsman's concentration, and we'd put the sails aback - the rotated mast still locked on. 'Zip' went the genoa at spreader height, right across, and we were one VIP sail down. From 15 knots we went to 2, limping on the wrong tack right across the bows of 3 Zero Class boats we'd just passed. This is where we nearly lost the race.....
Scraping clear by a whisker, we bore off to free the torn sail. It came down clean, up went the No 2 Jib, and we powered off east again, passing the solitary Wolf Rock, and on towards The Lizard - the last major headland - and a grey dawn. The jumbled seas inshore beneath the Lizard lighthouse were given a good offing as we rounded and hardened up, a stiff northeaster now blowing direct from the finish at Plymouth. This gave us a direct 40-mile wind-against-tide beat. The easterly tack was favoured as we surged, in sheets of spray, through the short chop. Then, a mile off our starboard bow in the growing light, we could make out a set of dark sails and white hull and, gradually, the characteristic motion of a catamaran on the opposite tack. It could only be 'Dazzle'. We'd caught her!
Richard, as skipper, was quickly awakened. We were heading east on our 'gaining tack', while 'Dazzle' - clearly slower in the lumpy seas - was heading north for smoother water. What to do? "We'll cover them. Stay between them and the finish," decided Richard. "We can't risk losing it all on a big header, while they get a lift!" So we tacked onto and above them, heading for the Cornish coast some 10 miles away to the north.
They'd spotted us now, lone helmsman joined by two, then four others. We'd probably disturbed them at a leisurely breakfast! On this tack, we clearly did not have any extra speed on them without our big genoa, and they seemed able to point perhaps a little higher, when we saw them shake out the reef in their mainsail - and promptly sag away 10 degrees or more to leeward! They were quite determined to get north into flatter water, where they'd likely have some edge over us, but surely their navigator could see the trap ahead? We climbed steadily up to windward of 'Dazzle' - 400, 500, 600 metres - and were clearly running in towards the coast just to weather of The Dodman, a high bluff projecting half-a-mile out into the sea ahead of us both. Equally clearly - to us at least - 'Dazzle', well downwind, was heading just to leeward of it.
I knew, from years of sailing this coast, that the wind would be heavily disturbed there, and so would the tide stream, now turned inshore and running hard southwest past the headland. Would they spot the trap and tack away....? Suddenly they were stopped, blanketed in turbulent air and foul tide in the lee of The Dodman, hobby-horsing up and down. This is where 'Dazzle' lost her race..... It was high time for us to tack away and extend straight for the finish, still over 25 miles away.
We had 'Dazzle' beaten on the water, but what about Corrected Time? Despite our being 33 feet to their 40, and carrying a much smaller rig, somehow we gave 'Dazzle' 6 minutes in 100. We were certainly lighter, with our carbon loo bowl, titanium coffee mugs and one-banana breakfasts, while they..... Well, let's just say 'Dazzle' was known for doing a good lunch! So, there was still all to play for. In the fluky wind off the land - gradient versus young sea breeze - this was where the loss of our genoa really hurt. Rob and Mark, top F-18 helms, really earned their salt here, squeezing out every last tenth of a knot. We even pumped out over 100 litres of spare water......
'Triohe' power-reached around Rame Head, another wind hole trap just before the turn into Plymouth Sound, and hardened up into the final approach to the finish line off Plymouth's mile-long breakwater. The tide, for once, was in our favour and the breeze steady - even the huge French ferry 'Pride of Brittany' slowed to avoid taking our wind - and we were still passing Zero Class boats.......
Over the line now - in 4 days 4 hours 51 minutes 36 seconds - official. A swift phone call, now we had finished, showed we'd beaten 'Molly', on Corrected Time, by several hours. We'd certainly beaten 'Dazzle' on the water - far astern, barely visible, an hour or more back - but now we had to wait until she actually finished, to establish her Corrected Time. She could still win!
The lads took 'Triohe's binoculars up onto the marina wall and called 'Dazzle' into sight as she rounded Rame Head into the Sound. She'd had a good lift, but now the breeze was fickle and dying. Back and forth she tacked, creeping towards the line under working jib and mainsail. Where was her genoa? Crouched at 'Triohe's nav table, I monitored the RORC Finishing Team's VHF radio link to the Results Office onshore. "Serial 68 - sail number GBR666M - 'Dazzle': 4 days 6 hours 29 minutes 58 seconds...." "Great, that's over 1 hour 38 minutes on raw time" said Richard, "but what about Corrected? That's what really counts."
I raced up the walkway to the RORC Results Office camped in rooms behind the Royal Western YC. The computers were displaying only the raw finishing times, as the Time Correction runs were done periodically. Cornering one of their input team - a pretty blonde one called Jillie - I explained the urgency. ".....A Class Win, a Series Win, a boat-on-boat needle match....." "Right" she smiled, typing commands into her keyboard, "I've got the picture. That's what we're here for! Stand by!"
Seconds later, the Class Corrected Results scrolled onto the screens around the room - 'Triohe' first, then 'Dazzle', then 'Mollymawk'. "That's a result!" I yelled, hugging the startled Jillie, "We've won!""
We'd done it - by 4 minutes 55 seconds!!
Farrier F-9AX trimaran, 'Triohe', professionally built by Richard Roscoe. About 33 feet and 2 tons. A little bit wider, a little bit lighter, and more than a little bit stronger than standard. Pre-bent carbon rotating wingmast, boomless 'fathead' mainsail. Berths for 2, or 4 hobbits. Cavernous stern locker. Racing titanium coffee mugs, carbon mouldings in out-of-the-way places, clever and effective detailing everywhere. 3 RORC Class Wins out of 4 Starts - and one Second. Fast, tough and reliable.
Pro navigation and met specialist, winner of the 1999 RIN/Little Ship Club 'Ocean' Award, RYA YM Ocean/Commercial, Bill Bailey has 'downshifted' from the frenzy of UK multihull racing and teaches in a West Country college. He delivers the occasional boat, writes the occasional article, and prefers the grilled lobster and Murphy's of Crookhaven to the mini-Mars Bars and salt tea of The Fastnet. But, open to suggestion......
Bilbo, © 2008
See www.rorc.org and links to Class and Series results
See www.photoaction.com and links to Fastnet Race/Triohe
See www.weatherweb.net and links to various met services