This is the story of David Bowdler, Stromness Sailing Club member, his long-time friend Nigel Colley, and a Jeanneau Sunfast 3200 during the Round Ireland non-stop race in 2012.
David and Nigel have been sailing together for many years and share a love of long distance two-handed offshore racing. Entering the Round Ireland Race for the first time, their confidence was high having previously come second overall in the 2010 Round Britain and Ireland race and first overall in the 2011 North Sea 1000 Mile race.
The boat, Fastrak VIII, is a Jeanneau Sunfast 3200 which is highly suited to offshore racing short-handed. At 32 feet overall and with some 11 feet of beam at the stern, it's a powerful design with twin rudders and we've reached speeds of 17.5 knots in the Round Britain and Ireland Race. It's only weakness is sailing downwind and dead upwind in very light airs because the large underwater section creates significant drag. However, the shape means that we can sail very quickly and safely on broad reaches and on downwind spinnaker legs in heavy airs.
We spent a week preparing the boat in Lymington, Hampshire. We filled up with food and water and checked the rigging, systems and sails thoroughly. When we were ready, and after the obligatory late night out eating curry and drinking beer, we sailed west from the Isle of Wight, past Portland Bill and onto the West Country. Conditions were good for the delivery trip and mostly upwind. After rounding Land's End we could hoist the asymmetric Spinnaker and make progress up the Irish Sea to the start at Wicklow, just south of Dublin. As we reached the Tusker Rock at the south-east tip of Ireland the wind fell light and the tide turned against us. We decided to go close inshore to avoid the strong currents and plotted a course between the many sandbanks off Arklow and Wicklow (marked as 'moving' on the chart!). After a close scrape in water that should have been 10 metres deep but was only 3 metres deep, we arrived in Wicklow on a sunny day and joined other boats alongside the harbour wall.
Arriving early, we continued our 'preparations' in the local Guinness bars and sampled the culinary delights of Wicklow. The only official task we had to complete was a safety inspection where all our safety equipment was checked and we were asked to carry out various routines to satisfy the inspectors like getting the liferaft ready to launch in a few seconds. We passed with only a couple of small things to rectify before the start. We attended the Race Briefing and enjoyed the fireworks and Guinness.
The Round Ireland Race is about 700 miles as the crow flies, and because we had to beat quite a bit, we ended up doing nearer 900 miles. The course is clockwise leaving all offlying rocks and lighthouses to starboard. There were regular points at which we had to report our position to Race Cpontrol for safety reasons. We were also fitted with a satelite tracker and if you want to watch a speeded up video of our trip vs. the boat which won our class, go here. The Race, as we discovered, is full of traps for the unwary navigator including fog, rocks, light shifty winds and the biggest problem of them all: tidal gates, meaning if we passed a headland with the tide with us, all was well and good. To miss the tide could mean a stop of up to 6 hours in light winds as we were to discover …
The race started off Wicklow in sunny conditions with a very tight spinnaker reach in about 15 knots of wind. We got a good start and kept close to other boats who should have been speeding ahead. The exceptions were a Volvo Round the World Race 70 and a very fast 50 footer from Holland which disappeared over the horizon. As the wind turned more southerly, we took down the spinnaker and set one of our North 3DL jibs - very light, very strong and great at keeping their shape, despite having sailed thousands of miles.
We rounded Tuskar rock offshore and were not to see Ireland again for some time as the mist rolled in and the wind dropped. With the wind at around 60 degrees off the starboard bow and at about 8 knots true strength, we hoisted our secret weapon a 'Code 0'. This is a huge headsail which sets like a very large jib but counts as a spinnaker for rating purposes. Basically it's a flat spinnaker with a Dyneema bolt rope which allows us to set the luff bar tight, but with a loose leach which flaps in an odd manner. Anyway it gives us 6 kts of boatspeed in 6 kts of true wind. We used this to great effect to get into the lead overall on handicap, passing other boats round the Fastnet Rock in thick fog as if they were stopped! We eased sheets and set an asymmetric spinnaker for the run North, passing outlying rocks as outlined in the Race Instructions. We saw virtually no coastline, just a few rocks in the fog!
Then came our demise. From leading on handicap, we sailed into a hole and the boats we'd worked hard to overtake, caught us up and sailed past. We caught the breeze finally but this meant that when we got to Tory Island of the North Coast of Ireland, we'd missed the tide and sat going nowhere with the opposition disappearing over the horizon! Very light winds followed and we barely made it past Rathlin Island before the tide turned against us for another six hours! We were in a dying breeze, making perhaps 3 knots so we took a leg over to the Mull of Kintyre and sat in the same spot for the remainder of the ebb tide. Finally we passed it and headed past Belfast. Winds of Gale force were being forecast and duly the breeze arrived off the North Eastern tip of Ireland. We changed down from Number 1 to 2 to 3 Genoa and at one stage had two reefs in our mainsail. The Northern Irish Sea proved to be rough in the wind against tide conditions and we took a battering for 12 hours or so. At one stage Nigel commented 'The breaking waves are themselves breaking!' and three times we had the whole hull under white foaming seas. Harnessed on we carried on at speed on a point of sailing that, while rough, suited the boat.
By this time we had used every sail in our armoury (Number 1,2,3 jibs, mainsail, Symmetric Spinnaker, Assymmetric spinnaker and the Code Zero), leaving just our storm sails untouched. Because of the rain and fog and conditions, the whole of the inside of the boat was soaked with the exception of the two aft cabins we keep dry for sleeping. We run a watch system of 3 hours on deck, three hours off watch. With dry cabins and dry sleeping bags and pillows, we always get a huge amount of sleep each 24 hours.
Eating in the rough conditions is a challenge and we managed to have a hot meal every night except one, when it was too rough to cook safely. Our standard meal is a freshly made Fastrak Chilli which we've perfected over the years. If you'd like the recipe, go here! Breakfast is muesli and lunch is fruit with dozens of snacks consumed in between. I hold the record for managing to have a cup of tea each and every time I came on watch! Visits to the loo are best left to the imagination because the toilet is in the front part of the boat and as the boat is frequently in the air, taking off over waves and crashing down again, even Newton would have a hard time understanding what's happening to the effects of gravity on board ….
The boat has a powerful autopilot which can steer the boat to the wind or to a compass course. Usually manual steering is the most efficient and it helps to pass the time when it's raining and foggy at night! We have a substantial navigation system and transmit and receive AIS (Automatic Identification System) data but on this race there were electrical gremlins meaning that our AIS system and our main VHF radio were out of action.
Modern waterproof clothing and insulation meant we remained bone dry throughout the trip which makes a huge difference to your wellbeing. The same cannot be said of the interior of the boat which resembled a cold steam room!
The final morning of the race saw us North of Dublin negotiating the sandbanks en route for the finish in bright sunshine. We were pleased to see a few larger boats behind us but we'd not done enough to make up for our parking offences! We entered Wicklow to a cheer from the small crowd gathered on the shore and got into the swing of life ashore after a race ….
We'd come about halfway overall which was a poor result for us but in the past we've gained from others' misfortunes so maybe it was for others to have the luck of the Irish …. At least we'd beaten the Volvo 70 on handicap even though it had arrived at the finish way before us!
After a few days of, erm, recuperation, we set off into a strong south-westerly wind in rain and thick fog. It's normally 200 miles from Wicklow to Land's End which takes about 2 days if you are beating. We sailed 300 miles and took three days, beating into constant rain and fog with winds from F5 to very little. Finally we rounded Land's End and the sun came out. Because the wind had dropped and was forecast to remain light, we popped into Newlyn for a huge fry-up and fill of diesel and headed off east at around noon. We sailed and motored home arriving the next afternoon back in Lymington for a curry and a late night 'planning session' for the next event.
In all we sailed a total of 1800 miles of which 900 miles were racing. We consumed a huge amount of chilli, never had a cross-word despite the poor weather and luck, and looking back, we enjoyed the challenge of the race.