Author: Piers Hugh Smith
The dust had barely settled from the Tour Voile before I was onto the next project… A 14hr drive back from Nice to Hamble saw me venturing across the Solent the following day to join Team Maverick, the title sponsors of the Tour Voile project, for the lead up to one of sailing’s most iconic and notorious races- The Rolex Fastnet. Despite the Fastnet race being the closest 600-mile race to home- it is the last on the list for me to tick off- so I was exceptionally excited to be racing with Maverick for this edition.
We had an excellent training day in the solent in 20knts of breeze, a good shake down for the boat after the team at SRM Marine have been putting in so much hard work to get the boat sorted. As the DSS foils have not been applied to any other medium size race boat before this, and very few others designed totally around the DSS- Maverick presents many engineering and technological challenges that take time and effort to work out. The boat has been sailing for around 18months and has continually been improving throughout that time.
I was lucky enough to be on the wheel for the start, it was pretty special starting such and iconic race with the view of hundreds of other yachts who had started in earlier starts beating out the Solent ahead of us. We were contesting our class with Rambler 88, the Volvo 65’s and the odd IMOCA so it was a star studded start. Following the advice of tactician Mike, we kept clear of the much taller rigs in the bunch, and held our own lane for the start. About halfway up the Solent I changed off the helm for Kees and got ready for the world’s longest windward leg!
It was Ocean Rodeo dry suit on pretty much from the beginning, beating into a tide that was turning against, and a meaty 20knts of breeze meant plenty of waves over the boat and I made a commitment to stay dry! It was cold too, so the suit didn’t really come off until the finish of the race. I was at risk of my planning having let me down but was okay in the end- I decided to only take one spare mid layer and one spare inner- these went on during the first night and stayed on until the finish. My kit bag, a 10ltr dry bag, stayed empty the entire race, so at the least I was confident I took the lightest set up possible!
For me the upwind was fairly featureless beyond the normal tariff of living offshore on Maverick. One major tactical decision for Eric, the navigator, as to either to head across the channel and hit the corner of the beat to lay land’s end, or whether to head up the shore line, short tacking up with English coast. For the rest of us, during the on-watch we pushed the get the most out of our upwind set up in a dying breeze. The drop in wind strength made for a more comfortable ride but unfortunatelya slightly slower one. During the off watch I committed to only eating Asian Beef with Noodles from the freeze dried selection and maximised my sleep time! As the bowman the upwind legs are often quieter than the downwind, and with a windy 200mile downwind leg coming up after rounding the iconic Fastnet rock, I focused on maximising my sleep so I was in the best possible shape.
We edged round Land’s End, entering the Irish Sea and not long after the psychological halfway mark of the rock came to the fore of our minds. Whilst not a literal halfway mark, as the rock sits 400mile into the 600mile race, mentally most of the guys see it that way. It’s a 180 degree turn and puts you onto the homeward stretch into Plymouth. A nice rounding for us, in the company of a media chopper and a class 40, we peeled onto our A2, the second biggest downwind sail. Coincidentally I clocked off watch at the end of this change, so hit the bunk for my 4 hours of rest.
I was awoken about 2.5/3 hrs into my off watch by the sound of the world ending. Maverick is a cacophony of noise when going downwind in breeze- the impact and rush of the water on the empty carbon hull echoes throughout the while structure, and the howl of sheets being eased accompanies a deafening roar as the keel pump drives the hydraulic sail controls. Underscored by the whirr of the pedestal gearbox by my head; there was not much stopping me from being awoken! The breeze had risen go 25knots +, so out of range of the A2, we leaped over and through waves with a cascade of water pouring into the cockpit every minute. Eric and Mike made the call for a change to the A3, so myself and Q, the mid-bowman, ventured to the front of the boat to get the sail ready to go. The change went pretty well despite a small bit of damage to the foot of the A2 from water pressure and a wobble I had on the front whilst releasing the tack line - the prospect of falling off the boat loomed and I decided it wasn’t for me; luckily holding my balance to stay on board!
The A3 was the prefect sail for the conditions- it was a lighting quick Irish Sea crossing as we hit up to 26-27 knts storming downwind. A few gybes for the Traffic Separation Scheme Exclusion Area and we rolled into a simple A2 to flatter and smaller Jib-top peel for the reach to Plymouth from the Scilly Isles.
A really simple but wet leg! Keep it lit up on the JT, more or less due East, and try and close the gap the more upwind oriented boats had got on us earlier in the race. A really quick leg again, up to 22/23 knts boat speed, waves carving over the boat at speed. Ski goggles went on so I could maintain visibility and we pushed hard to get the boat home.
A few of the guys had stayed up past their watch the previous night, we suffered a breakdown of the watch system at about 5am, as guys who were technically ‘ON’ had already been up all night pushing the boat downwind, and guys who were ‘OFF’ might have been off for a while. In my eyes this was a bit of a failing as I believe it’s really important to adhere to the structure of the watch in order to make sure everyone receives regular and efficient rest. Otherwise the burnout risk becomes too prevalent. We had a rest and decided to lease with each persons opposite number to work out what sleep levels they needed- we run a one hour rolling watch, so you have one buddy who wakes you up and you wake him up- this split allowed the guys who needed it to rest and the guys who didn’t kept on pushing. This did a pretty good job of keeping the pace up on the last stretch into Plymouth.
In the end we finished at around 1530hrs BST, an oddly civilised time for finishing an offshore as I am used to these races finishing in the dark! We rolled into the bar for some post race celebration and some much needed food- there is only so much freeze dried I can take! I feel we were a little unfortunate with the weather, a little too much upwind for Maverick, a downwind focused machine, we struggled to compete on IRC. However- we sailed a good race and ticking off the last Rolex offshore this year, plus the Trans-Atlantic race ticks off a bucket-list goal for me in getting all those done in 12months!
An incredible couple months of sailing and one of the busiest times of my life- it’s now time for a bit of R&R and to maybe not see another boat for a little while! Though who knows how long I can willingly stay away- the Diam 24 UK national Champs are approaching and you will see Team Maverick SSR back out on the water there.
Piers Hugh Smith