Preparing for the Ultimate Challenge: Our Journey to the 2023 Fastnet Race
Tuesday - 31 October 2023
When embarking on a sailing adventure as grand as the Fastnet Race, meticulous planning and unwavering preparation became the cornerstones of success.
The 2023 edition has widely been reported as being one of the toughest ever and our journey to the Fastnet Race start was a culmination of years of hard work, determination, and a passion for offshore racing.
Every sailor knows that success isn’t guaranteed, and our path to the Fastnet Race was no exception. We had won a couple of National Championships and class wins in offshore races along the way, which was confidence building. However, the Fastnet Race was a unique challenge that had eluded me for years. Furthermore double-handed offshore racing had always held a special attraction because it demands continuous vigilance and teamwork. So the challenge was set to compete in the 2023 Fastnet Race as a double-handed team. Yet, success in this area hinges on two key factors above all else, planning and preparation. With over 30 years of experience as a project manager, I understand the critical role these elements play in achieving your goals.
To begin with securing an entry to the RORC Fastnet Race is no straightforward feat. It requires qualifying race miles, survival training, and safety scrutineering, all for good reason. Our first attempt in 2021 also as a double handed team was met with particularly testing conditions, leading to our retirement after just 36 hours. In hindsight, whilst very disappointing at the time, it was a valuable lesson. We learnt the importance of having very good heavy weather sails, excellent and reliable electronics, a very reliable autopilot and the right mental approach. We realised that waiting for a race to present extreme conditions to test our setup was not the wisest approach. It raised the fundamental question for anyone preparing a campaign: do you wait for adversity to strike, or do you seek it out to ensure readiness?
In the subsequent season, we dedicated ourselves to solving all the problems we encountered in 2021. Working with One Sails South we developed the reefing No3 headsail to cope with a stronger wind set up. To solve the electronics issues we built a partnership with Raymarine using the Axiom 2 Pro plotters along with EV200 autopilot. These were coupled with our existing Type 1 steering ram, Raymarine wireless instrumentation and Cyclops rig load sensor on the forestay.
As in 2021 the races in 2023 proved to be fairly light winds with the Myth of Malham race proving to be the essential testing ground. The last 8 hours of that race, winds were exceeding 25 knots, allowing us to fine-tune our equipment and strategies for these conditions. The big test was the autopilot for example which coped exceptionally well sailing to weather in 20-25kts TWS and maintaining sailing performance within 15% of the polar targets. This gave us the confidence we needed to know we could compete in a race over several days. We even secured victory in our class in the Myth of Malham race, a testament to our progress.
As we embarked on the 2023 Fastnet Race, we approached it with nervous confidence as we were faced with similar conditions to 2021, more than 20kts and wind against tide and winds forecast to increase to 40kts over the next 4-8 hrs.
Starting with two reefs in the mainsail and a reefed No3 headsail (No4), we were prepared for the stronger winds and tidal challenges that awaited us at Hurst Castle. Our preparations proved astute as we encountered the expected conditions. However, a minor issue with our prefeeder led to a sheet entanglement with the jib cars. It was a momentary setback that cost us dearly, forcing us to bear off at 11 knots to address the issue; costing us valuable time and distance on the water. The compound impact of this meant we missed the tide gate at Portland, a critical strategic point, and thereafter struggled to regain our position. Again it shows the importance of attention to detail in offshore racing.
During the first night, the wind increased significantly to a consistent 35-40kts for several hours, as forecast. None of it was scary, just a bit lively. There were a lot of retirements in the first 12 hours with some 45% of the fleet turning back for home for various reasons. The on deck Axiom 2 plotter proved invaluable during this period especially overnight for showing the AIS targets of those boats returning through the fleet and the many distress calls underway.
Once we passed Lands End on day 2, we had another 6 hour period of more than 30kts and 5-6m seas. Once past the traffic separation scheme there was a period of several hours where we could recharge our human batteries on a fetch, still with big seas and 30kts so we engaged the autopilot which steered the boat perfectly maintaining speeds to within 90% of polar target which was an acceptable performance loss allowing us valuable recuperation time.
The trip to and from the Fastnet Rock actually proved uneventful and was “our weather” where we made some solid gains on some of the fleet. Once round the Isles of Scilly and on the return leg down the English Channel the next low pressure system hits us. Again we had 20- 30kts and 4m following seas surfing downwind at a constant 12-15kts and occasional 18-20kts which is quite a lot in a J/109 with 2 of you and 4 days into the race!
The last night was particularly black so much so that you couldn’t really see the bow and certainly not the waves. With dense cloud, rain, 30kts and 4-5m seas forecast all night we reduced sail back to our trusty 2 reefs and no4. Before dark we spent time setting the sail plan and pilot to optimise speed and course so we could control the boat from below. We then spent 1 hour on and 1 hour off watch to maintain focus on the AIS targets shown on the plotter and manning the VHF to communicate with ships as we picked our way through the very busy shipping lanes and numerous fishing vessels. The pilot was again superb in controlling the boat down the waves, with the occasional anxious moments of a particularly big wave or gust hitting, a pause and then the boat taking off with a rush of water against the hull and charging along at 15-18kts. Then coming to the bottom of a wave and another momentary pause (which seems ages but I timed it as 3 seconds) whilst the pilot decided which way to steer with the changing wind and waves as the next wave then picked the boat up again. Thrilling, tiring, anxious, brilliant all at the same time.
In the end, our journey to the Fastnet Race was a culmination of preparation, experience, and the willingness to learn from our mistakes. It taught us that in the world of offshore racing, success is not just about skill and passion; it’s about meticulous planning, preparation and the ability to adapt to unforeseen challenges. The addition of the Raymarine equipment was an essential winner with the confidence in its reliability, quality and functionality. The Fastnet Race was the ultimate test, and while we faced setbacks, we emerged with a wealth of knowledge and an even stronger determination to continue pushing, its great.