Preparation for Fastnet 2011
With only 30 days to go until the start of the 2011 Fastnet Race it's started to occupy a lot of my thinking time. It's a 608 mile race from Cowes to the south west corner of Ireland, and then back to Plymouth. I finished the race in 2003 with my great sailing friend Richard Houghton, but in 2007 I had to retire in Night Owl as the winds blasted in from the south west at gale force and stronger. For the crew of the Owl, and for me, this race is still unfinished business.
It's a race with a history and a reputation for pushing crews and boats to the limit. The 1979 race, which claimed 15 lives, changed the way offshore racing was managed; the quality of training, crew preparation and safety gear are now dramatically different. But the echoes of that disaster, and the reality of the strength of summer storms in the Western Approaches are still on everyone's mind as the start gets closer.
My Physics Master at school, Stanley Malone, was part of Edward Heath's crew, and I remember him talking about the race at great length. It was also while I was at school in 1985 that Simon Le Bon's yacht DRUM lost her keel during the race and needed the help of rescue helicopters to get the crew to safety.
The boats may have changed, and the safety gear is infinitely improved, but the weather hasn't changed at all. We will be downloading weather files and consulting websites like passageweather.com in the days running up to the race. The tactics are key to this, and the first day's racing along the south coast of England is often where the winning decisions are made. Each headland along the coast is a tidal 'gate' and if you can slip past before the tide turns against you then you can effectively leave the boats behind you with an ever-widening gap. Will we head offshore? Or try to slip under the cliffs of Anvil Point or Portland Bill to get inside these vicious tidal races?
But this race can last five or even six days if the winds are light, and how do you keep a crew motivated and awake for that long? We have been debating watch systems now for a couple of months, but soon I have to decide how we approach the crew's need for sleep and weigh that against the need for the boat to be sailed as fast as possible. A lot will depend on the wind forecasts in the days before the start. The food and drink will be crucial too - and we are lucky to have a great and dependable rock in the crew who makes real food happen whatever the weather. That's worth its weight in gold after three days at sea.
So the countdown has begun.
Plans are being made, websites studied and tactics analysed. I intend to update this blog as the race approaches - and technology allowing - I will do so during the race as well. And if you have the right answer to the winning Fastnet tactics then email me! And if not then please wish us luck...