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Nigel Musto on the Fastnet Race 2013

Last weekend I was very privileged to be asked to do the Fastnet Race on Banque Populaire VII (BP7), the maxi Trimaran, with Armel L’Cleach and his crew. I’m not new to the Fastnet, in fact it was my 5th race around the rock, but I have never raced a big multihull in anger, so it was an exciting prospect.

The Fastnet Race is one of those iconic races on most offshore sailors’ bucket list along with the Sydney Hobart and the Bermuda Race. The first Fastnet race was in 1925 and takes place every other year. This was the 45th Fastnet, which most people remember because of the 1979 storm which saw 18 people lose their lives. The race starts from the Royal Yacht Squadron line at Cowes and goes via Land’s End to the Fastnet Rock off SW Ireland and then back to Plymouth via Bishop Rock just south of the Scilly isles.

The Fastnet Race 2013 onboard Banque Populaire VII

The Fastnet Race 2013 on board Banque Populaire VII

BP7 was bought earlier this year specifically for Armel to compete in the Route du Rhum (single handed across the Atlantic). It was originally Groupama 3, designed to win the Jules Verne Trophy (fastest boat around the world). Her first attempt was in 2008 when she capsized off New Zealand, her second attempt was in 2009 when she sustained severe damage off Cape Town and she finally broke the record in 2010 in 48 days, 7 hours and 45 minutes. The record didn’t last too long however, as in 2011 Banque Populaire V (BP5) broke her record in 45 days, 13 hours and 43 minutes.

Since they bought BP7 they have cut 5 meters off the mast to make it more safe for Armel to sail it single handed which makes a significant difference to her speed in less than 20 knots of wind.

BP5, the current Jules Verne record holder, was also sold earlier this year, renamed Spindrift and was also competing in the Fastnet. It was billed as the Battle of the Giants, but realistically Spindrift should have been a long way in front of us.

Armel has been sailing single handed for many years now. Last year he finished 2nd in the Vendée Globe Race, the toughest race in the world, single handed nonstop around the planet. The only mark of the course is Antarctica which you have to leave to Starboard. He is only 36 years old but has a huge amount of experience offshore. Quiet, focused, he is always smiling and one of the nicest guys you could meet. But there is a bit of an edge there!

I flew down to Lorient on the south coast of Brittany, met up with the crew and helped to deliver the boat back to Cowes for the start. It was a nice little 300 mile warm up to get used to the boat and the systems, and to meet the crew, all of whom were French. My French isn’t too great, but managed a bit of Franglais and their English was pretty good. The trip was mostly light and it took us nearly 30 hours to get into Christchurch Bay where we stood off until it was time to go down the Solent to Cowes for the start of the Fastnet at 1200 Sunday morning.

The boat is just over 100 feet long, almost 75 feet wide with a mast height of about 120 feet. She is all carbon fibre and weighs in at just 16 tonnes. It may seem heavy, but a 100 foot monohull like Leopard weighs in at 50 tonnes, so we were very light and very powerful. Spindrift on the other hand is just over 130 feet long, 75 feet wide with a mast height of 154 feet. She weighs 23 tonnes but is a far more powerful boat than ours.

My job was a simple one – grinder. On these boats there is nothing that can be done without the help of the winches. With 10s of tonnes of load on most ropes you can’t just pull in a bit of string, every operation takes 2 to 4 people grinding winches and one or two people to manage the ropes. Whether it’s a tack, a gybe, a sail change or something as simple as winding up the 6 meter dagger board you need all crew on deck and working. There were only 9 of us, so it was busy from start to finish.

There were over 300 boats competing in the Fastnet this year so the start line was a busy one. We were grateful to be the first start as maneuvering that platform around lots of smaller boats is difficult. We got what was probably the worst start of the fleet. We initially chose the wrong end of the line, changed our minds with 2 minutes to go and then tacked 1 minute after the gun which saw us going backwards for a minute or so. By the time we finally got across the line for the second time Spindrift was already half a mile up the track.

Getting out of the Solent was frustrating. 55 degree tacking angles and short tacking up the north shore meant we were exceptionally slow. The cut down mast didn’t help in the 10 knots of wind we had, being horribly under powered. We finally got out past Hurst Point nearly 2 miles behind Spindrift and by the time we got to a bit of open sea we were 3 miles back. Not a great start.

The breeze got up to 15 knots and we began to go better. The pace of these big tri’s is amazing. Faster than wind speed in most conditions we were cracking along at 17 knots upwind in 15 knots of breeze. By 1900 we were going past Salcombe and the wind was up to 20 knots. Still upwind but boat speed was now 19 to 20 knots. We were covering some ground. But according to the tracking system Spindrift was 16 miles in front of us and still extending her lead. Our little dream of perhaps beating her looked like it was over.

By 0100 Monday morning we were going round Land’s End, just 13 hours after the start. I don’t think I have ever got there in less than a day before, and I know I have taken 2 days in the past. Then, as we cleared the exclusion zone about 15 miles NW of Land’s End at about 3 in the morning we noticed Spindrift again on the tracking system, this time a mile behind us. She had made a serious tactical error which had resulted in her losing a 20 mile lead. Game was back on again. From that point to the finish we were always within sight of her, most of the time within 1 mile. It turned into a pretty epic battle.

We had a theoretical watch system on board. I say theoretical because it seemed to involve very little sleep. We spent 3 hours on watch and 3 hours off. During your on watch you were responsible for racing the boat, off watch you were down below trying to get some sleep. The slight problem with the system was that because it took all 9 crew to do anything, every time a sail change or manoeuvre was required the off watch crew had to come up on deck, which was probably 3 to 5 times on average during your 3 hours. As a result you just lay down on a bunk, fully clothed with your boots on and shut your eyes.

The other factor which prevented a decent sleep was the motion of the boat. Travelling along at 20 to 30 knots the thing is constantly banging and crashing over the waves and the noise of the water against the carbon hull was deafening. A bit like trying to get to sleep on a bouncy castle during a 5 year old’s birthday party with Led Zep playing live next to you. You could never really define it as sleep, but it was a rest.

Upwind all the way to the Fastnet, covering about 200 miles Spindrift went from a mile behind to a mile in front. We were changing everything all the time trying to squeeze a bit more boat speed out of her, but the bigger boat was always going to out drag us. At the Fastnet Rock we were 2 minutes behind, and then the fun began.

Downwind on one of these things is an experience in itself. The wind had increased to 25 knots and on rounding the rock we accelerated to 32 or 33 knots. You were no longer crashing into the waves but overtaking them, nice and gently. The motion improved but the stress factor increased tenfold. The drivers pushed it right to the edge. She was twitchy, the windward hull lifting high out of the water every time a gust hit us until the helmsman bore away, the boat gathering speed to 35 knots. You had to hang on to something solid or you couldn’t stand up. I was happy I had my coffee grinder to cling on to!

It turned out that we were very slightly slower than Spindrift down wind, but we could sail a few degrees lower, so as we were having to gybe downwind to get to Bishop Rock we were travelling at exactly the same VMG (speed). We arrived at Bishops, over 200 miles down the track, half a mile behind them. Exactly the same as when we rounded the Fastnet. We had taken just 7 hours and 10 minutes to get from the Fastnet to Bishops. Our average speed was just over 30 knots. Without doubt the fastest ride I have ever had, and that probably goes for 99.9% of the sailors in the world. It was very special.

Food was “interesting”. The French had decided to leave Lorient on the Friday after dinner, which I thought was very civilised. Nice steak, glass of red wine, a little crème brûlée with coffee, I had made the mistake of thinking the food on board was going to be pretty good. I should have known better. It turned out that the reason for the quality of the meal on Friday was because the food on board was going to be very average. Freeze dried is not good at the best of times, worse when it hasn’t been rehydrated properly!

And then comes the inevitable bowel movements, which I would normally not discuss, but it was such a source of amusement amongst the crew that it has to be mentioned. Now if you think sleeping on a bouncy castle during a 5 year old’s party is difficult, try sitting on a bucket on the same bouncy castle… To say it is interesting is a bit of an understatement.

From Bishop Rock to the finish we couldn’t take advantage of our ability to sail lower than Spindrift as the angle of the wind was wrong – it was a long fetch – and the bigger boat slowly inched away. We tried a slightly different route, staying away from the wind shadow under the Lizard but it made no difference. By the time we got to Eddystone Rock, 9 miles south of the finish line in Plymouth they were 4.5 miles in front.

We came past Eddystone doing 25 knots of boat speed in 20 knots of wind. A couple of minutes later we saw on the tracker that Spindrift had stopped and turned away from the line. At first we thought she must be changing a sail, but as we got closer she didn’t move. Game was back on, everyone excited. 2 miles, 1 mile, half a mile – and then it happened. The wind just disappeared. We ghosted up behind her, getting to within just a couple of hundred yards. We could smell a victory.

For over an hour we sat like that, hardly moving, just watching each other and the finish line. Eventually a little breeze came in, but Spindrift got it first and crossed the line 500 yards in front of us.

It was a stunning race, a great experience. Looking at the results, on corrected time (the handicap system) we beat Spindrift by over 7 hours, but that wasn’t really the point, we wanted to beat her on the water. We ended up second overall, with Sydney Gavignet in “Oman Sail”, a 70 foot Trimaran, eventually winning the class on handicap.

Would I do it again – definitely. But I wouldn’t want to do it with a crew I was not 100% confident in. Trimarans are unforgiving beasts. When it goes wrong it goes wrong very quickly and is usually pretty terminal, so you just have to be careful who you choose to play with.

Would I race it across the Atlantic on my own… Not on your life!

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