Racing Across the Channel
In his next Great British Adventure, Pete Woodward heads offshore for a taste of yacht racing with the Royal Ocean Racing Club.
Over a hundred yachts jostled for position in the churning waters of the Solent, with sharp changes of direction and mere feet of clearance between boats. The sun sparkled on the rolling waters and sea spray flung from plunging bows drifted through the cockpit. A team of ten aboard 40ft Playing Around, skippered by Ken Docherty of First Offshore Racing, we eagerly awaited the radio signal to go racing.
The Royal Ocean Racing Club, of Cowes and London, has been the leading organiser of offshore yacht races since the 1920s and organise the world-famous Fastnet race from these waters in the Solent, as well as trans-Atlantic and Caribbean races. Today, our finishing line was the harbour entrance in Le Havre, on the northern coast of France, with a 160-mile zig-zagging route across the Channel to successfully navigate to get there. The race, the Cervantes Trophy, forms a part of the summer racing series and also provides a way for teams competing in the Fastnet race later in the year to rack up the qualification miles required.
With all ears trained on the VHF radio, the starting signal buzzed through and the fleet surged over the start line towards No Man’s Fort and the open sea. Slightly mistiming the start, we were towards the back of the field with a line of tall masts and straining sails ahead of us. With limited sailing experience, my biggest asset was my body weight. Along with the others not helming or managing sails, I sat on the rail with my legs dangling over sea, scrambling over the roof of the cabin to the opposite side of the boat when we tacked. After a frantic start, we soon passed below the concrete walls of No Man’s Fort in the middle of the Solent and, with the bow trained on the next distant navigation mark, settled into a controlled rhythm.
Jane, an NHS consultant, was navigator and a watch leader and, sailing a tight line between buoys, we undercut the field and steadily made up places. Her partner, Veg, a construction manager with wiry strength and wispy beard, managed the foredeck, running lines and hauling sails. Aboard was a range of experience, from my limited day sailing trips, through those with a few more training days under their belts to others with tall ship sailing experience and veterans of the Fastnet race. French David was learning the foredeck as Veg’s protégé and as the alternate foredeck leader for the Fastnet. Nigel was our other watch leader and had many miles of racing experience with Ken. Patrick, a dentist from Bristol, had great all-round experience and, as he was earmarked as one of the more iron-stomached on the crew, soon found himself being thrown around downstairs in the galley making rounds of tea.
Despite the calendar announcing late spring, there was an icy northern wind and as we charged along the Sussex coastline with toes being dipped frequently in the Channel, my feet slowly went numb. In the pub in Gosport the evening before we had discussed kit. There were a few double takes when I mentioned that I had a battered pair of trainers in lieu of sailing boots and a few more when I emerged on deck wearing them the next morning and people realised that I wasn’t joking. I have Yorkshire blood in my veins and if a bit of discomfort can mean avoiding putting my hand in my pocket for more kit, then I’ll generally have a go. As the number of times my feet got dipped into the sea approached double figures, and I was thinking that I probably ought to tighten my shoelaces up, I started to wonder if maybe the crew were right.
We reached the last marker on the Sussex coast as the shadows started to lengthen and as we rounded the buoy, we swept the bow around to the south for the 70-mile cross Channel leg. With a strong following wind gusting 35 knots we were soon speeding along in a big sea. Several other yachts hoisted colourful spinnakers and crashed over the waves. Our crew had recently spent a night climbing the rigging to untangle a spinnaker sail wrapped around the wires and, understandably, we weren’t too keen to repeat it. We set our sails in a broad reach, catching as much wind as we could while tracking a tighter line to the next navigation marker than those speeding under spinnakers.
The cross-Channel leg marked the start of our watch system and being part of the team that was off for the next three hours, the time had come to brave a trip to the loo. For anybody without significant sailing experience, heading downstairs on a yacht at sea can be a daunting task and, with the rolling and bucking of the waves, can often induce seasickness. I sped downstairs to the loo, shut the door and tried to remain upright while being thrown around the small room. I got the job done and set about grabbing my sleeping bag and getting horizontal as fast as possible. I almost made it before a wave of nausea overtook me. Almost. With a sprint back up the stairs, I had my head over the side in seconds, with Ken shouting from the bow to get clipped on. A big wave crashed onto the stern and I quickly saw why; it would be easy to disappear over the side while concentrating on keeping your lunch off the side of the boat.
It was a routine I was able to perfect over the next few hours as once I started, it took a long time to stop. Not to be discouraged though, I had some adjustments to my kit to make before I could get some shut-eye. Worried about the plummeting temperature and the night watches, I needed to do something about my feet. Armed with two pairs of socks, two plastic bags and some duct tape, I wrapped and waterproofed my feet before stuffing them back into my now infamous trainers to create some surprisingly effective insultation and waterproofing. With that job done, I plotted a beeline back to my bunk and got horizontal as soon as I could. Strangely, the seasickness lessened while horizontal with my eyes closed and I lay listening to the tricking sound of water on the hull and the thump of the bow through the waves.
Time between watches disappears fast and it wasn’t long before we were back up on deck in the fading evening light. With the sails set, there was little to do other than point the boat in the right direction and keep a good look out for the many tankers ploughing their way through some of the busiest waters in the world. We ate hot chilli and chatted as the sun dropped below the horizon.
One of my favourite aspects of sailing racing is the complete break from land-based routine. The boat needs to be sailed 24 hours a day and so the watch system continues through the night. In the pitch-black early hours, we surged across the Channel under a ceiling of the clearest stars I have ever seen. Green and blue phosphorescence sparkled in the bow wave and yellow lights twinkled on the distant French shore.
It takes a certain level of tiredness to be able to sleep on a boat bucking the waves of open sea, especially with a chorus of snoring crew mates, as is often the case. I eventually dropped off in the early hours but was woken soon after, by frantic shouting and tacking as the other watch worked hard to avoid a large tanker in the shipping lane. Emerging on deck, the sun was breaking the horizon and after a bowl of porridge, my stomach finally began to settle. A lumpy sea and stiff breeze chopped and sloshed under a blue sky and a few of the scattered race fleet could be seen both ahead and behind, one with the crew untangling the spinnaker after problems in the gusty night. We crept within touching distance of the huge rusty red bow of a tanker moored off Le Havre and sped towards the finishing line below the cliffs of the Normandy coast. With the full crew on deck we let out a hearty celebratory cheer as we rounded the finishing buoy, 70th out of 105 starters.
With the wind forecast to die away throughout the day, and the crew keen to maximise sailing time, we passed on an invitation to catch up on sleep in the marina at Le Havre and the party planned for the Sunday night, swung the bow around the finishing line and pointed it back towards the Isle of Wight. With the race over, the crew relaxed and I soon found myself at the helm, one of the few on the boat left awake, with sea on every horizon and no other sign of human life. The boat nodded gently under a blue sky and sliced along at seven knots in the calming sea. I did my best to absorb the memories of a fantastic weekend on the water.
Offshore sailing can seem inaccessible to many without experience. It is a sport that I have been very keen to learn and that can provide very rewarding, shared experiences in a beautiful and challenging environment. I have approached it with enthusiasm and, after starting with very little experience, have found the vast majority of people in the sailing world very happy to share their knowledge and to teach me skills. There are many sailing academies that offer training weekends, with a particular focus on the Solent area, and also berths on racing yachts for races in the Royal Ocean Racing Club (RORC) calendar. These races offer a fantastic chance to race offshore around the clock and an opportunity to learn from more experienced sailors at prices that compare well to other adventure racing. I raced with Ken Docherty of First Offshore Racing, who is based from Gosport; Ken was calm and patient with my ‘developing’ skills and I left with more confidence on the boat than when I started and an appetite for more.