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  • Ed Hall

Nigth Owl Racing - June 2010

We seem to be getting better at the early starts this season, which meant we were bobbing around off Gurnard ready for the smaller yachts to start in order to garner as much data as we could from their progress. It was bloody typical that we ended up swinging from a yellow mooring buoy while the Race Officers flew the red and white AP (Answering Pennant) signalling a postponement while we waited for the wind to arrive.

Sean had started us off with bacon rolls at 7 am, and the one-hour delay meant that we got another round of rolls in, this time with spicy omelettes. That rash decision to have double breakfast was going to weigh heavily in our decision-making in the middle of the foggy night that followed. The gorgeous Rob Humphries designed wooden 40-foot yacht Old Mother Gun (OMG) tied up alongside us while we waited and neither either crew was anticipating a twenty hour race... and a two-boat fight to the finish.

Once the wind kicked in the starting sequence began, with Andrew calling the time to the line with Vasco's help. With less than a minute to go we had to back the Genoa against the already-rigged spinnaker pole to stop us going over the line. A gybe to clear the Genoa from the pole, a bear away and set and we had a great start in first place across the line with Fiona working the spinnaker sheet hard to keep us up to speed with Smithy keeping the main powered up... Big HURRAH to Andrew, our tip top starting helm.

The race series leader NJOS was watching us very closely just a few yards behind, and when we heard a voice calling the race officers on the VHF to ask suspiciously if everyone was clear at the start. Julie said loudly, I bet that is the NJOS lady. It’s a very competitive atmosphere out there...

We enjoyed a good downwind run west down the Solent, and Julie took over the helm. Just before we got to Yarmouth we could see the wind filling in from the west and we got the spinnaker down quickly and were ready with our Genoa powered up before most of the fleet.

We crossed tacks with OMG several times, sometimes ahead, sometimes behind, but a good call by Julie west of Yarmouth finally pulled us clear ahead of our rivals as we rode the tide past Hurst Castle and along the infamous Shingles. Vasco and I agreed that we wanted to cross the Shingles as soon as possible and head west. With an instruction to tack back at less than a metre of depth we headed across earlier than most. With 90cm under the keel we tacked back and went on a little further. Another yacht in the leading group tried the same move, but seemed to turn back pretty sharpish - we wondered what their depth sounder showed.

I asked Vasco if we had enough water if we threw away the 1 metre margin and he said yes. We tacked back and were clear across at speed with rather less than a metre under the keel. Compliments were made about the size of my cojones and my faith in Vasco!

The route west looked great, and Sean disappeared below to attend to the luncheon arrangements. His home-made chilli con carne was declared most excellent... a good thing too as the catering supplies were not going to last much longer. NJOS and OMG were now a good half mile or more behind us.

As we approached Anvil Point I looked at the horizon and said that there was thick sea fog ahead. The crew on the rail thought I was joking, but half an hour later we were sailing in 150 metre visibility and it was getting worse. Julie and Andrew took turns on the helm to keep focused in the difficult steering conditions and for a while I was rumoured to be driving, but the fog was so thick that nobody actually saw me! The wind started to die, and the turning tide meant the inevitability of kedging for at least six hours. We decided to aim inshore to a spot that was exactly up-tide of the finish so that we could drift down there with the tide if the breeze never returned.

We ran out of food except for some very old Milky Ways. We ran out of water. We had no sleeping bags and we carried fewer sets of oil skins than we had crew. We were supposed to be in a pub in Weymouth, but instead it was a cold miserable night at anchor. Our bowman Mark developed a hacking cough and clearly needed a break. He buried himself under the spinnakers in the forepeak. Fi and Sean were shivering and threatening to use the rest of the sails to make clothes. Smithy proved himself the hero of the day as he stayed on watch for all of us, waiting for a breath of wind. It never came.

As soon as we had slack water we lifted the anchor and began the 8 mile drift to Weymouth. We found the log was unreliable at speeds of less than 0.3 of a knot. Julie squealed with excitement at one point waking the whole boat when she shouted, 1.7 knots, YES!!!!. To put that into perspective last year we hit 18 knots on the way back from the same race.

The pressure to retire was substantial, and the prospect of eating the last Milky Way for breakfast did little to lighten the mood. Sean had a train to catch to Edinburgh and Julie had to drive to Cornwall in time for lunch. I said we would retire at 0530 if the finish was not in sight (that was a lie). Fortunately it the finish drifted into sight, we drifted down with OMG at least a quarter of a mile behind us as they ghosted along the Portland Harbour wall.

The breeze, just zephyrs on the mirrored sea, and the tide were taking us straight down onto an oil tanker at anchor, and we lost our advantage over OMG as they inched forward while we had to pinch in less than a knot of breeze to clear the tanker. We thought we had our very own channel of wind to get us to the finish ahead of OMG, but then a narrow band of breeze appeared ahead of them and ours disappeared.

They tacked for the line ahead of us and beat us there by four minutes. It was a tight finish after a twenty hour race, and although OMG beat us it made for a cracking end to a very long night of racing. The results were a surprise: 58 boats started but only 5 toughed it out to the finish. It seems that the whole crew of Night Owl have big cojones.

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