By Dave Flett
About this time last year my friend and sailing chum Wave Crookes (yes that is his real name) asked me if I was interested in entering the Round Britain and Ireland Two Handed Yacht Race. I thought about it for all of 1 minute and immediately agreed. We are both similar characters who relish a challenge and this event is widely known as one of the most testing events in the world of offshore yacht racing. The race was due to start at 12.00 on the 6 June from the Royal Western Yacht Club in Plymouth and so we set about planning the trip and fund raising for our two nominated charities, “Toe in the Water” and the “RNLI”.
Over the winter months we spent many hours preparing Wave’s yacht “Resolute” a Contessa 32. At 32 ft we were to be the smallest yacht in the fleet with the highest handicap. The majority of the fleet were 36 to 50 foot yachts and many of those were pure racing machines. Resolute on the other hand is more a cruiser racer, with emphasis on cruiser. However, in yachting terms size isn’t everything and we had the advantage of a strong, forgiving sea boat with a good pedigree.
During the refit we changed just about everything on the yacht including the engine, the propeller, the primary winches and all the rope rigging. A new set of sails were purchased at the Boat Show along with new electronics, navigational equipment and software. In addition to all of that we had her rewired and oh yes we painted her bottom orange.
Offshore yachting is often compared to standing under a cold shower tearing up £10 notes. More accurate would be tearing up £20 notes under a freezing shower! Bringing any boat up to Class 2 International Sailing Federation Standard is an expensive business, but necessary if we were to comply with the racing rules. We had the additional problem of completing a 300 mile qualifying passage; by this time we were well into May 2010. So we decided our delivery trip to Plymouth would fit the bill as the qualifying passage and on the 21 May we set off from Scarborough to deliver Resolute to Plymouth, via Poole to have the new sails fitted. The delivery was fairly uneventful other than the lack of wind. That is until we approached the Isle of Wight, when we had too much wind and thick fog. Not a pleasant experience at night as we passed through the busy shipping lanes around the Isle of Wight. Nevertheless we managed to avoid the many ferries and made a safe passage into Poole.
Once the new sails were fitted the trip from Poole to Plymouth (100 miles) took just over 24 hours. When we arrived in Plymouth the magnitude of what we were attempting and the pressure of the build up to the race really hit home. I remember feeling quite overwhelmed by the many professional sailing crews competing against us. However, we were confident in our combined ability and sailing experience. Wave has been at sea all his life in various forms from fishing to Royal Navy officer, diver and currently as the RNLI Divisional Inspector for Scotland. Although he only had about 18 months experience in yachts and that’s where I came in. I had sailed and raced several thousands of miles in various yachts, but neither of us had any experience of short - handed sailing over long distances. We both took the optimistic view of “what could possibly go wrong”, in hindsight perhaps that was a little naive.
The race itself is very simple, sail clockwise round Britain and Ireland keeping all rocks, islands, skerries and land to starboard, for the less nautical that means “on the right”. The race involved 4 mandatory stopovers of 48 hours at Kinsale in Ireland, Barra in the Outer Hebrides, Lerwick in Shetland then Lowestoft and finally finishing back in Plymouth, a total distance of about 1900 miles depending on wind and course taken, or the equivalent of 4 x Fastnet Races back to back, with only two people. How hard can that be?
The race started at midday on the 6 June 2010 in ideal conditions, a memorable experience of 50 yachts charging across the start line. Unfortunately we charged into the path of well known yachting columnist, weather forecaster and competitor Chris Tibbs and so we did a swift pirouette to avoid his shiny J109 before we crossed the line at 12.00.30, not a bad start and it certainly got the adrenaline pumping. Very soon we were rounding the iconic Eddystone Lighthouse on our way to the Scilly Isles before turning north into the Celtic Sea. It was about then the problems started.
Our pressurised toilet exploded and apart from the obvious mess it meant we were to be without it until Barra when we could get spare parts. We had to adopt a practical solution of bucket and chuck-it (not ideal, but we had no choice). A more worrying problem at that time was the increasing wind strength and the violent choppy sea that very quickly built up as we rounded Bishop Rock. Apart from loosening all the fillings in your teeth, it caused our masthead light to be physically detached and thrown into the sea. This was more of a concern because the lights are essential for navigation. We could do nothing about the light until we arrived in Kinsale.
The next leg took us round the Fastnet Rock and into the Atlantic west of Ireland before heading north east into Barra at the southern end of the Outer Hebrides. This was a particularly hard leg with gale force winds on the nose and big seas for most of the way. The two highlights for me of this leg were:
a. Not dying of exhaustion.
b. Having a school of dolphins follow us for 6 hours during a lull in the weather.
Arriving at Barra was a great sensation; it is a wonderful place untouched by the usual trappings of society. A simple life with extremely friendly people, if you go nowhere else in the UK visit Barra, it is a special place.
Leg 3 took us out into the Atlantic to round St Kilda, an amazing sight almost pre-historic in appearance. As we approached the longest day, heading ever further north into the teeth of a northerly, we had hoped for light nights and clear warm weather. Big mistake, I don’t think I have ever been so cold, wearing 5 layers just isn’t fun especially when all of them are wet. The strain of struggling out of those wet layers into a wet sleeping bag for a couple of hours sleep was particularly tough, although sleep came easy and I think we both could have slept on a galloping hedgehog without any trouble at all. Tiredness and exhaustion was perhaps our main concern and at this point we were both feeling the strain. Luckily we had Fray Bentos pies and Wine Gums to counter those low points.
We rounded Muckle Flugga at 05.00 on the 22 Jun, it was a miserable day and to make matters worse the Northerly wind we had been battling all the way up from St Kilda promptly died away as we turned south. You do need a sense of humour for this sort of activity, but we were both digging deep to find anything amusing at that point. One particular moment sticks in my mind and it was as we reduced sail in a gale of wind somewhere in the Atlantic. On Resolute this involves someone going forward from the safety of the cockpit to the mast to pull down the mainsail, not much fun in a violent swell, but at night when you are half asleep, exhausted, wet and cold it is positively dangerous; although we did do a risk assessment to satisfy our “Elf N’ Safety” concerns.
The main risk in offshore yachting is probably death, particularly if you fall in the sea. It would be extremely difficult to retrieve someone in those seas, miles from anywhere, so our mitigation was to be clipped on with our harnesses at all times. On this particular occasion it was Wave’s turn to go forward and as he was at the mast facing aft I would be the one shouting instructions as we reduced sail. The seas were particularly high so as a big swell approached I would shout to him to hold on. Every 10 to 20 seconds I was shouting “WAVE”, indicating a big swell was about to hit us. Wave would then look up from what he was doing and wonder what the hell I wanted, almost going over the side in the process. It was funny at the time especially for me in the cockpit, and it took about 4 shouts before he realised what was happening, (sorry mate but it is a daft name).
The stopover in Lerwick was a great experience; yet again we had wonderful hospitality. Probably the single thing that transcends the whole event was the kindness and warm welcome we received at every port. Leaving Lerwick in fog as thick as guts was not a good start to our passage to Lowestoft, the longest of nearly 500 miles and for 24 hours we drifted aimlessly making poor progress.
True to form the wind picked up only to blow from the south, and yes you guessed it we were heading south. There was to be no easy passage under spinnaker for us on this trip. In fact the wind did not blow from astern until we rounded the Mountbatten breakwater in Plymouth and then we only had 200 metres to the finish. It was extremely hard sailing past our home port of Scarborough; we were sorely tempted to call in.
At one point about 50 miles east of Newcastle we thought we had hit a whale, but the loud thump turned out to be a large partially submerged tree. Luckily it only caused minimum damage, but for two hours all thoughts of tiredness disappeared as we frantically searched the boat for leaks and damage.
Lowestoft came and went in a flash and before we knew it we were on the final leg. Typically the last leg turned out to be one of the toughest, frustrating periods of no wind and having to anchor, busy shipping lanes, wind farms, firing ranges and a frighteningly close encounter with a French Fishing vessel that we missed by a whisker. He didn’t see us, he didn’t answer the VHF and motored past at speed as if we didn’t exist, which would have been the case had we not taken immediate avoiding action.
The last 24 hours were a blur of exhaustion and high winds as we rounded the last headland and sailed into Plymouth Sound on the morning of the 5 July. The finish was almost an anticlimax after striving so long to get there. It just emphasised to me that it is not necessarily the destination or the arrival that is so important, the real joy is in fact the journey, and we both had an epic adventure on our journey round Britain and Ireland.
Since leaving Scarborough we had travelled in excess of 2500 miles and we still had to get the boat home, but that’s another story. At the finish we were 5th in class and 28th overall in the 50 yacht fleet. It may not sound much, but the first 20 or so yachts were predominantly professional yachtsmen and women. We didn’t do the event expecting to win, yet in our minds we exceeded our expectations achieving all we set out to do. We both finished in good health, at least a stone lighter in spite of the pies, the boat was intact, we were still good friends and we raised £2000 for Toe in the Water and for the RNLI so all in all job well done!
Next year, who knows perhaps Round the World - watch this space!!