One North Sea, Two Races, Two Cultures
Vuurschepen/North Sea Race 31 May 2014
It is fundamentally a bunch of sailboats racing across the North Sea to England and back, but in reality it is two very different offshore races, with long histories and storied traditions. They are bridged by a unique lay-day at the Royal Harwich Yacht Club, where the two sailing cultures share common ground but also celebrate their differences.
The Vuurschepen (‘Light ship’) race is named for the series of large red lighthouse ships that once lined the shoals and shallows along the English and Dutch coasts, and now found only as proud exhibits in maritime museums. These are long replaced by small light buoys, far less romantic or picturesque but bearing the same names and still guiding seafarers...and racing sailboats. The present day race takes the fleet across the North Sea to the English coast, and south along the former line of lightships on the safe route to Harwich harbor.
Shorthanded sailing is one of the fastest growing disciplines in sail racing, and a growing number of top teams are either entering some doublehanded events or converting altogether. This year the 45 entries in the Vuurschepen Race included 15 double-handed teams, up from only 4 the previous year. The experienced and varied doublehanded field also competes in the same classes as the fully crewed boats, and it is not unusual for doublehanded boats to share the podium with their fully crewed counterparts.
The 125 mile race to Harwich started with flags and pageantry as family and friends lined the rails of the start ship Albatros to see the fleet away. With a clean start on the start ship end So What managed to reach the first course buoy in fourth place, trailing the much bigger Junique, Batfish and Corvo. The race enjoyed a special entry this year, with Netherland’s Volvo Ocean Race entry ‘Brunel’ using the race as a tune-up. In the gentle breeze she managed impressive speed, and as she passed the slowing fleet many of the other crews felt somehow compelled to wave. Luctor, a shiny new Sydney 43 race machine, passed by a few minutes later -- though did not enjoy quite the same greetings or waves from her competitors.
No sooner had the cheers from the Albatross died away than the wind dropped to a whisper. For a moment it appeared the trailing boats were managing better speed in the 'light stuff', but it soon dawned that we were falling back in the tide. Raymond went forward and we dropped the anchor, and soon much of the field began falling further behind in the current until they followed suit. In the next hours a few of the boats tried to tack against current to progress to the Kijkduin buoy, while most dropped sails and rested. As darkness fell the wind swung behind and slowly increased to a few knots, and we hoisted the light reaching spinnaker and quietly slipped anchor. We managed an element of surprise but the trailing boats were soon sailing and picking up speed.
We again trailed the doublehanded 'big three' -- Junique, Batfish and Il Corvo -- to the Kijkduin buoy, while the lovely new Elan 400 Windsprint quickly made up ground and rounded next to us. We gybed and held the spi on the beam reach as we began a long night in shifting zephyrs, with much trimming and sail changes between the Code 0 and reaching spinnaker. The frequent sail changes and attention to trim precluded any real rest, but at daybreak we lay in a strong position in our class, and also relative to our broader fully crewed class.
The Vuurschepen has a reputation as a navigator’s race, and prior to starting we had carefully analyzed tides and the latest wind predictions, and set our strategy accordingly. The wind did not follow predictions, and following a slight shift in the breeze our now sleep-deprived minds devised a brilliant new strategy that would surely give a huge jump on the field. We tacked back north, expecting the shift to continue, and soon we would be arcing directly toward the Shipwash buoy in the lead!
The reality was brutally different, and in the next hour much of our field passed us to the south. It is difficult to admit a failed tactic but we finally tacked back and were fated to chase and claw back time. We kept busy with spinnaker changes and slight course adjustments to maintain speed, and within sight of the English coast we converged on the Shipwash buoy behind Griel and Dream Machine, and just ahead of fellow Scheveningen boats Roaring X and Moshulu. Dream Machine changed to a big light white assymetric and began pushing ahead, while we held with the light running spinnaker and tried to keep close to the bigger and faster rated Roaring X and Moshulu.
The wind remained light and dropped further as darkness fell, and we soon had to negotiate a series of channel buoys against the many and varied lights of Harwich harbor. We followed Griel gybe for gybe, taking care in the darkness not to wrap or foul the big symmetric kite. Roaring X finally edged ahead under their big red assymetric, and entering the last leg to the finish we were a few lengths ahead of Moshulu and the quickly gaining Hodspur. Winds can be fickle in the harbor and around 100 meters from the line the wind cruelly shifted and the spinnaker fell back. We regained our heading but were pipped to the line by the two others, though still held an advantage on handicap.
The Harwich harbor master did his usual masterful job jigsawing the Dutch boats into his little harbor, and one of the benefits of finishing reasonably well overall was a berth in place of having to raft. Over the next few hours the rest of the fleet arrived, the harbor crew managing to find places for everyone with humor and patience.
For many long-term participants in this race one of the high points is the lay day, and in particular the annual Noordzeeclub lunch at the venerable Butt & Oyster pub in Pin Mill. The pub lies a few miles down the River Orwell and is reached via a walking path along the riverbank and through idyllic meadows and rolling countryside, with the Dutch sailors trading greetings with English wanderers. The lunch is always a hearty buffet and crews enjoy their meals and local brews outside on picnic benches, trading Vuurschepen stories and discussing the conditions and options for the race back. There are the unmistakable signs of a Dutch invasion -- red trousers, Gaastra jackets, and conspicuously tall people. After the trek back to the RHYC there is just time to digest the picnic before the Vuurschepen Prize giving and club barbeque.
The prize giving on the meticulously manicured lawn of the Yacht Club is an opportunity to appreciate our common sailing heritage as well as note our contrasting styles. The RHYC officers wear their blazers and club ties, while the Dutch are a more random and colorful lot. Gifts are exchanged, in this case a special edition Yacht Club history book for a lithograph of the Brunel boat. After years of the Dutch serenading their hosts, this year they composed a new song for us. In a telling cross-cultural moment the Harwich Club officials were presented a package of fresh raw herring, to which the club Commodore responded in a quintessentially dry English fashion that “they would certainly find an appropriate place for it”. So What managed third in the class and DH under the ORC rating, behind the big J-boat Batfish and Junique, and a few slots lower in IRC, despite the hours of navigational madness midway through the race.
With fresh memories of the numbingly long crossing in light winds, the forecast on the day of the 180 mile North Sea Race was depressingly similar – very light breeze, scheduled to drop to a calm by Smith’s Knoll. Rigs were loosened and the light weather sails readied. A steady wind held at the start, and with a well-biased start line So What pulled off an advantageous start near the pin and came to the first mark behind a handful of the IRC 3 boats, with the later starting big boats drawing near. We settled into a long beat, eventually passed by speedsters like Luctor, a few hours later rounding a large windfarm and hanging for nearly an hour above the Grace O’Malley (SCA) boat. Winds remained in the teens with some gusts to 20 knots, and as the sea state picked up So What pulled away from the Grace’O’Malley and tacked toward the next course mark, 20 miles off.
Reaching the next mark near nightfall, the wind fell off and we found ourselves rounding just behind our friends on Roaring X. As the seas and wind softened we eased the sheets slightly and settled into the long leg to Smith Knolls buoy -- this famous lightship-cum-buoy even has a Facebook page. For over 40 years many a race has been made or lost at Smith’s Knoll. It can become a parking lot in dying wind, and as boats turn east toward Holland they need to plan their own course based on time and the effect of the north-south currents during the passage. There is also the trade between wind and position vis-à-vis tide; boats may sail further north or south off the direct line in search of earlier or better wind.
After rounding So What took the middle road while Sparlings wandered off to the far north, and Roaring X and Arethusa ventured south. It was a slowly evolving wind lottery, sometimes boats within sight picking up speed, other times seeing their spinnakers sag while we made up some of the time riding a ghost of a breeze. The chocolate and sport drinks were holding well, but in many ways the tedium and periods of dead calm can be more trying than heavy winds.
Soon a steady but still feeble 6 knot breeze held, allowing progress toward the Dutch coast. Fellow Scheveningen boat Ijsvogel worked her way past politely to leeward, and nearing the final course buoy in the late afternoon we again found ourselves behind Griel and followed her as she skirted the edge of the shipping exclusion zone. Windsprint rounded well ahead and we would need to work hard to better her on corrected time, while Dream Machine again had impressive pace under their asymmetric and pushed ahead. We rounded the last mark and gybed, running deep under our light blue and white striped spinnaker.
A few minutes ahead we watched Griel, Moshulu, and Arethusa sailing abreast toward the line, while two big and venerable classics, the Baltic 47 Beluga and the Swan 55 Lulotte, trailed closely behind. Approaching the finish line in twilight, boats called out to the finish boat, giving their name and spinnaker color. For many of us the race committee knows our boat well and in a nice touch welcomed us back by name over the maritime radio.
It was a late finish by North Sea Race standards, and as boats arrived they were greeted and applauded by boats that were already berthed and tidying up. Crews also enjoyed a warm welcome at the Spuigat clubhouse, with warm food, refreshments and many stories. The following afternoon the prize giving was held in the Visafslag, the fish auction hall on the outer harbor, and the RORC and Dutch committees presented an array of class and special trophies. So What managed third place in the doublehanded group behind Dream Machine and Junique, as well as second place in the IRC 3 class (earning welcome points in the season series), but as a nice surprise we also collected the City of the Hague Trophy for the top finisher from Jachtclub Scheveningen.
After the ceremony and before starting their journey home our English visitors were urged to try the raw herring, and not surprisingly they found ways to avoid the tray the next time it came around. We share the same North Sea, race traditions, and warm hospitality, but thankfully there some elements of each culture that will always remain distinct.
Providing a Suitable Response – Ijspegel Trophy 9 March 2014
While we were spared a visit by Mr. Murphy or any of his gremlins during the previous Ijspegel Trophy Race, we instead suffered a rare occurrence of simultaneous double brain fades. We endured a series worth of goofs and miscues -- the prelude was a painfully late start, middle comedy act entailed slipping during a tack and wiping a bit of red off the Scheveningen buoy (and then taking a penalty turn), and climaxing the final act when we fell into some sort of stupor and sailed well past the Zandmotor bouy. This time a frantic comeback was not to be, and fine sailing by Elixir sealed their win by 30 seconds.
We were determined to make amends, but Chris t-boned a wayward boat at the start of the off-week club race, so taking care of our wounded lady became a key consideration. On Saturday Raymond put a big bandaid on So What’s bow and though it afforded no structural benefit it looked presentable, kept water out, and emboldened us to ride the dear lass a bit harder.
We criss-crossed before the start in glorious and unseasonably warm early Spring weather; for the first time in the series we enjoyed moderate wind (12-18 kts), and small seas. The Doublehanded class started third and with a nice run to the far buoy we had a slight advantage at the line. We sailed toward the coast to hopefully benefit from less tide, and tacking back we held a boat length advantage over Elixir, followed closely by Harpoen. Nearing the upwind course buoy we had also caught up with a few of the crewed boats in the ORC 2 class, arriving just after Happy rounded and ahead of Nada.
The Race Committee selected the same middle distance course as the previous race, after the first course mark sending us 15 miles around various navigational buoys with a range of wind angles and sail choices. Knowing the wind would be slightly aft on the upcoming short leg we had set up for our reaching A0/Code 0, and after rounding we made a clean hoist and picked up speed. Elixir followed but matched speed under their Code 0, and a few minutes later as we approached the Scheveningen buoy (with the clean stripe on one side) we dropped our Asymmetric kite while Elixir managed to furl hers a bit more quickly.
Rounding the buoy, perhaps giving a little extra room this time, we hardened up on a 4 mile upwind leg to the next mark with Elixir just off our quarter. Elixir again pointed higher but this was offset by a slight speed advantage to So What, while Harpoen fell further behind. With painful memories of overstanding the mark two weeks earlier we tacked earlier and Raymond called a perfect line to the mark. After switching the spinnaker lines we rounded and hoisted the big white symmetric spinnaker, and So What kicked up her heels (or at least her wounded bow) and began to extend her lead.
Though holding a commanding lead we took a conservative approach and started our jib hoist and spinnaker drop well before the next bouy. Impressively (at least to ourselves as nobody was near), but not particularly helpful tactically, we managed a quick 30-second drop into the companionway, and then dawdled far a few minutes to the mark. We led the field by over 7 minutes and as we came to the end of the last upwind leg decided an otherwise unnecessary spinnaker finish would be more emphatic and photogenic. We rounded the original upwind mark and re-joined the crewed boats downwind toward the finish, hoisting out of the companionway and setting our big kite as quickly as our neighbors, followed soon by a tidy gybe and final run to the line.
Approaching the finish we decided to letter-box drop the spinnaker bare headed, which in lay terms means we would not first raise the jib to help take wind and load off the spinnaker, and we would pull one corner between the mainsail and boom to help take the wind out of it. Given we would have an audience and photographers on the start ship our simple advice to each other was ‘Let’s not F* this up’, and we capped a 13 minute win with two guys silently and quickly dousing the spinnaker.
There are times like two weeks earlier when luck is neither made nor found, but the memories are quickly dimmed by a strong performance on the water. We shared smiles and chatted on the sail back to the harbor, at first pleased with the win but much more satisfied by our fluent doublehanded performance. Uncharacteristically, or maybe inspired by the sun and warmth, we blasted the Stone’s “Street Fighting Man” as we entered the marina. Not too gezellig, but somehow very fitting.
So What Captures the Albatros Cup, er, Porthole -- 8 December 2013
After two races cancelled by gales, followed by two Ijspegel Trophy races in 25-30+ knot winds, the forecast Sunday for winds in the high teens to mid 20s (and no pelting rain and sleet) seemed positively balmy. Mid morning Sunday crews readied on the docks, perhaps with added incentive as this was also for the "Albatros Cup", an annual club competition with special sponsor awards and some further bragging rights. For potentially confused native English readers, ‘Albatros’ is also the name of our venerable start ship and an endearing boat name in Holland, while for Dutch readers an ‘Albatross’ in English connotes a heavy burden that is not easily eased.
Though conditions were lighter than the previous races Raymond and I elected to use the delivery sails, including the trusty but relatively small solent jib. Heading out to the start line it proved a conservative but comfortable choice, and deep swells afforded some relief from the agitated seas of the last few races. Again starting third after the two crewed boat classes, the doublehanders spread out along the line and So What worked toward the pin end and a run toward the coast, where the tide would soon turn favorably. Harpoen made a superb start on the startship end, while Elixir split the difference and matched So What in speed but sailed a higher line. After a few minutes we tacked back to the first upwind mark, crossing just behind Elixir and relinquishing a lead we had largely held through the previous Ijspegel races. The J-109 duo has picked up pace and form over the first two races and we would now be chasing them, while the crewed boats that had started five minutes ahead had also raised their game -- we were disappointed not to catch any backmarkers before the first rounding.
Just prior to the start the race Committee announced the doublehanded course, and following the first mark we separated from the crewed classes and settled into a long beat and series of tacks down the coast. Our next mark was just off the ‘Zandmotor’, a large artificial sand spit created a few years ago a few miles south of Scheveningen, and designed to help replenish and preserve beaches to the north through the winter storms. Whether fortuitously or by design, the Zandmotor also provides unobstructed wind and excellent surf conditions, and as we approached we watched a swarm of kitesurfers criss-crossing ahead. Nearing the buoy a few curious kitesurfers ventured out and crossed ahead like playful dolphin, but like dolphin they soon grew bored and returned to their friends. The wind piped up to 22-24 kts, and with better upwind speed Elixir rounded first with So What almost a minute behind.
Due to the rolling swells and gusts we choose our small heavy asymmetric spinnaker over the medium symmetric kite, and managed to quickly hoist and set our deep blue sail. Harpoen rounded a few minutes further behind and set their orange asymmetric, and taking a slightly deeper line than Elixir we clawed back the minute and then pulled several boat lengths ahead.
With wind in the 20’s there are a few good ways to drop a spinnaker shorthanded and many more ways for it to go very badly. Consequently we talked through a careful drop beforehand, which was picture perfect until a small bit of sail touched the seas and Neptune reached up to snatch it. A sign of a shorthanded duo having spent a fair amount of time together, there was no need ask for help; joining Raymond in the pit we quickly and quietly (well, perhaps with some grunting and expletives) snatched the errant bit of sail out of Neptune’s grasp and stuffed the kite down the companionway. Despite the near drama on the drop we kept a length ahead of Elixir on the rounding, expecting a close race on a tight reach to the next upwind course mark. With the sheets cracked slightly So What rewarded us with a little more pace and we built a half minute lead at the final upwind turn. As we gybed we heard a loud bang, the boom flew upwards, the kicker rod clattered to the deck, and the blocks and purchase for the boom and fell into a tangled mass on the coachroof. We pushed off any plan to set the spinnaker and Raymond went forward to crudely tie off the vang lines and provide some minimal boom support.
We kept the spinnaker rigged in case Elixir hoisted, but she chose to run the last leg under white sails and spared our spinnaker. Harpoen had fallen further behind but again hoisted her gennaker and slowly gained back time. We gingerly gybed back to set up for the line, joining the crewed boats on their last leg and holding off Elixir by a boat length. Nearing the line they drove higher and nearly even, with Grace O’Malley careening slightly ahead. On the pretext of giving the sailing school boat a wider berth we drifted higher toward the pin-end of the line, with our friends on Elixir bearing off slightly and dropping a meter behind at the finish.
Back at the clubhouse crews warmed up with pea-soup (colloquially called ‘snert’, a Dutch winter tradition), and watched a photo montage and the videos of the starts projected on the clubhouse wall. We were awarded an engraved wineglass for the Ijspegel win, and for winning the Albatros Cup we added a bottle of wine and the cup itself; it is in reality a bronze porthole, but ‘Albatros Porthole’ really doesn’t have the right ring to it, does it?. The Race organization was as always exemplary and devised a terrific and tactically challenging course, allowing the doublehanders to enjoy an afternoon of tight racing, a close finish, and hot snert.
Against the Wind - Ijspegel Trophy 24 November 2013
The North Sea is moody mistress, playful and inviting but prone to sudden tempest and even vengeance. Part of any pre-race ritual is to check and compare forecasts, and in this digital age we can download detailed digital files with hourly local predictions. On Sunday the forecasts ad files were consistent, adding a degree of confidence – cool and mild, wind in the mid teens with a gusts up to 20 kts, and waves less than 1.5m (5 feet) – ideal conditions for a sail race. Based on this solid body of science we readied the spinnaker pole and lines and hanked on our nice #2 jib, joined other boats hoisting mainsails in the outer harbor, and headed toward the start. Based on our experience with this mistress we looked at the dark horizon and sensed her mood may be changing.
We sailed by our trusty start ship, the big and weathered red fishing boat Albatros, and were advised the day’s courses over the VHF. Raymond popped below to check the marks and came up a few minutes later looking a bit green in the gills, before purposefully moving to the lee side and donating his breakfast to the brown fish. He turned back a bit flush, wiped his mouth, and said “I’m fine’ – an impressive recovery to his annual bout with seasickness. We sailed a bit cracked off to reduce some of the motion, but just before the first start a dark band of cloud and rain moved into the area; the cold north wind jumped above 20 kts, with gusts to the high 20's. With little time before the start we decided to change the headsail from the medium to our smaller and sturdier solent jib, and Raymond went forward to unhank the old jib while I brought up the new. We eased the main and with little headway the bow was heaving (and I feared Raymond would soon be again), and the two of us bounced around the foredeck before managing to get the Solent jib on several minutes before our start.
As in the first race of the series, the doublehanders start five minutes behind the crewed ORC 2 class. This provides added incentive to try to close in on the trailing boats in the class (‘hounds and hares’), before reaching the upwind mark 1.2 miles away. It would be unusual to catch any laggards in lighter conditions but in the heavier wind and building seas we could see that several were over canvassed and fighting to keep their course.
Counting down to our start we turned to the line a length ahead of J-109 Elixir and J-105 Harpoen and crossed a few boat lengths ahead of them, as they began what would become a long match race. So What held a slight edge in speed over the first few minutes, at the expense of some pointing, and following a careful tack we crossed just ahead of the two J-boats. With uneven seas now around 2m and hefty wind we enjoyed a rollicking but quick ride to the layline. Nearing the top buoy we joined the back of the ORC 2 group, ahead of Gouden Ruiter and just behind Grace O’Malley and Jutter.
While the ORC 2 boats rounded the orange mark for the downwind run to the start, the Race Committee had devised a course for the doublehanders that would allow them to enjoy some even hardier conditions 4 miles further out. We eased off onto a shy reach toward the Houtrust navigation buoy and jumped to 8 to 10 knots boat speed, occasionally surfing well above. The J-Boats rounded close together a few minutes behind – but with plenty of time to find their groove and make up the difference.
The wind remained in the mid 20’s and approaching the Houtrust mark we muscled through building wind and gusts just above 30 kts. So What kept her composure, Raymond kept his stomach, and we were happy to have a ‘lull’ to the mid 20s as we jibed around Houtrust. Our next leg would take us 4 miles southeast toward the ‘East Drain’ navigation buoy by the harbor mouth, and during periods the winds held in the upper 20s we would surf at 12 knots. In one extended gust around 30 kts we hit our reached our top speed for the race -- 14.3 kts – with smiles all around though enough time for anything to happen in the conditions.
After rounding the East Drain mark we faced a long upwind leg back to the first upwind mark. The tide was now running fast against us and we tacked toward the shore, expecting slightly weaker current further in, trimmed hard and ‘pinched’ in gusts to manage the heel. Progress against tide can be deceiving as we felt we were bogging down, but still managed well over 7kts through the water. We passed the pier and continued in toward the beach, tacking out when we both began to get uneasy about the depth and sound of breaking surf . Our line took us toward the upwind bouy, where we again found ourselves making good speed among the ORC 2 group and we rounded among old friends. The doublehanded course had us then ease off and return downwind toward the Drains, with a final leg back to the top buoy and then down to the finish line.
We had lost visual contact with the other doublehanders and decided to spare the A5 and remain under white sails, still managing 9-10 kts with periodic surfs above. Just before jibing toward the Drains the Race Committee announced the doublehanded course would we shortened and we would finish at the East Drain buoy. We crossed between the buoy and a committee rubber boat a few minutes later, with a bit of flair as we caught a wave and surfed over to the sound of the horn and thumbs up from the intrepid rubber boat crew. Harpoen crossed about 14 minutes later, with Elixer having finally fallen behind in their match race and finishing a few minutes behind. A satisfying win, including line honors, but it is a long series, Panther and others will rejoin and strengthen the doublehanded field, and the moody North Sea mistress has many ways to humble a sailor.
Wet, Windy, Wild Ijspegel Trophy Opener - 10 November 2013
On Saturday afternoon Scheveningen harbor came to life with preparations for the Sunday Ijspegel Trophy races. The two previous races had been called off due to gale-force storms, and though facing another heavy weather forcast the Ijspegel teams prepared determinedly if not optimistically. Hulls were cleaned, Ijsvogel, Figaro and Grace O’Malley left the harbor for training sails, Roaring X practiced in place, and race preparations in the harbor were made on Panther, So What, Jutter and Lucifer.
Early Sunday the surf at the harbor entrance was moderate, with stiff but reasonable wind forecast in the 20 knot range. The trusty Race Committee boat Albatros ventured out early, and gave us a better sense of conditions outside the breakwater when they advised they could not anchor, and a course announcement would follow. Raymond and I soon motored to the sheltered confines of the outer harbor, and joined others hoisting mainsails and readying for the trip to the start line. We drove past the usual rollers and chop at the harbor mouth, and rather than moderating beyond the breakwaters we faced wind in the mid 20’s and hefty seas. We were smart enough to set and reef the delivery mainsail and hank on the smaller and sturdy solent jib, and So What settled comfortably while several of the competitors were periodically overpowered in gusts.
Unable to set buoys and set their anchor, the Race Committee announces a middle distance course around fixed navigation bouys for all classes, with the top ORC 1 class starting first, followed in five minute intervals by the ORC 2 class and then our doublehanded class. We smiled at the prospect of spotting the ORC 2 crewed boats a 5 minute advantage and then taking chase, but first had to contend with two J-105s in our class, Panther and Harpoen. The J-105 has a great record in heavy weather offshores and shorthanded, and these doublehanded teams are experienced competition.
Fitting the conditions and that the start ship was trying to hold position relative to a fixed buoy for the start, there was little agro, shouting and gamesmanship on the first two starts. Most of the ORC 1 and 2 boats were remaining on a starboard tack after the start, while we weighed tacking soon after the start and sailing on the north side of the course to gain a slight edge. With a small starting group we took a long run up to the start and crossed at speed, upwind and edging ahead of Panther and Harpoen, with Goude Ruiter from ORC 2 curiously deciding to join our start The jib skirted outside the rail on the final pre-start tack, something we could tidy up on the next tack, also prompting our decision to break from the group quickly venture to the north. We also faced a deterioration in conditions, with stinging sleet and wind between 25 and 30 kts. The challenge was to read the waves ahead and keep up boat speed, while not falling off too much and getting overpowered. Raymond checked progress on an iPad he had pimped for the job, and after a fair time nearly alone on one side of the course we tacked back toward the first mark. For much of the leg we had lost visibility of our group on the south side, but ominously Harpoen radioed in that one of the boats has dismasted. It would surely be one of the doublehanders or an ORC2 backmarker, and we hoped nobody was injured.
Typically doublehanded boats, with little weight on the rail, give up speed and time when sailing upwind to fully crewed boats. This is even more the case for smaller boats against boats with longer waterlines. Nearing the Houtrust Buoy and nearly 4 miles into the course we were pleased and further motivated to see we were nearing several of the ORC 2 boats – the chase was on! Harpoen lay somewhat behind though still in touch, but during the leg we had pushed ahead of Figaro - - and Jutter’s nostalgic IOR era transom lay a few boat lengths ahead. We were rigged to hoist the heavy A5 spinnaker, with the top ORC 1 boats already heading downwind under spinnaker, but made a quick check on our ORC 2 neighbors and elected to save the wear and tear unless someone else hoisted first. To improve sheeting we switched the jib to the guy, and with wind in the high 20s we still managed over 9 kts speed with prolonged surfing over 11 kts. Approaching the West Drain we were now closely chasing our dockmate Happy, and had a nice wave from Iluka in ORC 1 as they passed up sailing upwind shortly after their rounding. We made a hash of the gybe round the buoy, but it was a good way to shake off complacency on a boat that can lull you into it. We steadied So What, or perhaps she steadied us, and we set off again toward the northern side. We gave up some pointing for speed over the big seas and made good progress, and tacking back we lay ahead of Jutter and Happy, and nearing the buoy we crossed ahead of big Antares from ORC 1. Given conditions and general good humor we allowed Addixion on port tack to cross ahead close to Houtrust, but tacking back and driving down to the buoy we pulled ahead of them and also overtook Flying Dolphin from ORC 1.
On the last run back to the finish only Grace O’Malley lay ahead from ORC 1, and we had a fine match race to the line. They held on to finish 14 seconds ahead, but despite the later start we overtook the rest of the ORC2 field and two of the ORC 1 boats. We managed a nice first win in the Doublehanded class, but on corrected time would have also won ORC 2 and taken 3rd in ORC 1.
Pulling into the harbor we were sad to see that a favorite and strong shorthanded competitor, Panther, had suffered the dismasting. Fortunately her crew Edith and Yvonne were unhurt and had shown great seamanship bringing her back to harbor safely and with little collateral damage. Others suffered lesser losses in the harsh conditions, with Redan blowing a spinnaker en route to an ORC 1 win and a banged up foredecker (or his nose, more specifically) on Rosetta, but thanks to some clever improvisation by the Race Committee it was a challenging and most satisfying beginning to the season.
The Fastnet Race 2013
The Fastnet Race is the Holy Grail of the classic offshore sail races, boasting a long history (first race in 1925), triumphs and tragedies (the ill-fated 1979 race), rich traditions, and a legendary and challenging course. It is the ambition of nearly every offshore sailor to take it on at least once; traversing 600 miles in unsettled and frequently harsh winds and weather, it takes competitors out of the fast tides of the Solent on the middle of the south coast of England, west past the western tip of England, across the wild Irish Sea around the Fastnet Rock and lighthouse, and back to the southwest of England to finish in Plymouth.
In 2011 we competed in the 44th Fastnet with a full crew on our previous boat 'Rebellion’. It was certainly a memorable four and a half days with eight very different souls on board, representing four nationalities and both sexes. We enjoyed a collective sense of achievement but less than satisfying result and endured stresses associated with crew chemistry and different levels of experience. Even before the finish Christian and I had decided to race the 2013 edition doublehanded, and began our preparations soon afterwards.
Two years later, motoring out on a warm August morning on 'So What' from our late summer ‘home’ in East Cowes Marina, we reflected on the changes and commitments that brought us to the point of starting the 2013 Fastnet doublehanded. Rebellion was far from an ideal shorthanded boat but we managed some decent results through the 2012 season and were surprised with a nice season award, but to compete on a higher level and with Fastnet in mind we looked in earnest for a more suitable doublehanded boat for the 2013 season. We had narrowed the choice to reconfiguring a Corby 33, or a well-fitted and maintained A35, while hoping one day to obtain an elusive ‘JPK’ from the small specialist French builder of the same name. In November, closing in on the decision, I received an unexpected call from Jean Pierre Kelbert (hence ‘JPK’); an almost new JPK 1010 had come on the market, but under tragic circumstances. So What had been commissioned the previous year by Eric Harle, an experienced French shorthanded racing and Transquadra skipper, at the time knowing he had a terminal illness; his choice of name reflected his outlook as well as love of jazz, The arrangement for purchase and delivery were handled with great aplomb and charm by his widow and family, and we have retained the name as a fitting tribute.
In addition to fitting and configuring So What for the upcoming season, we would need to meet stringent safety requirements – the most important legacy of the ill-fated 1979 Fastnet Race, where 13 sailors perished in a sudden and violent storm, is a strict regime for boat and crew safety, as well as advances in a broad range of safety equipment and electronics. The gear and systems are only as effective as the crew who use them, and participants must also complete safety and first aid courses as well a substantial miles in qualifying races. For the former we stitched up chicken skin, resuscitated legless dummies, and boarded liferafts in the cold North Sea. To meet the latter requirements we managed our first offshore qualifying miles on the new boat with a strong 4th place finish in a windy North Sea Race, and completed our qualifying miles during an interminable, windless race to St. Malo in July.
Another safety requirements requires all participants pass through inspection gates before the start, with their storm sails hoisted – small, sturdy sails with fluorescent patches -- to be used in gale or worse conditions. The evening before the race we discovered the new Trysail (storm mainsail) was missing the required boat numbers, and after a frantic call to our Dutch North Sails office we were pointed to an affiliate in Cowes. Due to a similar discovery on several other boats early in the week they were out of pre-cut numbers, and though too busy with major repairs, the head sailmaker directed me to the loft and handed over number templates, shears, and the few remaining rolls and scraps of adhesive fabric. A few precious hours on the eve of the race were spent cutting and applying numbers, and as we sailed out to the inspection ‘gate’ and hoisted the trysail, Christian took in a somewhat ragged rendition of ‘FRA 37855’ done in black, blue and grey numbers. Approaching the committee boat we sailed parallel with the renowned IMOCA 60 Macif, skippered the young 2013 Vendee Glove winner Francois Gabard, teamed with his mentor and former Vendee winner Michel Desjoyeaux. We confess to a bit of rock star awe at that moment, but expect they took little notice of our wee boat with homemade sail numbers.
The minutes before the start combines color and pageantry, with boats sporting flags and pennants and strutting like peacocks, with cutting edge technology, austere design and black carbon, professional resolve, and a potent mix of adrenaline and testosterone. Boats are grouped in several classes based on rating; the huge other-worldly trimarans start first to clear them from the area, followed by the four classes grouped smallest/slowest up to some of the largest and fastest sailboats in the world. The start line, over a mile long, runs from the ‘castle’ and Yachtclub in West Cowes north to a buoy closer to the mainland side of the Solent, and nearly all of the 380 boats agreed that the far end was preferred. It made for heavy traffic in the pre-start and boats from all the classes criss-crossed (or in our case, Chris-crossed) behind the line. Doublehanded boats start within their same rating class as the crewed boats, and when the one minute warning sounded for the third class (aka IRC 3) we looked for an opening near the far end buoy.
Sailing against tide and skittish about getting forced over early, we hesitated and floundered for a few minutes in foul air. J-109 Arethusa, one of our 24-strong Dutch contingent, was pinned in by the buoy, brushing it and forced to take a penalty turn. As soon as we cleared the line we tacked smartly to look for space and clear air, and to head toward the shallower water along the mainland coast where the tide ran weaker.
We were beginning an epic 600 mile race, but the tactics and work rate over the next hour was more like a short regatta race. We were joined by a swarm of J-109s, and it seemed much like a 109 class race at Cowes Week as we tacked and raced each other along the coast. An essential element of ‘short tacking’ in the Solent is keeping a close eye on the depth meter; the shallower the water, the weaker the tide, but greed is punished. We crossed tacks repeatedly with the same J-boats, sometimes ducking, other times forcing the other boat to duck us. The closer in we sailed, the more noticeable the gain on competitors sailing further out. We also tacked close to the First 42.7 ‘Blondie’ from our home harbor Scheveningen, and managed a quick wave to our friends.
An hour and a half later, after the tide turned with us, we sailed into the deep channel and tacked toward the iconic Needles with over 2 knots favorable current. The late starting large yachts began to overtake the rest of the field, and we watched the impressive choreography as 20 professional crew on the rail of Leopard simultaneously rose up and moved to their stations for a tack, and then quickly and smoothly returned to the far rail as the tack is completed. We finally exited the needles heading southwest in a breeze, on our way to ‘The Rock’.
Heading west along the South England coast presents a host of tactical challenges and opportunities. Ideally we would stay inshore near the first penninsula, St. Albans, to benefit from a favorable tidal race along it. The following landmark a few hours later is a promontory called Portland Bill, where many past winners have gained an edge through its racing tides but far more boats have had their momentum and hopes dashed as the tide turned. The areas by St. Albans and south of Portland Bill are shown in old nautical charts with whirlpools and sea creatures, as the waters become roiled and potentially dangerous when the tide turns.
We were holding our own among the remnants of the J-109s fleet that we frolicked with in the North Solent, and we decided to tack up toward St. Albans. As we approached the coast we saw other boats closer in seemingly gaining an advantage with the tide, but as we pushed nearer the seas became irregular and heavier, and we weighed the value of the boost from the current against keeping up boat speed in the slop on the relatively small So What. We also considered our position relative to Portland Bill – if we stayed North we might make the point before the tide turned, but we would be punished if we arrived too late. We took a conservative approach and elected to tack back out to pass several miles further south.
Two hours later as we passed the Portland Bill we noted on the chartplotter that a number of boats in our class closer in had stalled or were even getting pushed back, and several were tacking out toward our line and fleeing the scene of imminent tidal carnage. Boosting our confidence that we had made a wise choice, we saw the much bigger J-111 Xcentric Ripper, the top Dutch doublehanded boat this season, tacking out and matching our line a few miles ahead. We would remain comfortably offshore, perhaps even benefitting from a little extra wind, and head toward the Lizard and Land’s End.
We settled into our typical evening and night shift ritual – one crew topside and one resting below, changing every 2 hours. Coming up after the first rest it was crystal clear, cloudless and moonless. Without any light pollution the number of stars was staggering and Milky Way was a luminescent band across the night sky. Christian discovered another bonus – shooting stars every few minutes. It was the peak of the Perseid meteor shower, and there could be no better place to watch them – except we were in the middle of a race, and focus was instead on helming, trim, and the boats around us.
Through the night and next day we made good progress toward Land’s End, punching through a front with wind in the 20s and a few showers. The wind had also rotated and we sailed a few miles south of our desired line, and further taxing our tiring minds was the need to avoid shipping zones when rounding Land’s End. In previous offshores boats were expected to sail across commercial traffic zones as expeditiously as possible and at right angles, but it was difficult to police and some competitors would take shallower angles for advantage (and on occasion incurred heavy fines from the local authorities). Earlier this year in the St. Malo Race the traffic areas were excluded by 'virtual marks' and we had to navigate around them. Nearing the first traffic area we could either to proceed south of the Scillies (the vexed islands off Land’s End), or tack North between the islands and the traffic area; as our course lay a few miles south of most other boats we took our lumps and tacked North, losing some time but following the leaders.
Heading north in darkness another boat approached on starboard tack, and called ‘Starboard’ to make sure were paying attention. We gently ducked them, a British shorthanded Sunfast 3200 called Ninjod, and waved as we passed their transom. The duo then tacked on top of us, a short race tactic and not entirely polite. This had occurred before in another race, and after the race the skipper offered a surprising explanation—“Sorry, I saw your sail number (FRA 37855) and thought you were French”. Some grudges last centuries. Slightly pissed off and not looking for a two against one tacking duel, I waited until they dropped slightly low, pinched up, and managed to hold a slightly higher line until I was in clear air just behind them. They soon tired of the game, or lack thereof, and tacked off [we ended up beating them, so there].
Shortly after a changing of guard, Christian called below -- "Can you come up here, you're not going to believe this". Two years ago, at approximately the same spot, we were snared by a fishing net and stopped in our tracks. A nearby trawler did not acknowledge a radio call but altered course across our bow and released big Rebellion. As I came up up everything seemed normal -- there was a nice breeze, the sails full and boat modestly heeled, but like the last time an invisible hand was holding us from below and we were making no progress over ground. It was combination of a Twilight Zone and deja vu moment, especially when Christian said "I don't know what to do" and I replied "We can't try to motor out, we may tangle the prop". Followed by "This is exactly what we said last time". To which Christian responded "This is surreal". While her two skippers spent a few moments ineffectively pondering the meaning of this bizarre coincidence, So What, growing impatient, headed to wind and tacked herself (we helped with the last part), and slowly released herself from whatever lay below her in the 40 meter (150 foot) depths. Fortunately this time we only lost a few minutes to the force in the abyss and acknowledge no effect on the Race result, but we no doubt lost some near term focus as we weighed the cosmic probability of this happening twice, as well as wondering what the hell is down there.
A few miles North of the Scillies the wind dropped dramatically, to 5-6 kts, and at one point the sails sagged and the wind vane swung freely in the calm. Boats a few miles ahead missed the worst of the wind hole and drew further ahead, while several of us tried to eke out speed and tack slowly on any significant shift. The following hours were frustrating and brought back suppressed memories of the two day drift to St. Malo. In the middle of a break Christian came below for the Code 0 – the wind had filled in from slightly behind and was in the narrow but advantageous range for the large assymetric sail.
It is an art to divine from the bunk what is going on topside, but speed can be gauged by the rushing of water along the hull and heel, and the sound of lines against the winches. We were soon racing along at a nice clip, and coming up for the next shift Chris remarked “Wind might be a little high for the Code 0”. A glance at the wind gauge (21 kts!) confirmed his English understatement, but given terrific boat speed we rationalized for a few minutes that it seemed to be holding well. Reason finally prevailed and we changed over to the heavy A5 spinnaker, and raced along through the night until the wind moved further ahead and we went back to white sails.
For most sailors, the emotional peak of the Fastnet race is rounding ‘The Rock’, a little more than half way through the race and close enough to see the Irish coast (and perhaps smell the peat and Guiness). Helicopter photos of the front runners are next month’s covers for the sailing magazines, crew pose and take phone photos of each other with the lighthouse and rock in the background, and no doubt on some of the bigger yachts the Dom is uncorked. Nearing the lighthouse rain turned to mist and drizzle, and unfortunately our view was a dark blob with a fuzzy light rising and falling every few seconds, and a dulled sound of surf on the rocks. Nonetheless we exchanged brief congratulations before bearing off for the Pataenius Buoy, the only laid mark outside the Solent , intended to separate the lines of arriving and departing boats.
Blondie had hung gamely with us since the Solent, and remained a few miles behind as we rounded the buoy, close to a sister JPK, Leon. The wind was now slightly aft of beam but at 15-18 kts too much breeze for the Code 0 or the light symmetric S1.5, and we elected to ease and run under white sails for a period to decide between the Code 0 and the heavy asymmetric spinnaker . We sailed close by the bigger Dutch IMX-38 Excession, also under white sails, and after the wind shifted slightly further aft Chris decided to pull up the A5 from below. Bringing the spinnaker bag forward to the bow, the skipper on the big X-Boat said something to his crew and a few of them moved quickly off the rail and began readying their own spinnaker. No doubt he pointed out that an older portly guy on the little boat was stumbling around (purposefully, though rather inartfully) next to them, and was about to singlehandedly hoist his kite. Moving back forward to clip the halyard on I saw a full flurry of activity on our neighbor, and returning to the cockpit made a quick hoist, loosely trimmed the sheet, sheeted in the jib and then blew the halyard clutch (opened a device holding the jib halyard taut). The jib dropped like the curtain on a flop and sagged in a heap on the bow, the spinnaker snapped full, the boat jerked forward, and we began to ease further ahead of Excession. I shot a glance over and appreciated a thumbs up from one of their rear guard, and a few moments later they also managed to set their spinnaker.
The weather cleared and we made fast progress through the day and evening from the Rock back to the Scillies. We settled into our familiar routine – a few hours on, with a short change to discuss position, course, any competitor passed, sea life seen, and top speed. We managed a warm dinner each evening, snacked on our traditional Cadbury's Fruit & Nut bars, and tried to maintain focus and consciousness. Dolphin periodically joined us, arcing alongside and crossing under the bow, and as night fell they left glowing green traces as they approached the boat and sped alongside.
We are limited to three spinnakers for the race, and based on pre-race forecasts selected the Code 0, light S1.5, and heavy A5. The first and last had served well, but as the wind dropped we missed our ‘standard’ medium symmetric spinnaker. Instead the A5 shouldered the load on the long run back to England, giving up some area and speed but sturdy and easy to control.
Approaching the Scillies on the return we had gained back a few of the places we had given away near Land’s End and by the Scillies on the way out. The wind softened and we hoisted the lighter S1.5 spinnaker, and in calm seas made steady progress toward the finish in Plymouth. Higher rated Elixir was slightly ahead along with Leon, Coyote II, and Harry Heijst’s lovely S&S 41 Winsome, while Excession, J-109s Jambo, and Blondie were among the boats training us.
During the last 18 miles the wind began to soften further, a source of impatience and frustration and costing places against the earlier finishing boats -- but we were thankfully spared the long windless finish we had in 2011. As the breeze dropped we sailed shallower angles to maintain boat speed and gybed twice near the finish, and as we approached the breakwater and finish line in late summer warmth and sunshine the frustration gave way to relief and brief smiles. Crossing the line a few minutes behind Coyote II, a larger First 40.7 in Class 2, we had no time to shake hands as a pilot boat appeared across our bow with a small freighter behind it, and we could either gybe or strike the spinnaker. We chose the latter and made a hurried drop, close by the pilot boat and soon in the wake of the freight ship. We engaged the motor and dropped sails, with Coyote doing the same alongside and offering congratulations.
Appropriately we were directed to a berth next to Yeti, a J-109 from Holland who we are tied with for second place overall in the Dutch Shorthanded Cup. We enjoyed a friendly duel through the season and have finished within one or two places in 5 races this season. The Pol brothers took our lines and congratulated us on finishing 15th of 45 on our shorthanded class, while they took 17th place.
Over 250 fully crewed boats completed the 45th Fastnet Race, with around 2000 participants fulfilling their dream or making yet another run at The Rock. The doublehanded teams represented a select few, a band of 90 tired, grubby, but deeply satisfied sailors. Most Fastnet crews rocked and drank the night away in the hospitality area, while fittingly we joined three other shorthanded teams in a quieter pub for perhaps the greatest cheeseburger and fries we ever tasted. We shared stories of short tacking the Solent, death in the Scillies, green glowing dolphin trails, rounding the Rock and dreams of other offshore races to come.
Slip Sliding Away – St. Malo Race 14 July 2013
Unable to start the East Coast Race two weeks ago due to illness, the long (160 miles) and historic race from Cowes to St. Malo would serve as our second and final Fastnet qualifying race, and a good finish would provide much needed points in in the UK Royal Ocean Racing Club (RORC) standings. Before leaving for the UK So What earned strong results in the key Dutch doublehanded series races during the first half of the season, clinging to second place (out of 80 participants) with two races left in Holland. Meanwhile the top UK boats had competed in multiple series races, leaving So What well down the table (with a 4th place in the North Sea Race as the sole result), and only few races left to pick up places.
A transformation takes place as you travel from Southampton Airport, to City Center, to the Fast Ferry to the Isle of Wight and Cowes. Businessmen and cityworkers give way to day tripers, vacationers, and sailors heading over to one of the sport’s most special places. Classics, state of the art racing boats, as well as weekend warrior and cruising boats fill the marinas and swinging moorings on either side as the ferry arrives, and you step out into a holiday atmosphere and smaller world. The narrow, winding high street is lined with pubs, restaurants, chandleries, sailing specialty shops – some new, many others with venerable histories.
After a miserably chilly and intemperate spring, most visitors to Cowes relished a weekend forecast of sunshine and 25C (78F) temperatures; but for the race participants, the prospect of little wind was worrisome and there was risk the race could not be finished. It promised to be hot and bright on the water, and the prospect of lying hours becalmed meant that extra provisions would be needed. We laid in our usual assortment of healthy food as well as snacks of dubious nutritional value but with psychological benefits. Unfortunately we somehow failed to bring our customary Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut bars, and we tried not to think of it as an omen or bad luck.
Starting any race at Cowes is a treat to anyone’s inner child. A host of colorful boats criss-cross behind the start area, flags are hoisted and dropped, there are count-downs on the radio, and at the start a cannon is fired from the little castle/clubhouse on the shore that marks one end of the start line. In the faint breeze before the start we drifted near the castle end of the line. We would sail west through the Solent – the waters between the island and the mainland -- and with tide initially running against there would be benefits to sailing in the shallower waters by shore with weaker current.
We did not have a scintillating start though few did, as we were in a combination of a lull near shore and in the company of a flock of like-minded boats wanting to stick near the south Solent. It was also a spinnaker start and the light S1.5 was a challenge to push deep; with the wind nearly square behind us we gybed repeatedly along the island shore, keeping company with two J-109s and a handful of others. Around halfway to the Needles at the end of the Solent we saw most of the fleet (and the top boats) daring to cross the faster-running tide in the middle of the channel to the England side of the Solent, and they soon enjoyed more wind and less current in the broader shallows of the north Solent. Lesson learned, respect local knowledge…
Coming toward the mouth of the Solent the wind shifted forward and a 13-16 kt sea breeze unexpectedly kicked up. So What rose up on her chine and we tacked the last three miles to the iconic Needles, leaving the two J-109s behind and big smiles as we crossed tacks with the big Grand Soleil Belladonna. Exiting the Solent we had left a fair number of the south solent group behind, but the majority that crossed to the North emerged well ahead. We also did not know at the time that this would be the stiffest breeze we would see for the rest of the race. As sunset fell so did the wind, but we kept moving in 3-4 kts airs and took back a few places. In the gloaming we drifted ahead of one of the top doublehanded boats, the J-122 J-Bellino, and despite the tide turning we continued to move forward in zephyrs and whispers.
While sailing in heavy winds and seas is physically demanding, maintaining trim and boatspeed through light and irregular airs is mentally exhausting. We availed ourselves to Welsh cakes and other treats from below, fresh coffee, and settled in for the long night and day ahead.
As darkness fell we heard over the radio one of the J-109s just ahead, Jibe, noting to a freighter that they were at anchor. We saw that one of the boats we had passed an hour earlier was slowly gaining on us, but they now lay at anchor, and realized while we were sailing ahead over the water we were losing out to the tide and drifting backwards over the ground. We would need to ‘kedge’ -- set the anchor and wait until the tide turned or the wind returned. Unfortunately we lay in 38 meters (125 feet) of water, the standard ratio of anchor line to depth is 4:1, and we had a 30m rode and line on the anchor. Christian gathered the spare rode and anchor line, all the mooring lines, and our spare sheets, and we dropped anchor with 100 feet of line. After a few minutes it took hold, but we had drifted around a half mile backwards on the freshening tide and lay 50 meters abeam of another anchored competitor.
We expected another three hours of tide and Christian settled in for a rest. Around an hour later the sound of water across our stationary bows stopped, and we began drifiting quickly backwards and away from our fellow competitor. I roused Christian and went forward – the anchor line had somehow slipped the cleat, or perhaps was loosened by a sea-nymph or sprite, but in any case the anchor and all the line was now committed to the deep and we were moving at over 2 kts back whence we came.
By regulation and sound practice we carry a spare anchor, though all of our weighted anchor line and spare lines lay a few miles ahead and 125 feet below. We decided to join our spinnaker sheets and guys and tie to our spare anchor, and debated whether to pull down one of the spinnaker halyards. With sails back up we reduced our drift, and managed to set the spare anchor for a brief period before getting carried back yet again. In full flood we slipped swiftly backwards past J-Bellino and several other former victims, and in the first glow of morning we managed to match boat speed with tide, and then to creep forward. There was some brooding and despair onboard as we spent hours sailing back to where we had first anchored at sunset. So much for a top finish, but even finishing was now in serious doubt.
Overnight we heard a number of boats retire from the race, and as the tide turned favorable the fleet faced another challenge – tide would now push the boats toward St. Malo, but first toward an exclusion area bounding the north side of commercial traffic lanes. We managed to tack several times and stay above the ‘forbidden zone’, but like the game Tetris we saw a host of boats carried slowly down into the traffic area, start their engines, turn toward Cowes, and radio that they had retired for the race.
Mercifully unknown to us, a fair number of the boats further ahead of us at nightfall had since made it to the edge of the zone, and had caught a lucky light breeze for the leg onwards past Guernsey and all the way to St. Malo. For ourselves and boats in our vicinity, we rounded the buoy with faint wind and the prospect of another lull at nightfall. We were in deeper water, without a long anchor line, and as we pushed south we would pass between rocks and shallows near Guernsey. And without Cadbury’s.
As darkness fell we took a conservative but slower line between Guernsey and some shoals, but close enough to the island to hear the thumping of music and see lights on the beach. So What crept forward, making between 1 and 3 knots, though frequently the sails sagged and we stalled completely. Three other boats were in the same straights, so to speak, and we alternated sleep and nursing forward motion.
By the second daybreak we drifted south of Guernsey, still 40 miles from the finish. Most of the good snacks were eaten, we resented the warm, sunny and windless weather, and it was unclear when we or if we would finish. We considered doomsday scenarios as we traded stories about challenging finishes in the past – boats in an earlier Cherbourg Race, yards from the line, carried off by the tide; and one of the boats in a North Sea Race approaching Scheveningen in rising current and falling wind, and tacking back and forth the entire night until the tide turned and they could cross the line.
By mid afternoon we could see the French coast and realized it would be another long, slow evening and night unless we were blessed with both wind and favorable tide. Mountain climbers are briefly elated, and then deflated by false summits, while mirages glimmer in the distance for people trekking across a desert. On the water, looking far ahead and squinting against the light, apparent bands of wind may appear far ahead; as you sail toward them, the bands of breeze recede further away. As we approached the coast we saw a swath of wind ahead, but it did not draw away as we crept toward it. Soon there were small ripples on the water and the breeze came up to 4-5 kts; with a much exaggerated feeling of wind and speed the sails filled and the boatspeed rose above 3 kts.
We were prepared for a disappointment, and the teasing breeze to drop away, but it strengthened to 5-6 kts while at the same time the tide turned in the direction of the finish. Making 7 kts over the ground we approached the finish, wary that our fortunes could turn at any moment. One of the French boats trailing us, with the finish buoy nearly in sight, realized they had crossed lust inside an earlier mark, and radioed in that they were retiring. No doubt bitter disappointment, but a testament to the honor code in our sport.
Crossing the finish line in the evening we grinned and shook hands (too drained to high five), radioed in the time (and later SMS’d, a nod to modernity), quickly dropped sails and began to motor toward Guernsey and a dawn fuel stop. We passed a number of trailing boats on the way back, offering a wave and encouragement, hoping they would make the line before the tide again turned against them.
The press write-ups referred to the race as the Marathon to St. Malo – one of the slowest and trickiest offshore races in recent memory. Usually a high number of retirements occur in a heavy weather races, due to breakages and injuries, but in this case over half the fleet retired voluntarily or through tide-induced course infringements. Despite leaving our anchor to Neptune and time and positions lost while sliding back on the tide, So What took 9th out of 21 in the doublehanded class and an even better 9th out of 40 as scored in the IRC3 class with the fully crewed boats. More importantly, we are now qualified on So What for the Fastnet doublehanded class – with much experience in light airs yet hoping to soon let her loose in a real breeze.
A Podium for a Friend - 40 Miles of Bruinisse 2013
Late last fall, rounding the top mark on Rebellion in a club race, Nico stopped in the middle of a spinnaker hoist. Out of breath, he gasped “There's something wrong with the block, I can’t hoist further”. We together dropped the spinnaker and Nico slumped in the cockpit. “I’m not feeling right, sorry”. I soon went forward and checked the spinnaker halyard -- the block ran free.
Years ago I met Nico when his usual boat cancelled in a Coldhanded Cup race, and I was looking for a co-skipper to race doublehanded. The organizers steered Nico to my boat, perhaps because they had witnessed my challenges trying to handle a Baltic 37 (the venerable ‘Brut’) solo in the first two races. We motored out together, fog rolled onto the course, and we spent a few hours drifting in pea-soup mist talking, snacking and laughing. He joined for the next race and we have sailed and raced together many times since, sharing stories of families, kids, work and life during our hours together on the water.
Except for the occasional bout of seasickness, and that occurring only in the most miserable conditions, Nico has been fit, uncomplaining and quick with a joke – often miserable word-plays in Dutch, ostensibly to help me with the language. Heading back to Scheveningen harbor we both knew something was wrong, and I urged him to see a doctor if he felt worse in the evening or the next day. Nico called a few days later -- following a battery of tests the good news was they did not find any serious issue, but a combination of factors had left him exhausted and requiring an extended break. He would remain home most of the next several months resting, going to exercise therapy, spending time with his wife and daughters, calling to catch up, and following our early exploits on So What.
After Raymond and I kicked off the new doublehanded series in the 50 Mile race, Nico and I had planned for his ‘comeback’ a month or so later the 100 Mile Bruine Bank Race. This event has become a sentimental favorite of ours, in part because a few years earlier we picked up third place on a well-worn old Figaro 1 we had at the time, Tigre. More so, during the race the wind dropped and we shared a glorious sunrise in the middle of the North Sea; both of us opened up about then-recent close family losses, and two rugged middle-aged guys shared a few tears.
A few weeks before the race Nico was concerned the 100 Mile might be a bit too ambitious for a first race back, so we added another of the Dutch Shorthanded series races to our schedule -- the 40 Miles of Bruinisse (’40 Mijls van Bru’). This race is held in the south of Netherlands on the Grevelingenmeer, a former delta in the Zeeland province that was sealed off from the sea in the massive works that followed the disastrous flood of 1952. It is now a shallow inland lake, clean, unspoiled, and protected for fishing and recreation. Zeelanders have a long seafaring and trade tradition, but the great flood changed Zeeland in other ways – the tragic loss of life and property affected families of all social levels, and what emerged was a closer, more egalitarian and supportive community. The 40 Miles of Bru organizers similarly reflect this closeness, and it is wonderfully evidenced in the welcome and hospitality they afford visiting sailors.
The Zeeland hospitalily has no doubt contributed to the impressive cruiser and casual racer turnout each year, but following close competition this season in the Vuurschepen, North Sea Race and 50 Miles, most of the top doublehanded teams also decided to enter the ‘Bru’. We have a unique multi-national doublehanded team, with four of us filling different team roles and taking part in races during the doublehanded season. Though not racing the 40 Miles and taking Nico’s position in the 100 Miles, Raymond selflessly organized delivering So What to Bruinisse a week earlier.
The shorthanded community keeps up through Facebook and other social media, and in the days before the race Yvonne and Edith from Panther, who sailed a week earlier to Bruinisse, posted a photo of a small yellow warning sign that roughly translated reads “If you can read this, you’ve just run aground”. Besides these tiny signs and some navigational buoys, the sand banks (seemingly comprising 95% of the inland lake) are marked with hundreds of sticks with bits of fabric (or shreds of spinnakers?) and colored floats. The charts are no more comforting, identifying broad shallows and narrow sailing channels. One of our key pre-race preparations was to make sure the depth reading was on one of the mast meters.
On the morning of the race we headed out into a fresh 15-18 kt wind and chop on the water, and Nico’s face registered some trepidation. “Do you think you could do foredeck if I helm?” he asked. I replied I would be happy to, albeit with far less skill or speed, but best he give it try in the beginning of the race. We tacked back and forth sharply before the start of the ORC group, an intimation of our hours ahead, and at the gun we managed a conservative start far down the line in open air.
So What powered up and riding her chine we gained on several of the competitors before tacking back ahead of them toward the upwind mark. Close to the buoy we managed to thread our way between two boats on starboard tack, with the trailing boat registering their displeasure. After rounding we sailed above them, adding foul wind to their foul demeanors, but we soon pulled ahead and led a small pack of boats with Panther and Elixir behind, while trailing SparklinGS. During the next hour we gained confidence as we kept pace with Richard and Astrid on the bigger SparklinGS, and both crews enjoyed a tacking duel length of the Greveningenmeer. It was much like a much like a short course race -- tacking for clear air, pushing as far to the shallows as possible, and trying not to signal intents to the boat ahead. At one point we slowed slightly after tacking near a pair of warning sticks. We checked trim but the steering felt a bit softer and we dropped nearly a knot in speed. We tacked back to port several minutes later and the boatspeed was on target, as it was following our next tack back to starboard. Now we could add catching weed on the rudder or bulb to our worries on this shallow patch of water.
We pulled ahead of Panther and fellow Scheveningen boat Elixir, and we approached he course buoy we readied for our first spinnaker run. Nico showed no signs of weakness or rustiness, we had picked up the pace of maneuvers and tacks throughout the morning and he constantly trimmed and called wind shifts. Nonetheless we shared a glance before the spinnaker hoist, both of us thinking about the events several months earlier. Up went the kite and Nico shouted “Top!”, I trimmed in the guy and sheet, and with a kick the sail billowed full and we surged forward. Off to the races, grins in the cockpit, and a milestone for Nico.
As noted in earlier stories Neptune, or whatever lesser sea-deity is charged with this little inland sea, often looks for ways to wipe smiles off of sailor’s faces. We opened up some space on the boats behind us and could see the big J-boats --John and Robin on Xcentric Ripper and the big J-122 Jam Session -- leading the race ahead, followed by the Pol brothers on J-109 Yeti and with SparklinGS close by. Little So What was again keeping up with the big boys. We needed to gybe for a short leg to make the next mark, and Nico did a fine end-for end with the spinnaker pole. At this point Neptune’s local quisling reared his head -- the guy popped out of the far end of the pole and the spinnaker swung to windward.
On Brut, and even later Rebellion, the force of the spinnaker swinging over spinnaker would have rounded the boat into a broach, but the combination of twin rudders and a broad stern helped us keep the boat on line, but barely. We tried to hold her dead downwind, the spinnaker oscillated from side to side and we drove under it (experience sailing the IOR-era Brut coming to the fore), and we managed a roaring pace while Nico went forward to reset the pole. We were fast approaching a field of sticks with colored bits, and I counted down the depth as Nico tried to reset the the guy. “5 meters, no, 4 meters…3 meters…we have to come up NOW Nico!” He turned and said with a smile “OK, I’m good”. He certainly was.
We managed a crisp drop and enjoyed the next legs. There is a different course for the cruisers and the courses rejoin on some legs, and fitting a Zeeland race there was good race etiquette. We drew close to a line of slower boats and the skipper of the trailing boat glanced back, fell ever so slightly off and waved as we passed. One cruiser skipper didn’t quite grasp the concept and as we drew alongside motioned to us to give way so they could tack, and we politely indicated they could tack behind us once we were past.
The wind piped up to 18-20 kts as we started the second spinnaker run. We had lost some time to the leaders earlier with the weed and delayed gybe, but we managed 9-10 kts on the long downwind run and the spinnakers ahead grew larger and distinct. The course would bring us in a broad loop around a massive sand bank and set us up for a final spinnaker run. We picked up further time on the beam reach at the top part of the bank, and nearing the next mark watched SparklinGS, a few hundred meters ahead, rounding the buoy. We prepared for the final spinnaker run, and set up for the last hoist. At this point we had sailed nearly 5 hours without any sort of break, and as we rounded we waited to hoist. The lowest risk tactic would be to finish the short leg on white sails, and avoid any calamity in the rising wind. Traditionally I have been the impatient one, pushing Nico to hoist earlier, drop later and take risks. As I wavered, Nico called back from the mast “Let’s get this up, are you finally ready?”.
We had a fine last run, dropped the spinnaker one last time as fast and clean as any crew could, and hardened up to cross the line. Yeti, the big Dufour 40 Whisper, Jean m'Arc and SparklinGS and had crossed slightly earlier, with Jam Session earning line honors followed by Xcentric Ripper. After wrestling the sails down we made our way to the marina. Nico slumped the cockpit, exhausted, but this time with a huge grin on the big man.
After tying up we walked to the marina, and met up with our friends from SparklinGS, Panther, and Xcentric for a quiet drink in the marina café. Robin and the others congratulated us, having learned we had secured third place on corrected time out of 14 in the top class. We finished a scant 5 minutes out fo first place and we were very much the smallest boat in the top 5. Living up to their reputation our Zeeland hosts hosted a sumptuous buffet – featuring fresh local mussels, shrimp, and fish – before beginning the prizegiving ceremony. We were soon called to accept our trophy, and I pulled my hesitant friend Nico toward the podium to accept it together.
After the top teams claimed their trophies, the Race Director announced a final award. The organizing committee cheered enthusiastically as an older couple made their way to the front. She gently helped her husband to the stage and tears welled from him and the Race Director, and most of the close-knit organizing committee, as they warmly embraced and he accepted an impressive trophy. Though not in the top finishers they earned their award as the top man and woman team, and for other unspoken reasons. It was indeed a very special podium for a friend.
Blue Blazers, Red Pants -- North Sea Race, 10 May 2013
In 1688 a small armada of Dutch boats arrived on the English coast; William III and his army disembarked and marched onwards to an eventual victory over King James II and the House of Nassau ruled Britain. Imagine the confusion in the countryside as the Dutch Army marched uncontested toward London. It was perhaps equally confounding for local walkers several centuries later when confronted by a several hundred Dutch sailors walking the bucolic riverside path from Royal Harwich to an assault on the Butt and Oyster at Pin Mill.
Lunch at Pin Mill on the rest day between the Vuurschepen Race and the North Sea Race back to Scheveningen is a decades-old and special tradition. It combines a lovely countryside wander with a fine buffet lunch at a centuries-old waterside pub, and this year the weather eased and the crews rested and refreshed. The doublehanded crews mainly crowded in and around one picnic bench, always a bit clannish and apart, talking boats and life and enjoying a fair number of pints.
The next morning crews threw off the fog of Pin Mill and the later barbeque at Harwich, and belatedly the jumble of rafted boats in the Marina disentangled and began motoring down river toward open water and the start. Though not the last, So What would make the start line with only minutes to spare. Christian commented that it we were fortunate, since the English organizers Of the North Sea Race had a reputation for punctuality, but a moment later the RORC committee announced a 30 Minute postponement. This was very unwelcome news for the smaller boats, since tide would turn against us late at night during the long run up the English coast to the Smith’s Knoll, and it would mean an extra 45 minutes sailing against tide after the bigger boats had rounded the Knoll and turned for the leg to Holland.
With only two starts the doublehanded boats would start with their corresponding fully crewed class (IRC/ORC 2 and 3 in our case), and the second class would start 10 minutes ahead of the bigger boats. Wind had built to around 20 kts and So What criss-crossed the star area under main and the Solent, a smaller heavy weather jib. We found a nice slot near the start ship, hardened up and crossed at the gun, and then heard the double gun for a general recall. We would start again, after the big boats, 20 minutes later and facing an even longer leg against tide in the wee hours.
Our second start was slightly late and in some traffic, with the need for several tacks in the crowded mile to the first buoy. Nearing the mark we heard yells followed by a cringe-inducing crunch as a large British boat plowed a few feet into the aft end of fellow doublehander Joost & Vrolijk. The boats drifted entangled near the mark, Christian called for a quick tack and we squeezed through a small gap between the carnage and the buoy. The fleet was relieved to hear a report on the radio that there were no injuries nor immediate danger of sinking for either boat.
We lay in the middle of the field and elected not to set the spinnaker for the short leg back, but our fully crewed and well campaigned sistership, the JPK 1010 Wasabi from Belgium, hoisted their red kite and gained on the field. Two previous sister ships, Russell Walkers Baltic 37 Cosmic Dancer and Peter and Eddo’s First 35 Marlijn rounded closely behind. Both fully crewed boats set their spinnakers, with Cosmic soon broaching and dropping back, and Marlijn having lesser difficulties but not gaining. At the next buoy spinnakers were dropped and a few hours ahead of fast beam reaching lay ahead, until rounding the Galloper Buoy and turning north for the long leg to Smiths Knoll.
In the stiff breeze So What rose up and sailed comfortable on her chine. We passed Richard’s lovely Grand Soleil 37 Sparklings and held position with Fay-J, with the smaller boats behind losing further ground. Coming to the Galloper bouy the wind dropped slightly to 14-18 kts and we enjoyed some mid-afternoon sunshine. We rounded and smartly set the older medium spinnaker, making good speed initially but soon struggling as the wind (and spinnaker) sagged further. Out came the new North blue and white light S1.5 spinnaker and we a managed a quick switch, and settled into a long leg with a few stretches below to refresh and rest.
In the dying wind the J-boats and others with assymetric spinnakers took shallower angles to keep up speed, while we took a more direct path but requiring much trimming and the annoying sound of the spinnaker sagging and snapping full as we hobby-horsed over the small swell. Panther prowled and gybed back and forth a mile behind under and her distinctive black and while spinnaker, last year’s winner Fay-J sailed off to the west, and Peter Prarie’s big Crazy D sailed a few hundred meters off our starboard quarter as our virtual wingman. Night fell gently and allowed a modest dinner of cup of noodles and the second precious Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut.
We took turns nursing So What along, taking a shallower angle northwest to keep up boat speed and progress against the strengthening tide. The big boat advantage took deeper hold as we made slower progress north, while the leaders were rounding Smith’s Knoll and bearing east for the 60 mile run to the Dutch coast. An hour from Smith’s knoll the wind picked up to 15-17 kts, and we saw an increasing number of mast lights near us as we converged on the flashing buoy. After 120 miles of racing five of us closely rounded Smith’s Knoll in the darkness. The last time we rounded this landmark, the previous August in the 500 Mile doublehanded, the boom vang on Rebellion suddenly detached, and Christian quickly jury-rigged a new pin, using a screw driver, as we passed 20 meters away. This time we also rounded a bit close, and recalled that a small piece of our last boat lay somewhere below us in the darkness.
We enjoyed a growing breeze in the beam reach to Holland, an enjoyable point of sail for So What and her crew. We alternated on deck, with our typical ritual of challenging the other to pass one or more of the boats ahead. We were averaging nearly 8 kts over the water, and over the next few hours reeled in and passed Blondie and our friends on Hodspur, and with growing confidence we held pace with a two larger and experienced crewed boats out of Scheveningen, First 40.7 Iluka and IMX-38 Moshulu.
In the early morning light we neared the MSP buoy in a stiff breeze and prepared for the 25 mile run beat the coast by changing to the heavier solent jib. As seems to occur to often then wind then began to drop and we soon switched back to the medium jib. Iluka, Moshulu, and further behind Blondie and Hodspur lazily rounded in the light breeze, and as the wind dropped to 5-8 kts we elected to make another headsail change to the new North #2 jib. This seems to have caught the attention of the wind Gods, and the wind soon piped up the 17-19 kts -- on the edge of the sail’s range but we made good pace. We chose for the next hour to drive slightly shallower to the coast, with the expectation the following tide would effectively push us to the finish. The other four boats in our vicinity chose to push higher to the wind and bank some ‘height’ for the last few hours, and the latter tactic paid dividends as the wind shifted further north.
Our line took us between the pier and lighthouse, and we had to put in two short tacks to bring us back down to the finish ship and bouy. The wind also continued to build in the last two miles, until a steady 20-22 kts with gusts. Just after rounding we flew toward the harbor mouth, Christian went forward, and slightly prematurely the imperial we blew the jib halyard and let Christian have a wrestling match (and nearly kite surfing) with the #2.
Entering the harbor we saw most of the bigger boats already comfortably in but none of the smaller doublehanded boats and few from our IRC 3 class. It promised to be a good result, and after some tribulations to get to the berth and tied fast we went to the race office to turn in our tracker and race declaration. One of the joys of the RORC races is their team organizes a flawless start, packs up and makes their way to Holland, magically reappears and sets up a finish ship before the first boats finish, and then compiles and updates results in near real time. Dropping off the form to the now familiar staff, they noted we were sitting second in the IRC class and high in the Doublehanded class. Like the rest of the boats, it was a lazy afternoon tidying up, chatting with other crews, and catching up on sleep missed over the last 30 hours and 210 miles. Panther came in with the spinnaker wrap from hell, having gamely sailed and then motored from Smith’s Knoll with the big kite so tightly wound that it took a few additional volunteers to free it in the safe confines of the marina.
The prizegiving the following afternoon is held in the meeting hall of in the Visafslag, where the incoming catch is each day is auctioned to buyers large and small – including my brother-in-law, for his wonderful fish stand on the Haringkade. As expected we just missed the podium in the 13-boat doublehanded class, coming in behind the much bigger Junique (who also won last year), Xcentric Ripper, and Il Corvo. In our IRC 3 class, where we are grouped with crewed boats of more comparable size and rating, we took a very satisfying second place out of 15, bested only by the fully crewed and veteran UK boat Fatjax (2010 Cowes class winner). After the ceremony the participants file out to enjoy raw herring, another long-standing tradition. And traditionally our English competitors gamely and politely sample the specialty, though usually quickly chased by a cold beer or several.
Our little French tart did us proud – she was fast, safe and an eye-turner on the water and in port. In the Vuurschepen Race and North Sea Race we picked up valuable points in the Dutch and UK RORC Doublehanded competitions, but as importantly we enjoyed the special atmosphere in Harwich and back home – blue blazers, red pants, and raw herring!
Playing with the Big Boys (but not Messing with the Biggest)
Playing with the Big Boys (but not Messing with the Biggest)
Vuurschepen Race, 8 May 2013
Vuurschepen Race, 8 May 2013
So What enjoyed her welcome in the starting area off the Scheveningen coast, with waves from the start ship Albatross as well as friends and competitor boats sailing by to check out the new kid on the block. She was clean and sporting her go-fast number decals, and stocked for the 20+ hour race across the North Sea to Harwich with safety gear, snacks, coffee, and the now-traditional Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut bars.
We had a delivery trip under our belts, a few short course winter series races, and the 50 Mijl race on the inland Ijsselmeer a few weeks earlier, but the storied 110 mile Vuurschepen (Light Ships) race would be her first major offshore race. Expectations were high for little So What, the smallest boat in both the shorthanded and the IRC 2/3 rating group, though it was the first race on her for Christian and using the new race sails. North Sails had delivered a shiny new mainsail and light spinnaker a few weeks earlier, but the new jib was delayed and Chris and Christian would make do with the less high-tech but sturdy French jibs.
Prior to a 20+ hour offshore race you would expect somewhat less jockeying and testosterone on the start line, and with a separate start this year the 11-strong doublehanded group was a bit better behaved then some of the later groups. Our group criss-crossed behind the line in the 12-15 kt breeze, and coming up the line veteran shorthanded skipper John van der Starre on the big J-111 Xcentric Ripper gestured for So What to pass astern and not post them up. With a head of steam (or sail) So What was already looking to start in a clear patch further down the line, and at the start we hardened up and took off for a course buoy 1 mile upwind.
There is a mad exhilaration as the boat powers up and heels, settles into a groove, and races for the first mark. So What showed her heels to most of the field and Christian called off boats that we would cross ahead of when we put in our first tack. We narrowly trailed Xcentric, the bigger J-122 Junique, and biggest in class Il Corvo at the top mark, and after a clean rounding we hoisted our big new light spinnaker for the first time. For the fellow competitors and especially the Scheveningen based boats, there was immediate recognition of our light blue sail with a white stripe across the middle -- it has become our colors and battle flag of sorts, the same motif on previous boats (and even the Oslo). After a few minutes learning the trim our kite filled and So What pulled forward. The first course mark lay several miles ahead, and we remained near the front of the field with Junique and Excentric. We were already playing with the big boys and sailing confidently in the twilight toward England.
We passed the first buoy as the third in the group, but Yeti and the other J-boats were keeping pace or drawing closer. It would be a long night and the crews that spent the most time sailing hard and trimming would gain the advantage. The first Cadburys was brought up from below, we shared grins and a short chocolate celebration.
The previous year the Vuurschepen race was started in near-gale conditions, with a host of retirements, breakages, and sickness in the fleet, and we recalled the long, cold night trying to keep our First 35 Rebellion under control. This year the wind became irregular and began to drop near dusk. The boats with assymentric spinnakers kept moving through the twilight, while the combination of symmentric spinnaker and large wetted surface (big ass, as we more commonly refer to it) made for slower progress on So What. Despite much trimming and course adjustment we fell to a few knots and several of the lagging boats drew closer. Soon the wind dropped to a whisper and nearly all the boats near the rhumb-line were parked or drifting nearby, with sagging spinnakers and occasional periods of progress when a weak breeze came through.
Xcentric, Il Corvo, and some of the big boats from the crewed classes had taken a more northerly line and could be seen on the horizon pulling further ahead; no different than in short course sail races, where there is an advantage to sailing off the line to a breezier part of the course, in longer races there is also the possibility of real gains (or painful losses) to sailing off the line and seeking fair winds elsewhere. When 5-6 kts began to ripple the water So What took a shallow angle north to build boat speed, and an hour later was again playing with the big boys.
The wind Gods are fickle and often find ways to tease and confound, and as we joined the northern contingent the weak wind began to drop again. Il Corvo anchored to avoid drifting into the traffic lanes, Xcentric sailed shallow angles to keep up speed at the expense of forward progress, and big Avanti tried a host of bearings with little success. We took turns napping below, and in the middle of a brief kip Christian called for a gybe. While not always sharp in the best of circumstances, half asleep I pulled on foulies and lifevest, stumbled above, and nodded reflexively when Christian asked “Ready?”. In a faint breeze we slowly gybed over, went a bit further, came back, nearly wrapped the spinnaker, turned lazily back to the right course, then a little further, and even further, until Christian gently asked “Are you trying to sail back to Scheveningen? England is that way”.
A mist settled in and we tracked freighters on the AIS, listened to communication on the VHF between their skippers and race boats in their path, and heard far-off (and occasionally closer) fog horns. As the sky lightened a gentle breeze filled in and the spinnaker flew full, and as the mist lifted we drove toward the the Shipwash Buoy and the sandbanks off the English coast. Competitors emerged nearby, including Griel, a top Dehler 39 and fellow Scheveningen boat, trailing us by a mile. The bigger boats (and little So What) in the north and the boats on the southern part of the course converged toward the mark, and as the wind shifted from the aft quarter to abeam and piped up over 10 kts we could not safely hold the light spinnaker any longer and dropped in favor of the old medium jib. Ijsvogel, a 42 footer with full crew on the rail, held on (barely) with their spinnaker and slowly passed to lee, while the top doublehanded team on Richards van Leeuwen’s lovely Grand Soleil 37 Sparklings also held a reach with their kite and pushed slightly ahead to port.
At the Shipwash turn we found ourselves slightly behind Yeti, who had passed well ahead during the first lull but remained further south, and Sparklings; the trek north appeared to have paid dividends but the final three hours down the coast would tell. We began an enervating three hour match race with Sparklings down the English coast toward Harwich -- in lighter patches or when we found a slightly better line to the next buoy we drew closer, and when the breeze topped 15 knts they held their own or edged slightly further ahead. We enjoy a slight ratings advantage over Sparklings and would need to finish within two and half minutes of them to win the duel on corrected time, and Yeti would need to finish even further ahead of both of us to hold their edge.
There was more take than give over the last hour and nearing the Harwich harbor channel we were just over a minute (less than 200 meters) behind Sparklings and closing. In addition to trimming and racing, both crews’ attention quickly toward a massive containership coming up the channel. Initially it appeared she would pass well behind us, but she quickly picked up speed and it was unclear if we could cross her bows (much less her 100 meter beam). Christian quietly said what we were both thinking – “I don’t think we can make it”. Twenty years younger I would have gone hell-bent forward, risking safety and life for the win. On Sparklings, Richard calculated they would clear with just over 150 meters to spare, and that So What would have no such margin. With the huge ship now closing fast we pulled up and waited -- the only choice -- but four of the longest and profoundly disappointing minutes we have spent on the water. Griel and a parade of larger boats astern drew closer as we sailed in small circles waiting for the behemoth to pass, and once clear we hardened sails and made our way to the finish.
The wind freshened further in the last 10 minutes and we crossed the line with a flourish under poled out jib and impressive boat speed. As we made our way up the harbor we listened to the race committee channel and noted the boats finishing behind us – many familiar boats from Scheveningen and other races. The disappointment was tempered by the realization we had finished ahead of a host of old friends and competitors on bigger and higher rated boats – Griel, Antares, Blondie, even the quick and super cool Saffier Nitro.
Perhaps it was harsh to be so disappointed with fourth place in our class after our first offshore race on So What. Coming up the channel toward the marina Griel pulled alongside and skipper Robert Jockin and his crew applauded us -- a heartwarming and timely gesture from a classy boat. Richard and Joost from class winner Sparklings also came by to congratulate and console. Results aside, close racing down the English coast with them was a high point for all of us. We looked forward to sleep, the hospitality at Royal Harwich, and in a few days letting our little French crumpet again strut her stuff on the race back to Holland.
Newsbrief - North Sea Race -- 11 May 2013
Long sound snoring sleep after a blustery 210 mile North Sea Race from Harwich to Scheveningen on So What. In a race better suited to bigger boats our little French tart did us proud by coming in 4th out of 13 in the doublehanded class behind 3 big boys. Better yet, we are on the podium and second out of 15 with fully crewed boats in our regular ratings band (IRC 2), beaten by UK boat Fatjax. Co-skipper Christian Jeffery is only mildly bruised from sail changes on a pitching foredeck, and as a sign of the pace we finished the race with two large Cadbury's Fruit & Nut bars to spare. Earlier photo below of the two coolest boats in the race, the carbon speedster 'Nitro', with their coordinated and complete crew gear, and So What with our matching "So What" baseball caps. Full write up and photos to follow.
Roller-Coaster 50 Mile Race - 28 April 2013
So What arrived late afternoon on Friday in Lelystad Harbor for the 50 Mile race and moored by the registration tent. As old and new shorthanded crews mingled, she attracted extra attention as the ‘new girl’ on the block, and a number of visitors poked and peered around her. The skipper of one of the top boats, a stripped out pure racer called ‘Ten’, prefers more comfortable overnight accommodations on competitors boats before races; he admired the fitted interior and no doubt took measure of the bunks. So What is a unique and fresh design; beamy, open, with twin rudders and a sleek carbon tiller. She is well laid out for shorthanded sailing and looks more fun than menacing, underscored by the large orange name and port stickers, and the name itself.
The visitors unfortunately did not have a chance to see the newly finished and painted bottom. A week before the race she was hauled out, and to better bond with the boat and feed various obsessions, Raymond, Nico and I worked free hours and evenings through the week to finisher her to a smooth surface. Scheveningen harbor hosts a diverse and determined range of boat-loving sea life. Last year we hauled out our previous boat, Rebellion, and the lower keel was covered with large gelatinous alien eyeballs. While So What was not afflicted with the eyeballs, she instead bore patches of tenacious small shellfish, and round sticky green globules on the lower keel (promptly named ‘giant sea boogers’). After much sanding and cleaning we applied two new coats of antifouling before relaunching her for the season.
Over the last eight years, and particularly during the last two seasons, shorthanded sail racing has become one of the fastest growing segments of competitive sailing, and the 50 Mile race on the inland Ijsselmeer has grown even faster. Unlike one-class events or handicap-based races, this competition uniquely groups boats in four primary classes based on length, and it is essentially a flat-out race for line honors. An impressive 104 boats entered this year, with So What in the largest group – 47 entries in the 30-35 foot class. It is the traditional season opener for the Dutch shorthanded competition, and always a surprise whether Spring conditions grace the fleet or a gale rides in from the North Sea as in 2012 and decimates the field.
The shorthanded fraternity is also close knit and supportive, and the 50 Mile race sports the top shorthanded boats and sailors in Holland, a healthy mix of men and women, young and impressively old, hardcore or out for a new experience. It also tends to be a social group, and after registration on Friday many crew spent the evening meeting old friends and toasting the new season, even with an early morning start.
Another unique aspect of the race is the actual course is not selected until the skipper’s briefing just before the start. This is perhaps to discourage obsessive course planning and strategizing the night before, and ensure a strong turnout at the beer tent. A week earlier the Race Committee published a selection of 8 possible courses, and Raymond took it on himself to have all of the possible courses and waypoints entered in GPS and course computer. He also surprised (appeased?) his more traditional skipper with laminated course cards for the cockpit, a nod to practicality and old school methods, listing each leg with course buoys, compass bearings, ranges, and a place to enter the sail selection. In an era of increasing electronic sophistication and dependency, knowing the distance and direction of the next mark at a glance is still comforting.
There is generally a somewhat reduced level of testosterone and attitude in the start of a shorthanded distance race but old habits are hard to keep down. We hoisted sails and set out to the start area, and sailed along a very long start line to try to divine any advantage for one end or the other. Race Committees often put a slight bias toward the far end, to help reduce the typical jostling scrum at the start ship end, and as the line seemed true our tactic was to look on the far end for a clean slot. In the final minute we sailed down the line and found open water near the far end with a well-timed start, and glancing back we saw (and heard) a fair number of boats near the start ship, struggling in close confines and their own foul wind.
The first buoy was laid a mile directly upwind. We kept pace and height above a SunFast 3200, another fine doublehanded boat, and tacking back toward the buoy we would have a chance to see if our strategy paid off. We converged on the buoy with about six in our class and a few stragglers from the first class, and took a line to find clear wind above the others. The breeze held around 12-14 kts but was shifty and after an hour in we had put some distance on the majority of our class (and had been caught by several of the faster boats in the larger classes). An hour later the wind began to soften to 8-12 kts as we approached the next course buoy, at the top of the Markermeer. We would round and set the spinnaker, and expecting the wind to strengthen later we set the older and sturdier medium spinnaker rather than risk the likely faster and new light spinnaker.
We rounded behind the top boats, lying in the top 10 and driving deeper with our medium symmetrical spinnaker as nearly all of the other boats flew assymetric spinnakers and took shallower angles. We maintained good boat speed and it was grins all around as we admired the colorful array of spinnakers receding behind us. Unfortunately Neptune has a particular way of dealing with grins all around -- we readied to gybe, and as the pole was set on the new side the guy shackle popped open and the windward part of the spinnaker flew free.
Over time you become attuned to the normal sounds on a boat, and the swoosh of nylon running free is unmistakable. Rather than drifting out ahead of the boat, a liberated spinnaker instinctively seeks his friend the forestay and hugs it in a loving embrace. As if guided by an invisible hand, different parts of the big sail wrapped around the stay in quick succession and created a giant sumo-wrester knot too far up to reach. Raymond sprung forward and tried surveyed the mess, while I imitated one of the vocal exercises from ‘The Kings Speech’ with a stutter-less-string of epithets. After an seeming eternity of Raymond tugging sail and me pulling lines from the cockpit the tangle of sail began to open up and we were rewarded with a good sound – the spinnaker popping into shape and accelerating the boat swiftly forward.
At this point we were nearly parallel with the buoy, so pulling forward wasn’t quite the right direction. We quickly doused the sail into the companionway, hardened up on the white sails, and ended this now-miserable leg heading slightly upwind toward a parade of competitors rounding the mark. Fellow Scheveningen shorthander Panther headed past with subdued and likely sympathetic waves, and agonizing minutes later at the buoy we rounded with the back half of our class.
There was sudden and quiet disappointment with the realization that a quarter of the way into a long race a podium was out of the question, and a decent finish would be problematical. On the other hand there were a lot of slower boats ahead and we had a beautiful day for duels, crossing tacks and overtaking other boats. We headed as high as we could, soon pushed close above the nearest victim, took their wind and slipped by, and managed a few narrow smiles -- but not enough to again attract Neptune’s wrath.
In the long upwind leg back to the top of the Markermeer we crossed paths with a number of boats, drawing back close to one of the Sun Fasts, later edging just ahead of Panther and finally even with another Scheveninging entry, Windveer. On the second long spinnaker leg we closely raced Windveer and had a higher line to the buoy, exchanged pleasantries near the rounding, made a lovely drop, and headed upwind again a mere boat length ahead.
During the penultimate upwind leg we stretched out our lead over Panther and Windveer, and rounded the last course buoy just behind a trio of other boats. The wind stiffened to 18-24 kts, slightly aft though not enough to fly our spinnaker, but So What maintained good boat speed and eventually overtook the X-35 Estrello. Raymond went below to check the line to the finish and brew a coffee, and emerging a few minutes later he advised we were approximately 0.15 miles above the ideal line. I gestured over to starboard and noted ‘That’s very interesting but I’m rolling this J-boat”; there are times where passion and competitive spirit trump reason, and after an afternoon of small battles to gain back position there was greater satisfaction in overtaking the larger J-109 Firestorm in the home stretch.
The finish lies in a narrow channel between the marina and a low seawall, and we screamed along in a broad reach in 22 kts toward the line. We held off Firestorm and crossed the line 9 hours and 41 minutes after the start, in 11th position in our class (with further satisfaction to finish over an hour ahead of a First 35 and Rebellion’s sister ship, Sevelina). While the early spinnaker issue was costly and initially disheartening, we had much time to enjoy So What’s speed, charms and fighting spirit. We also gained valuable experience and confidence for the coming off-shores -- but will keep that confidence well in check lest Neptune humbles us again.
Newsbrief - 28 April 2013
As a sign of the growth of Dutch doublehanded sail racing, So What joined 102 other boats for her maiden middle distance race in the annual 50 Mile Race on the Markermeer. We were with the lead group, grinning like fools in lovely almost-Spring conditions when a failed shackle and spinnaker wrap put us well back. Fortunately So What showed nice pace, especially after the wind picked up to 17-23 kts, and we methodically clawed our way back to 11th out of 44 in our class. Typifying our day, near the end of the race Raymond emerged from below and advised we were 0.15 nautical miles above the layline, and I pointed to starboard and replied "That's interesting, but we're rolling this J-Boat". A small but satisfying triumph of passion over reason. Terrific work by co-skipper and 'Professor' Raymond Roesink, from perfect navigation to patiently clearing the wrap while I cursed the Gods and tugged lines. Full write up promised soon on the new site.
Ready for the New Season - 21 April 2013
Our Rite of Spring - hauling, washing, sanding, sanding again, breathing toxic dust, washing, degreasing, first coat antifouling, second coat, breathing toxic fumes, light sanding. After one of our first Winter races Erik van Vuuren's flashed a photo of our boat up during a post-race briefing, pointed at our waterline, and teased us by saying simply 'So What?'. It had gotten so bad that crew on nearby boats would shout 'clean your hull' (or perhaps it was 'we have right of way', we tended to be busy). Our diver Charles Beusenberg tried to remove the larger beasts, shook his head and said he did what he could but it was not going to get any better. This weekend Raymond Roesink, Nico van Marle and I finally did the dirty job, in preparation for next weekend's 50 Mile Doublehanded race. We also added our sail number to the hull, so that we don't have to use an old-fashined number dodger (an awkward bit of canvas that ties to the railings) as required in the UK races this season. We also think the black and orange numbers look cool.
A Day of Firsts for So What - 10 February 2013
After several race cancellations through the brutal December and January weather, late in the week the social media began to buzz about the upcoming Ijspegel race and Albatross Cup. There were still concerns the morning of the race as an overnight snowfall had covered the fleet -- in some cases laying a fresh white coat over ice left from the previous winter storm.
As morning broke the harbor came to life. The Race Committee confirmed we would be Ijspegeling, and crew shouldered sails and gingerly stepped along the dock, buckets of seawater were tossed over the deck and lines to melt the snow and ice, and sailors and race organizers exchanged greetings after many weeks absence.
At the clubhouse a few skippers offered congratulations on the new boat, and were confident she was fast and competitive. Nothing like high expectations and pressure the first time in a race. Back at the boat there was little time for lofty expectations – we had only made a foul-weather white sail delivery from Le Havre in December, and managed a short fun sail during the one temperate afternoon in January, so the immediate challenge was to sort out lines and rigging. There was some discussion about which padeye would be best for the spinnaker sheet blocks, followed by a conference by the mast to discuss the spinnaker halyard options. If eavesdropping I doubt our neighbors (Happy) would have made a wager on So What, but we looked forward to the maiden race and learning more about the boat.
On the way out we returned waves from a few other crews, as they checked out the new boat on the block, also passing Rebellion in her temporary berth. We had many good times on her, and have much work to do on the JPK to match her familiarity and periodic strong results.
After hoisting the main and exiting the harbor mouth we enjoyed the sail to the start ship in calm seas and a 15-18 kts offshore breeze. Ideally we would set the spinnaker and practice downwind handling, but a combination of limited time, not wanting to screw up before even starting, potential issues with rehoisting a hastily dropped spi from the companionway, and a few other lesser excuses kept the spinnaker well-packed in her bag, and we concentrated on upwind trim.
We readied for the start, coming in with most of the Group 2 boats on the favored start ship end, somewhat late and well gassed by the larger boats to windward. Not the best first start but So What is smaller and considerably lighter than Rebellion and comes out of tacks quickly, so we tacked immediately to port, cleared the foul wind, and tacked back to starboard into clear air. The bright snow-covered Scheveningen coast and pier lay ahead, and following the long tack toward the to the upwind buoy we would have a better sense of So What’s upwind speed relative to her peers. Nearing the course buoy we had managed to catch up and cross ahead of the back of the field. Not bad for double handed in the breeze, also trying to negotiate a comfortable line while carrying the medium jib when the smaller solent would have been the wise choice. At the buoy we held a few boat length lead over fellow doublehander Panther -- the always well sailed and similarly rated J-105 is a good benchmark.
One of the advantages of the Ijspegel series is that professional sailor Eric van Vuuren gives an informative ‘nabespreking’ the Tuesday after a race, with much to be learned about tides and changing wind condition. Given a time machine we would have held our line ahead ofPanther, but instead fell victim to our adult ADHD and gybed early. We planned to set the spinnaker but Panther also elected to do the first downwind leg under white sails, though we kept an eye on the crafty 'dames' (ladies) as we diverged on different lines. Gybing back against the still fresh tide to the downwind buoy it was clear we picked the wrong time and place to gybe, with Panther now comfortably ahead. The shorhanded Dehler 33 Miles encountered early spinnaker difficulties and was further behind, and we had some confidence we could make up part of the gap on the upwind leg. We also had a close encounter of the Lucifer kind, where they held right of way but mistakenly thought we did not see them and tacked out early. We’ll return the favor someday.
As we approached the upwind buoy for the second time the gap to Panther was only two lengths, raising our confidence. We rounded and prepared to set the spi, Panther doing the same with their gennaker. It was enjoyable and fortunate to continue the match race, and as the wind had now piped up to 20-22 kts no doubt both crews had a bit of trepidation about the coming leg. We opened the bag, Raymond hoisted quickly, and So What lurched forward as the plain white kite popped open for the very first time. We jumped to 10-11kts speed and edged past the Panther duo as they set their gennaker, also taking a deeper line but still needing a gybe. After a minute Raymond went forward, we squared the boat and kite, and executed an end-for-end gybe in breeze as pretty and fast as any of the crewed boats.
We smiled broadly but the sailing gods tend to look down on overconfidence and pride, and as we neared the line lost a bit of focus and were caught by a building gust. As we started to round up a mere 100 meters from the line there was a blur of memories, like a near death experience, of various round ups and broaches on Rebellion and Brut. The key difference is that in this case we had twin rudders, a broad stern, and lots of ballast, and instead of wallowing as the competition sailed past we quickly recovered and crossed the line in decent trim and worthy of the nice finish photo. We then sailed a long, long way away as we decided we would manhandle the spi down without setting the jib, and there was a bit of huffing and puffing and colorful language before she the sail was safely below.
Back at the clubhouse we celebrated a series of firsts – our maiden race on So What, the first time we set the spinnaker, and first place for the race and the mini-Albatross Cup (which is in reality an engraved bronze porthole) for the Doublehanded class. For all skippers and crew it was a fine beginning for the second half of the Ijspegel series and the new season.
So What - A Lovely Lady Takes us Home - 21 December 2013
Sailing magazines have a reputation for publishing stories where unassuming or unprepared sailors encounter severe weather or a major failure, and then struggle and improvise to ultimately to make safe haven. The intent is to offer lessons learned and teach elements of seamanship, though a frequent comment is that sailors should keep these magazines far from their significant others lest they think the sport or hobby is frequently harrowing and life threatening.
During the previous weeks we had finished the paperwork and scraping up funds for our new shorthanded boat, the JPK 1010 ‘So What’. We had not planned to change to a new boat so quickly, but had began looking at options better suited than Rebellion for shorthanded offshore events and learned that So What had suddenly come up for sale. She had been commissioned and owned by Eric Harle, an experienced French shorthanded racing and Transquadra skipper, at the time knowing he had a terminal illness; his choice of name reflected his outlook as well as love of jazz, and we have retained the name as a fitting tribute. The arrangement for purchase and delivery were handled with great aplomb and charm by his widow and family.
On taking delivery in Le Havre, a small port on the French Atlantic coast, all of the elements of a magazine article fell into place – new boat, unfamiliar waters, huge storm passing through, and some impatience to get her on the water and on the way to Scheveningen. Raymond drove Nico, Christian and Chris to Le Havre along with gear and provisions. With winds in the 40’s offshore the trio sanely elected to delay until the next morning, and enjoyed a nice meal in Le Havre center. There was a cultural clash near the end of the dinner when Nico ordered a cappuchino to go with his dessert cheese plate; the waitress twice asked if he really wanted cappuccino with his cheese until advised that Nico was ‘Hollandaise’, at which point she nodded and noted the order with a bemused smile.
We left at first light, which in mid-December in Northern Europe is mid-morning, with dusk seeming to start shortly thereafter. The center of the storm had passed and a late weather check predicted high 20’s near the coast and a bit higher wind further offshore. We slipped lines and headed along a huge seawall toward the harbor mouth, raising the main with two reefs and setting the Solent jib (a smaller, heavy weather foresail). It became clear the sea state would be on the hefty side, looking at each other with thin smiles as spray was periodically topping the seawall from breakers on the other side. As we cleared the wall and turned toward the harbor mouth we heeled and picked up speed. The smooth waters in the breakwater gave way to confused, 3-4 meter (10-14 foot) swells and waves, with foam and streaks and a decidedly nasty look.
Before leaving we had some advice and warnings from the harbormaster, who had grown up in the area and also sailed shorthanded. “In this breeze she will fly, but first sail west clear of the peninsula, and if you have a problem do not try to enter Finestre as they have a little problem with standing waves in this weather. Not very nice”. As we were muscled by the breakers in the harbor approaches another typical theme of the sailing magazine articles seemed to be falling in place, the insistence to press on and then rejecting early advice.
After 45 minute or so we rounded one of the outer shipping channel buoys and turned north, with wind in the high 20s now off the aft quarter and big seas driving from behind. Moments later we ‘surfed’ down the face of a wave with a roar, then another, and nervous glances changed to broad grins. In shifting winds between 22-28 kts, with big irregular following seas, she was not just tame and predictable but an absolute blast to helm. In the future this will be heavy spinnaker weather, but we were content with shaking out one reef and speeding north under white sails.
Darkness fell earlier than expected as a band of squalls approached from the southwest. We made it safely past treacherous Finestre but contended with big shifts and periods of high winds and rain within the squalls. During the first period of wind in the 32-35 kt range she literally took off and the roar became near continuous as she planed at boat speeds well above 12 kts (another thread in the magazine article – instruments were not working quite right). The first thought is in these conditions is ‘Don’t f*ck up’, followed closely by ‘What do I hang onto when she wipes out?’. The team had ample experience with the latter on Brutand lesser so on Rebellion, but even when So What started to round or fall awkwardly off a wave, a kick from the dual rudders put her back on track. It was comforting, and it was much fun. Wind eased to the 20’s between squalls, which by comparison seemed very gentle.
At this point in the sailing magazine narrative something dramatic occurs, and in this case we were hit with a particularly pair of squalls. Wind climbed to 35-40 with gusts even higher, the rain was painful, and the seas were angry. In two cases we rounded up, more so due to the mere mortal helmsmen not keeping up with rapid 50 degree wind shifts than lack of will from the rudders. In the second event the wind shifted quickly back and there was an unplanned gibe in 35 kts wind. Down below there was an ominous pause and slight deceleration, followed by an almighty bang and lurch. A magazine narrative usually continues with how the crew valiantly cut the rig away before the hull was holed by it, but in this case the rig stood strong and So What bounded off on her next merry surf. Our new French coquette was really impressing us.
The winds eased to the low 20s and we passed Calais after midnight, quickly crossing the busy Channel shipping lanes with a few extra knots of current pushing us along. Having doubled up crew on deck during the roughest period the three of us reverted to solo three hour shifts, with time for the offshift to first sleep and later make soup or tea for the tillerman. We worked up the Belgian and later southern Dutch coasts, keeping sharp watch for trawlers and freighters while enjoying So What through the day. The wind dropped to the teens and the sea began to moderate, and rather than relaxing further in the lighter conditions So What’s crew, now thoroughly enamored by her, tried harder to coax a few last surfs out of her.
The last challenge before reaching Scheveningen is crossing the main channel for Rotterdam harbor, perhaps the busiest shipping lane in the world. Sailboats cross through a narrow transit lane, advising the harbor control a mile or so before entering and reacting to any instructions while in the lane. We enjoyed a lighter moment when calling in: "Maas Control, this is sailing yacht So What" followed by "This is Mass Control...So What?". We are fortunate that despite all of the warning signs we did not face a sailing magazine story emergency this trip – imagine after calling in a Mayday, hearing back on the VHF “So What, So What, So What, this is…”?.
In the early evening darkness we sailed toward the lights of Scheveningen boardwalk and our home harbor. Winds were light, waves were less than a meter, and we soon slipped through the harbor mouth and made our way to a temporary visitors berth. Once So What was safely tied up Christian opened a bottle of Champagne (and a sport drink for Chris) and we toasted a fine trip together, good times past on Rebellion, and the beginning of a new adventure on So What.