What it’s like to race offshore for almost 4 days, on your own!
By James Hardiman aboard Fluke III. James took a podium place (third) aboard the Ocean Elements race yacht on this 491 mile, 3 and a half day solo offshore race.
The inaugural Wolf Rock race had been on my mind for most of this year. As a solo sailor, the preparation and run-up to any long distance race is always an emotional journey and requires good planning, a good mind set and a degree of physical fitness. And of course a well sorted boat! Luckily Fluke III the Ocean Elements Sunfast 3200 is exactly that, and after almost 12,000 miles of sailing in the 3200, I’m finally getting to know her well.
Just like playing rugby matches as a nipper, I often get the ‘pre-race jitters’ on the run up to a long solo race which’ll last for perhaps a week before the event. And it’s understandable… we are ‘Solo Sailors’, setting off into a bouncing, churning, dangerous ocean – aboard a small and exposed plastic boat. And the Wolf Rock race was certainly one of these races!
With plus 20+ Knots of wind due on Day 1 and then more heavy winds due later in the race, (forecast 6’s and 7’s on Day 3), I knew I was going to be in for a tough race. Adding to the mix was that the billed ‘350 miles’ was already going to be lengthened to at least 450 as the wind was dead against all the way there AND back…
The ‘jitters’ usually disappear as soon as I leave the dock for the start of any race, but shortly after hoisting the mainsail on my way to the start line, the jitters were replaced by a stressful 40 minutes as one of my Batt-car casings fell apart and 3 of the 4 screws disappeared, leaving a batten poking out of the luff. Fortunately, I retrieved two screws from the cockpit (what luck!) so I was able to pull down the main (in a building wind) and screw them back in with a large dose of thread lock. Yes, I have a good tool kit onboard!
With a tumultuous run-up to the start, I managed to cross the line without too much “loss of face” and had a busy time tacking down the Solent in some typical stomach-churning-chop. I decided to take the mainland side and cover Nigel Colley on Fastrack which seemed to work as I made good gains on Ninjod (Paul Brant) who took more an island-side route, and Roxanne (Simon Mitchell) who seemed to flit between both sides. Fluke III got some useful lifts close to Lymington and was doing well… that is… until I decided a sail change was in order! So, close to the banks where the sea seemed less bouncy, I changed down to my J3 and inevitably lost a bit of ground.
Hurst proved good for me and again I got some useful lifts on the island side and made back a lot of ground on Fury and one of the JOD’s. The Needles was less bumpy than feared, (re Fastnet 2016), with so much wind against tide, and once the Fairway Bell was crossed off it was time to hunker down for the long beat offshore in a confused sea which was the chosen path West according to Expedition.
Suffering from a good dose of the old ‘Mal de mer’ I popped a couple of Stugeron and focussed on getting rid of it before night descended and my vision went, which normally exacerbates any sickness! The first night was spent trying to shake off Fury, who remained close by until she tacked inshore. I decided to stick to my routeing and not be tempted to make a break to the west (north-west). I was maintaining 220 degrees and didn’t want to get too close to Portland.
I then spent the rest of the night and following day with ‘Tweak’ in sight (Jod 35) which kept me on my toes. I managed to get no more than about eight 10 minute cat naps through the night and a few the next day. Banking sleep was important for the Falmouth section of the race where shipping would be busy. The next day bought Start point and a gaining Zest (Rupert Holmes), sailing more inshore than me. I therefore spent the rest of the race constantly tweaking the boat in between 10 minute rests and match racing Rupert in his recently sorted OSTAR boat.
At the end of Day 2, Tweak was just ahead but had made some extra ground on a useful lift he got over Fluke and Zest in the veering northerly. By evening, Zest had closed the gap on me and even snuck one past me! Conditions were calmer but I was under powered with my J3 still up. Frankly, I couldn’t fathom unravelling by larger Jib that I ripped off the boat earlier in the race and stuffed unceremoniously down the hatch. So, I fought back with the code Zero. The angles were a little tight to start with but the wind was light. Then, as the wind veered (on forecast) I got a good 100-120 degree run at the mark and Fluke creamed along happily at 8-9Kts bsp. I made about a half mile or more of ground on Zest through the night.
At about 04.30 I followed Tweak around the mark and there was no more than a few hundred yards between us, perhaps a half mile. Unfortunately, I took ‘too safe’ a rounding of Wolf Rock and lost another half mile on Richard who took the rock much closer and probably didn’t mess up his Gybe like I did! Haha that’s tiredness for you.
I then watched Tweak pull away all the way back to the Lizard (Fluke was still on her J3) but as the wind filled in Fluke III came into her own as all Sunfast’ do in the heavy air.
Day 3 was a nice day of sailing in sun and medium air, but was slightly marred by the promise of a freshening F6-7 filling in from the East sometime in the next 12 hours. I knew this would make the final part of the race hard and so morale was not the highest! But, what can do hey? So we plugged on and I assumed the routine (which I was getting used to now) of trim/rest/trim/rest etc in 10 minute slots through the day.
I opted again to trust my most recent grib and Expedition took me well south before I tacked just before the TSS. But then had to tack south again as I was being headed toward Portland and that nasty race which just “sucks you in!”…. And so quite demoralising when you really need to be going North! Zest was always not far behind and really pushed me trim, sleep, trim, sleep. No rest!
The last tack of the race was taken some 30 miles south of North head and ‘bowed me nicely in the building east-going tide – right onto the final mark. That saved me time over Zest and helped me gain nicely on Tweak who had to tack close inshore to make North Head.
Like Nigel (Colley) and his Sunfast 3200, I have definitely bonded more with Fluke and she’s so well sorted now that I’ll find it hard to sell her as family demands! This was a tough race, on a par with the Fastnet, but hugely rewarding too – so I definitely want to do some more!
Well done to everyone taking part. It’s a tough emotional and physical battle to do a race like this and I too contemplated my options (several times) on Day 1. But get that out of the way then your stomach settles and you seem to find an equilibrium. Not an entirely happy one, but nevertheless one you can live with.
- On 27th July 2017