Challenger 1 — Rolex Fastnet Crew

By Tall Ships - August 14th, 2021 | Posted in Voyager blogs No comments

Day 1

WOW! 30 yachts retired, many de-masted, 35 to 40 knot winds, 2-3-metre waves and that’s just the start!

Welcome to Fastnet 2021 and Challenger 1 crew’s big adventure finally starts. After leaving Cowes in a heavy downpour and ‘oillies’ (full weather gear), we set up the storm sails for the mainsail and the staysail as a race requirement and passed through the check gate. These were taken down and then the staysail storm went back up when the ever increasing wind filled and the sea state became more erratic. A total of 420 entrants each divided into six race starts. The start was busy and very wet! We were all very excited if not a little nervous. The team were revved up and ready to go.

Our start at 1155, the gun went and we were off helmed by our Skipper, Mike, heeling over heavily, waves washing the lower decks, the crew working the winches hard to control the heavy yankee and the storm sail. Wind on the nose, we beat up the Solent towards the Needles with the wind increasing to over 35 knots as we approached The Needles. Repeatedly tacking over and over again we really worked hard under the excellent instruction of our Skipper and his team.

After passing Hurst Castle and The Needles with many onlookers watching the heavily heeled yachts from the shore, we were out of the Solent to be met with 3-metre crashing waves, up to 40 knot winds, heavy waves of spray flooding the decks and over the crew, we were soaked! We started the watch system unfortunate for those going downstairs and the fairground below. Into the night the wind blew and the waves stayed high, it was an endurance survival!

The next day the sun came out and the wind, still strong, allowed us to enjoy our sailing and those who were poorly with seasickness to recover, we were loving our adventure, especially when dolphins crossed our path with a welcome and a jump. ?

Day 2

After the storm the calm, the sun came out and warmed our damp oillies and our weary bodies from the onslaught of the previous 24-hours. The wind abated to a steady force 3-4 at times with occasional white tips of the waves of a force 5.

We carried on our adventure, a beautiful sail heading down towards the Lizard and Land’s End. The full rig was eventually hoisted and out came the reefs from the previous day’s fully reefed mainsail, storm jib and smallest yankee. The previous day’s extremely wet change from removing the storm sail and hoisting the stay sail at the crazy angle of 45 degrees with waves crashing over the bow, the bow leaping up and down in the huge swell, and almost losing the storm sail as it was swept overboard with desperate moves to retrieve it from the sea! Today’s sail hoisting appeared almost leisurely in comparison but exhausting as we were all very tired from our day before.

We all breathed a sigh of relief gathering our thoughts, sorting our kit and finally having a chance to have a wash without being thrown around the cabin below deck. Those who had been poorly with seasickness were slowly recovering as the sun came out and the dolphins came out to play. A huge special treat of so many pods of dolphins coming to greet us, dancing and jumping in the water around the boat to our delight, we lost count there were so many. Many jumping extraordinarily high to whoops of “ahh” from the crew, one dolphin playfully slapping its back fin in a final display of fun each time as it re-entered the water with a nose dive.

Our watch systems were in full flow with turns in cooking, cleaning duties and everyone’s favourite — cleaning the heads (toilets), but it’s not as bad as it sounds! After the crazy weather the previous day normal meals resumed as cooking became safer to both cook and eat, and everyone’s appetite started to return. The banter and support within the crew to keep each other safe and happy is lovely to be part of and life on board is starting to flow.

As the night drew in, the blue sky changing to the deep darkness of night, each watch was treated to the magnificence of the night sky; the display of stars stretching across the heavens, the Milky Way in full luminescence of billions of stars. We’re in awe at its beauty.

Looking up at the top of the mast, swaying forward and back, in the backdrop of the stars beyond was quite magical, satellites and shooting stars too many to count. The lighthouse of The Lizard (Cornwall) sweeping across the horizon still many miles away, a few yachts could be seen on the horizon, many in the Fastnet race.

The wind now calmer to a force 2-3, the team trimmed the sails in the darkness of the night to gain as much speed as we could. Bioluminescent phytoplankton illuminated every wave and left a trail of fluorescent silvery jade glow in the water almost mystical. We were all in awe as we glanced back at the trail of luminescence left in the trail of our yacht. Missing a heartbeat and a gasp within each of us dolphins skimmed through the water they themselves laminated fluorescent in the glow almost otherworldly with a luminescent trail left behind them. This is truly a beautiful planet and an amazing adventure. ?

Day 3

A beautiful start to the day as the sun crept over the horizon and lifted gently into the sky giving us a treat of a serene sunrise. We’d swapped watches at 3am the heavens still full of stars but day soon broke and dolphins were once again our friends, leaping, playing and swimming in numerous pods sweeping alongside and under the yacht as we gently sailed from Land’s End to the Scilly Isles. One of the crew shouted ‘whale’ and we all rushed over cameras at the ready to find it was a dolphin – since seeing a dolphin had become less of a highlight as we’d seen so many, we laughed, next it will be albatrosses!! Maybe not!

The idyllic Scilly Isles were absolutely beautiful bathed in sunshine, a balmy almost Caribbean feel, we lay in the decks looking out at the beaches, relaxing and chatting, dolphins jumped and played around us.

Challenger 2 was just ahead of us having slipped by earlier but we had her in our sights and were not going to let her out of our sights, we were after her! Consistent sail trimming took place to gain as much speed as we could in the light airs of force 2-3. What a difference from just 24 hours ago in the stormy endurance test of the start of the race. We now learn that 80 yachts retired, many before even passing The Needles, many with gear breakage, hopefully no one got hurt. We felt lucky to be still on our adventure to the Fastnet Rock.

Heading out away from the Scilly Isles, the vast expanse of the Celtic sea lay ahead of us with its Atlantic swell of rolling waves, it felt different, a vast sea, no longer near land, we headed west.

Dinner was Thai green curry and very welcomed by a hungry crew who had also had porridge that morning, before ‘normal’ cooking would have been unsafe in the galley due to the previous winds and sea state. Tee who is a ‘eat your heart out Nigella’ brilliant cook then decided her next cooking venture would be ‘Cooking at sea with Tee!’ thought it was a great idea myself!

The Yankee two sails changed to the big Yankee, the work was exhausting and Mike our Skipper had to work hard to keep us moving, we were all still jaded from the previous heavy weather. We all sat on the edge of the yacht high side as we watched the ever increasing Atlantic rollers under us. The Watches changed and again working hard to catch up our nearest rival Challenger 2.

Returning on deck at 11pm the wind had increased to 25 knots, the Rock just 65 miles away…

Day 4

It was a deep, deep darkness, I thought of Skipper, Mike saying ‘it’s a screaming reach’ as I held onto the helm wheel feeling the wind, the yacht moving wildly, ‘like a bucking Broncho. Mark the Watch Leader said I needed to concentrate hard, watching the wind indicator and the compass in the darkness, all I could see were the handful of illuminated navigation instruments on display, I couldn’t see the sail in the darkness, the wind indicator bobbing wildly at the top of the mast. I couldn’t focus on that too much, I heard the comforting voice of Mark saying ‘are you ok’ from my side, all I could see was his silhouette in the darkness, I couldn’t see the rest of the crew huddled in the cockpit. The wind howled around, the waves showing their white tips but now illuminated by bioluminescent phytoplankton, a silvery emerald, our large wake splashing the luminescence further. It was purely magical, almost mystical, ‘something from another planet’ said crew member, Mark. The bobbing lights of Challenger 2 only now one mile away we were hunting them down like a panther in the night. We’d heard they may have suffered gear failure – it happens. ?

The wind howling, our boat heeled over hard moving fast through the water, at times at 14 knots, we put a reef in under darkness, not an easy manoeuvre in the day let alone in complete darkness with only our red head torches to help us! The previous Watch had to take evasive action as another huge four-masted tall ship didn’t make its intensions clear, it’s not something you want to do with a big powerful yacht as ours.

Mark one of our crew helmed us past Challenger 2 and left her in our wake we were on a mission heading towards the Fastnet Rock, taking the wide angle to avoid the TSS (traffic separation zone) that no yachts are allowed to enter.

The Rock

All the crew worked hard that night, strong winds and choppy seas we welcomed the morning with a lull in the winds as we sailed around the edge of the TSS, the wind dropped, the drizzle started and the mist filled all around us, we could just see the shapes of the rocky coast of Ireland, Cape Clear island being anything but. The seabird gannets, guillemots sweeping the sea and dolphins once again visible by our side. The previous Watch looked cold and wet and glad to go below. A reef was taken out as we sailed towards our destination, keen eyes looking in the mist and then there she was a jewel in the emerald sea – the Fastnet Rock.

Standing tall and majestic the lighthouse sat partly on its ragged rocks below, waves crashing at its side, the remnant of the former lighthouse tower making the current one seem austere and forebodingly taller. Seabirds circled this infamous rock, the crew jubilantly erupted in a round of applause and cheers, we were here at last!! We chatted excitedly with the other crew coming up out onto the steps to see her, cameras at the ready. For some reason ‘Blackadder’ jokes filled the conversation, everyone laughing, very odd you may think. I think we were all a bit delirious at this stage!”

We were still far away, there was still work to be done, we tacked relentlessly giving ourselves the best line to pass the Rock on our port side, looking behind a run of yachts followed in our wake. The Fastnet Rock is just awe inspiringly brilliant, emotive as it was the last rock of their homeland that thousands of Irish migrants saw on their journey to America, but we loved its granite drama, it felt quite touching that we were finally here, right beside her, having heard so much about her and here she was, our goal all along, we took so many pictures. It was just terrific.

But of course, that was only half of our journey and now we had to get to Cherbourg we were still racing. With Challenger 2 behind us we bore away and poled up the spinnaker pole attaching the Yankee, the sun came out glistening ahead of us on the water and we sailed for quite a while.

With speed on our side making 9-10 knots but direction not so well, Skipper, Mike decided to hoist the spinnaker, it takes quite some preparing to hoist such a large spinnaker but she went up beautifully, blue and white the wind filled her and we were off! Then only a few minutes later we heard an almighty rip and we watched as a tear ripped through the whole length of the sail from top to bottom there was a crazy scramble to salvage the out of control full spinnaker as it swept into the sea.

All hands on deck now grasped desperately at the torn spinnaker, some disappearing under the boat, a part ripping away never to be seen again, we salvaged the rest and dragged it aboard. Exhausted, but keen to resolve the situation the pole went back up with the goose-winged out Yankee. I think we all needed a deserved hot cup of tea.

Sharon Thomas, crew member

Day 4

Some lovely fast beam reach sailing last night up towards the Fastnet Rock in 20 knots apparent, trying to get there before the cold front arrived from the west – unfortunately it arrived at the most inconvenient time possible, leaving us suddenly underpowered and floundering around in confused seas between the traffic separation zone and the coast!

After some quick tacking and quick reef shaking out we were underway again in the pouring rain and rounded the Fastnet Rock at 8.14am (BST) – now downwind goose-winged back towards the Isles of Scilly, and enjoying the sunshine after our mornings exertions.

Mike Brian, Mate. 

Day 5

It was 7pm and I was back on watch. The current crew had enjoyed a lovely afternoon bathing in sunshine (even Ray put his shorts on) and everyone was happy. We swapped watches with Bex one of our watch leaders telling Austin to ‘get to bed or face a disciplinary’ he is a handful, Bex grinned. We all laughed. Later she said she may recommend him for watch leader, he is already known by the crew as ‘the commodore’! The crew are all amazing and everyone has become warm, close, firm friends.

As we sat on our watch relaxing in the sunshine, thoughts came into my head of the helicopter that flew overhead yesterday hovering for ages over the yacht behind us with its spinnaker full. It had circled low all around us with its side door open, a photographer leaning out with their camera, we had laughed and waved, how great was that? We think it had just been back to the Rock and was following the trail of yachts as they raced homeward. I remembered fondly the silly banter we had had as we approached the Rock, Scott joining in the laughter and chatting about putting underpants on his head, pencils up his nostrils and saying wobble! (Black adder again). We are a crazy lot, I remembered Dean looking like a drowned rat, poor fella, as rain had collected in the reef on the main and had poured out over him like a shower. Ray and Austin thought it was funny, Dean didn’t! I also remembered opening the forward hatch and seeing Mike, our skipper, down below in the sail locker ready to heave the unbelievably heavy spinnaker out of the locker. It took me, Mark and Tee to lift it. The boat had lurched, and a large wave swept over the bow flooding us all, the seawater pouring into the depths of the sail locker below and absolutely soaking Mike! He didn’t laugh, we didn’t laugh! Not amused! Had this been in the warmth of the Caribbean my naughty sense of humour wouldn’t have allowed me to keep a straight face and I would have most definitely laughed! Whoops sorry Skip! The fond thoughts of the Fastnet rock flooded my mind with a tender thought for all of those who had lost their lives racing towards this rock many years ago, just like us, normal sailors looking for adventure with a love of the sea, I didn’t like to dwell on it.

It was early evening, looking east, the waxing crescent moon lay softly in the warm glow of the remaining sunset in the eastern horizon behind us as we raced west back across the Celtic sea. The wind had softened to a gentle 5-6 knots, the spinnaker pole long taken down and the staysail once again hoisted. We were sailing a little higher now to improve our speed, our eyes at the ready to trim the huge sails to move faster and faster. ‘It’s a battle of tactics’ Mike, our skipper said of the ensuing battle with our rival Challenger 2 to maintain our lead as the light night airs kicked in.

Twilight became night and the magnificence of the milky way arching over the heavens showed its beauty, wispy white of billions of stars and shooting stars lay above and around us like a ‘cine 360’ (people of a certain age would remember this – do you?) It was 3am, time for a watch change, those coming off the 11pm to 3am watch, affectionately known as the ‘graveyard watch’ came down the steps into the companionway, excited and in awe. They had seen the most magnificent night display of shooting stars and were just enthralled and uplifted, one large shooting star had blazed across the night sky, lighting up the whole sky like a flare lighting the whole ocean, it left a bright blue trail in the sky, beautiful like a firework display Ray described. Will said it was like an airport runway with lights ablaze and Austin ‘a light fantastic meteor shower’, we all grinned, uplifted by their excitement, it was contagious.

Day 5

It was chilly, on a broad reach we headed back towards Cherbourg, our racing journey home. Sometimes it’s difficult to know what to wear, too little and you sit chilly, too much and once someone asks you to grind the Yankee or anything for that matter you’re boiling hot! It’s always a tricky dilemma. With the wind remaining steady, we used the compass to guide us West, staying within the TSS Traffic Separation Scheme which regulates the flow of traffic of vessels in busy waters and is much stricter than the shipping lanes in the channel. Those in the channel can dip in and out of the lanes and shipping can cross horizontally but the TSS is different, boats must enter at one end and out of the other only, it is monitored strictly and there to keep everyone safe, not obeying the rules has strict consequences.

Our watch was finished with Guy and Adam making delicious egg and sausage sandwiches, it’s 7am we’ve been at sea now for five days. I won’t deny it, with 15 crew members of onboard, that’s a lot of smelly feet and kit and there’s no showers here, only the luxury of a small moving head (toilet). It’s like trying to wash in a bouncy castle, most of the chaps on board don’t bother with a shave, I wonder why?

It was 1pm and Challenger 2 was moving across the horizon to the north of us, their spinnaker up as far as we could make out. We carried on racing 100 degrees or so on the compass, Cherbourg 140 miles away. Mike (First mate) and Mark (Watch leader) became quite excited and up for some fun. As our spinnaker had obliterated itself the day before they decided to use the Storm Jib as an extra sail, this was ingenuity in gold, they were brilliant. The storm jib was lifted out of the sail locker onto the deck, whilst Mike was putting on the climbing kit, Mark (watch leader) and Adam whilst preparing the storm jib to be hoisted sang me a beautiful sea shanty –

Barratts Privateers – it goes like this:-

1778 Well I wish I was in Cherbourg now

A letter from Mark came from the king

To the scummiest vessel I have ever seen

God damn them all, I was told with cruise the seas for American gold, fire no guns, shed no tears

Now I’m a broken man, on Halifax pier, the last of Barratts Privateers.

Fabulous!! Round of applause, what a wonderful moment.

The ropes were fixed and Mike, our first mate climbed bravely over the splashing wake of our yacht to the end of the spinnaker pole, a good six to seven feet away now hanging there, cleverly attaching a pully system, the rope then passed to the stern, the sail hoisted. It was incredible and looked brilliant, we looked like an old pirate cutter. We had four sails up now, a Main sail, Yankee goosed out with the pole, the Staysail and our new addition the Storm jib. Eat your heart out Challenger 2 with your beautiful blue and white spinnaker. This is style.

Taking the helm, it was tricky initially to maintain a broad reach, too far and you risk a gybe, too far towards the wind and your poled out sail and our new addition collapses while rolling waves try to pull you off balance. It takes concentration, but its great fun. A glorious sail in the bright warm sunshine, everyone relaxing, chatting and laughing on deck, then the dolphins came to join the party.

A large pod of dancing, playful, leaping dolphins, sweeping under the bow and below the depths, we all rushed to see them. Tee and I leaned over the bow, on our knees holding onto the guard rails, cameras in hand. We were treated to a display like no other. They jumped in unison, twisting their bodies to see us leaning over to watch. We heard them clicking and squeaking to each other, then all at once, three or four would jump together as though in a dance, twisting and turning quickly and sweeping back under the boat. Swimming fast in our wake, a small calf and her mother twisted to touch bellies before continuing their play. We watched in awe, they were so close we could see their markings, blow holes, and the detail on their bodies. They were truly magnificent, happy, playful and they were clearly enjoying us as much as we enjoyed them. Lost for words, we were heart-warmed to our core with huge smiles on our faces.

75 miles to Cherbourg, our race to the finish now heading towards Guernsey and Les Casquets.

Day 6

Mark, my Watch Leader appeared within the dim red light of the sleeping cabin, ‘Sharon, half an hour to watch change’, ‘OK’ I said, half asleep, I had eventually got to bed at 0340, it was now 0630. I felt exhausted but excited for the day ahead, this was the last day of our Fastnet race, today we will be arriving into Cherbourg our finish of our Fastnet 2021 challenge. I closed my eyes again and listened. The boat swaying gently. The usual hustle and bustle sounds surrounded me. Eggs being cracked, crackling bacon in the galley, the noise of winches from on deck and dim shouts of ‘grind the yankee’ from above, ‘It’s 25 miles to Cherbourg’ I heard a voice from the navigation table. The buzz of the generator was running and there was music being played, Scott our music maestro was on top form, being assisted by David making breakfast and the footsteps of the previous watch coming down the stairs.

I scrambled to the heads and told Mark, Watch Leader ‘There’s no toilet in the head’, he answered with a grin on his face, What? ‘Has somebody stolen it? Oh he’s so funny! I laughed, I meant the loo roll! I looked in the mirror, now six days at sea without washing my hair, What do the American military call it, Defcon 4? Yeh exactly! It feels like there is a house elf on Challenger 1 because everyone loses something no matter how careful they are or where they thought they put it – Where’s my glasses? Has anyone seen my hat? Have you seen my charger? It’s amazing, the most carefully packed boxes quickly becomes chaos in the small, cosy areas of the dim dark sleeping areas.

Up on deck last night, the Milky Way was in its magnificent splendour, it was warm and Tee made us terrific banana sandwiches, it was 1am. We had gybed in the night, everyone so much more confident in their roles and knowing exactly what to do even in the pitch dark with our dim red head torches to guide us, no mean feat doing this with two huge heavy spinnaker poles to pole out the Yankee from one side to the other. The team were just awesome and our Watch Leader, Mark and Skipper, Mike were really pleased with the smooth operation.

A lovely sail onwards towards Cherbourg, the wind on the beam, a moderate 15 knots, a gentle swell and blue sky. Another beautiful sail still without sight of land. We could see a stream of spinnakers in our wake, all a long way away sitting softly on the horizon around us. Slowly out of the haze we eventually made out Les Casquets, a rocky outcrop topped with a lighthouse sitting proud on top.  This was our first sight of land since leaving the Fastnet rock at 0813am on Wednesday morning, it was now Friday morning. Guy took the helm under the expert instruction of First Mate Mike, going downwind with the pole and the Yankee goosed out is no mean feat and he did terrifically well. Tee then took over the helm, she laughed enjoying the speed until she was told to bear away, she was having fun. Mark gave us a short lesson on how to use a sextant and we practiced lining up the sun and the horizon through the optical mirrors and taking measurements. It is a fascinating old historic navigation tool, still used today on occasion, mostly for those on vast ocean passages using the sun and the moon for navigation. Fascinating.

Alderney came into view, we passed a small fishing vessel picking up crab and lobster pots, it rolled menacingly even in these light conditions, it looked like a seasick machine!

The laugher and banter within the crew had accelerated, there was excited anticipation for our finish. Everyone was on deck having fun, but of course still focussing on the sails and going as fast as we could. We were on the home straight as the Brittany coast came into view. Soaked in sunshine, the landscape was green with fields and trees, different from all of the rocky cliffs we had seen over the past few days. Cherbourg appeared eventually on the horizon, we could see the huge sea wall and the old forts of the harbour, brilliant.

The finish was in sight, excitement and energy rose within all of us, we were here, we had made it, we were all awesome! I felt quite emotional, so happy and proud of all of us. We sailed on between the two magnificent Napoleonic forts perched high either side of Cherbourg harbour entrance, our finish line between a red tower perched on the port fort and a black flag set high on the starboard fort. Skipper shouted ‘well done everyone, we’ve done it’ as we sailed through the finish line. A huge cheer erupted, laughs and claps, hugs and woops of jubilation. Yes! we’d done it! The hardest race we have raced, its highs its lows, we’ve been faced with strong powerful winds, huge swells, seasickness, boat and sail breakages, bruises, the wet, the cold, the lack of sleep, days that immerged into nights then back into days, sleeping in hammocks at angles that defy gravity. Minimal washing and simple tasks like changing your socks just become crazily difficult, below decks wild and erratic, but we had loved every minute of it. The race was absolutely fantastic, the crew who didn’t know each other before, bonded and we’re now firm friends. We smiled to ourselves, we had done it, proud and happy. We’ve raced the Fastnet 2021 and conquered it. Just absolutely terrific.

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