Every two years the Royal Ocean Racing club includes the Fastnet Race in its offshore racing program. Silver Shamrock a classic 41year old 1/2 ton racing yacht was refitted in 2016 to compete in this race as well as the seasons other races. My aim in both 2016 and 2017 was to achieve a good result in the seasons overall points championship in the two handed class (That's just two people racing the boat). 2016 turned out to be a brilliant start with Silver Shamrock achieving 4th overall position for the year in the IRC 4 class.
I was looking forward to 2017 and my Co-skipper Nathan has confirmed that he would commit to the years point series again, so we were all set by the end of 2016. During the winter I rebuilt the rudder to give the yacht more grip downwind. The year began well with an overall win in the Warash spring series with a full crew including Nathan so we were very enthusiastic about our chances for a good season.
The first RORC offshore race of the year was the Cervantes Trophy to Le Havre. After a good start sporting out heavy A3 asymmetric spinnaker we began a close fetch across the Channel. With an hour disaster when the new rudder broke off and we were left rudderless in the middle of the Channel with night falling and wind increasing. After a number of attempts to rig a dury rudder that would work we reluctantly acknowledged that in 20knots of wind in a choppy sea with an east/west tide and a shipping lane close by we needed assistance. The coast guard was called and a few hours later we were in tow by the RNLI back to Cowes. A lucky escape and many many thanks to the RNLI.
With just two weeks to the next RORC offshore race I concluded that we were going to miss the De Guingand Bowl race while a new rudder was constructed. Silver Shamrock was ready to go just in time for the Myth of Malham race. This is a race out the Eddystone Light House in Plymouth and back to the Solent. As the second longest race after the Fastnet for the season it is an important qualifying race to gain entry to the Fastnet. After 56 hours of racing with very variable conditions and a strong tide Silver Shamrock came home 3rd in IRC 4, we were back on form.
Two weeks later we were off again on the Morgan Cup race to St Peter Port in Guernsey in the Channel Islands. A superb start and charge across the Channel saw us then languishing for 4 hours in sight of the finish line in a flat calm. Having been in a really good position all race we finally crossed the finish line late in the evening with most boats already on the way home. We were 12th. It had been disappointing but we got a finish unlike many. We were beginning to think that 2017 was shaping up to be a light wind series... we were not wrong!
Next up was the Cowes to Dinard race we actually go to St Malo and this is always a fun race with a great place to party! We never made it. The wind off Guernsey once again failed and with a deadline of Monday morning to get to work we motored for 18hrs back to Cowes with nothing to show for.
As we had come know patience and perseverance is everything in offshore yacht racing especially in the smallest boat in the fleet when tidal gates and wind changes often effect you more as you are on the race course for longer. However, on occasion, wind and tide work to the small boats advantage and amazing results do occur. The next race named the Channel race was always the race in the Admiral's Cup regatta at the start of Cowes Week with the Fastnet raced at the end. This year it was a week earlier and the weather was looking windy, hurrah a good upwind beat was great for Silver Shamrock and we hoped our luck had changed. With a terrific beat out of the Solent all the way to a virtual mark off Alderney we had a chance. Our excitment was slightly dulled when we realised that we would not make the tidal gate at the virtual mark allowing other larger boats in our class to get away. However, with a long reach and run to a buoy off Littlehamptom we had time to perhaps catch up. That we did and were looking good as we turned west after the Littlehampton buoy. Luck was once again not on our side and as Sunday evening approached a series of huge squalls hit us followed by flat calm and 90degree wind shifts. All of this slowed our charge from the Nab Tower to the finish near the Forts in the Eastern Solent. It had been a tough race but we were pleased we had tested Silver Shamrock in 30knots of wind in advance of the Fastnet race just a few weeks away. We were 10th.
And so to the Fastnet. As the race due near Silver Shamrock was checked over, new batteries and a new stern gland fitted with the engine serviced. A key item for racing is the ability to keep your batteries fully charged as Navigation instruments and lights are crucial in racing safely and fast. I didn't want any problems in these areas. The weather looked favourable for us with a medium to strong westerly breeze going to the North in the Irish Sea. This would mean a beat to the rock and reach/run back... just what we needed. Silver Shamrock designed to the IOR rule in the 1970's was great beating and running but her hull lines mean the she cannot compete on a reach with modern designs. On the day of the race with the pospects of 3 days beating we tied everything down pretty tight including duck taping the forehatch and other known areas where water seems to make its way into the boat. We had little expectations of a dry ride, however, and knew it would be a wet few days.
We had a bad start we didn't want to fight it out on the Cowes Green down by the Squadron but really were too far up the line. We have clear start on starboard tack and this took us all the way into Gurnard bay where we took the maximum tide and worked very hard to keep in it. This worked well for us and by Hurst Castle with the wind becoming close to 20knots we put in a reef in the mainsail and took the best route down the line of port hand buoys close to the Shingles bank. We were looking good and with 20mins between the start of IRC 4 and IRC 3 we had good breeze all the way to Bridge buoy. Once arrived it seemed clear the first very important tactical decision of the race was upon me. Almost all the boats were heading off into the Channel but I was convinced better tide and wind would be found by sailing close to the shore and even taking the inside route around Portland Bill as few if any would make the Bill with favourable tide. We tool the gamble and went North. Later we found this had been the route of the winning boat in our class! With night fall approaching we edged around Portland Bill, as close as we dared to get out of the tide. We then took a long leg into Lyme Bay before tacking 4 times reaching Start Point on Monday. A frustrating few hours in light wind put us amongst the rocks off Salcombe before heading off towards to Lizard point. With the wind backing we were able to lay the Lizard (just) on Starboard tack and things were looking good. Off Portland the night before I had been sent a picture showing that we were in first place. When we picked up a signal at the Lizard we were still doing well.
And so the third big tactical decision of the race had to be made. The Fastnet race course is set in busy shipping lanes in the western approaches and for safety the TSS (traffic seperation schemes) used to separate ships as they navigate into UK waters have to be avoided by racing boats. This puts a block right in the middle of the race course between the Lands End the Scilly Isles and the Fastnet Rock (see pic). You have to make a decision on whether to go to the North or the South of this TSS.
It was a crucial decision and many of the yachts around us appeared to be going south. The tide would be against us and them but maybe we would have the opportunity to cheat the tide by going close to Lands End and the Rummel Buoy which was a mark of the course. With just a 12mile range on our AIS system we had no visibility of what others had done unless we were closer to shore and could get a cell signal. It was the middle of night, the Fastnet rock was still a dead beat away, should be crack sheets and go south or stay hard on the wind and tack north. We went North and Sheeva a Swan 36 close to us at the time followed. Had we made the right decision? Time would tell. What followed was an amazing morning beating up the coast of Cornwall sometime no more than a few hundred yards from the cliffs. We had Sheevra a bigger boat as a pace maker and we were keeping up. We felt and later proved to have made a good decision but there was a long way to go.
Tuesday night was tough we were now North of the Rhum line and making the Rock with a TWA of 42. Silver Shamrock can sail at a TWA of 39degrees but just cracked gave us a speed of 5.7knots and eased the amount of water we were shipping on each wave. The wind had increased to over 20knots and we were sailing with two reefs in the mainsail and the working jib reefed. It was relentless and very wet. Little did we know that the bigger yachts in Class 0, 1 and 2 had already made it to the Rock and were screaming back to the Scilly Isles at maximum surfing speed. This would mean that the 2017 Fastnet would be a race for the bigger boats and difficult for the class 4 boats to make up their time on handicap. At the time we didn't know this and sailing above our polar speeds and laying the Rock meant against other class 4 boats we were doing fine.
But things were soon to change. By midday on Wednesday the wind eased and headed us. Although close to the rhum line the rock was now to windward and we had less than 10knots olf true wind. It took us all day and evening to reach the rock and as we rounded we knew we had a long slow downwind passage back to the Scilly Isles. It had been a long day and we were tired. The latest grib file showed the wind filling to the South West later so we made out next important tactical decision amd opted to go south on starboard gybe to hopefully see more wind earlier and allow a better angle to pass the Scilly Isles. The wind did increase and during a painful night on the helm (We have to hand steer Silver Shamrock the whole time as the auto pilot we are allowed to use a double handed crew is not good enough to match the speed obtainable by hand steering) with amazing hallucinations as you tried to stay awake we finally gybed towards the Scilly Isles hoping we may have 'played a blinder' and caught a few yachts. It turned out we were pretty much in the same place with no real gains.
With the last leg of the race to go from the Scilly Isles to Plymouth passed Lizard point again we patiently waited for the strong South Westerly wind we had been promised and on schedule it came, too late to help us beat the bigger boats in class 0,1.2 and 3. In our class were in the top 40 out of 90 boats and although deeply disappointing we new the wind pattern was largely responsible for making this race a winner for the bigger yachts. We still had some excitement in store. With the wind increasing to 25knots and gusting more we were charging along under light spinnaker and achieved out top speed of over 9knots. Not bad for us! We changed to the heavy spinnaker just a few miles from the finish and crossed the line at maximum speed. We had missed the prize giving by an hour but were welcomed at the quay by lots friends just in time for the real party! We had come 38th in class out of a class of 90.