Leg three: Spinnakers, drifting and glowing dolphins

The Roscoff stopover was the longest and the best. The race organisers and some Figaro friendly locals ensured we had a lovely bike ride/ lunch excursion on a nearby island, we had drinks receptions on cruising boats, excellent pizzas and gorgeous weather to top it all off. Funnily enough come the day of the start I wasn’t totally geared up mentally for the leg. Something about the process of leaving the dock and the general pre race faff left me not really feeling quite in the game. I took myself aside, had a little lie down on the deck, a can of Redbull and gave myself a good talking to. Something must have worked because I  came off the starboard end like sh*t off a shovel and even after over laying I still went round the first mark in 5th. Unfortunately my boat handling wasn’t totally on song at this point and after very nearly losing one of my only two shoes on board at the spreader I then hoisted with the kite halyard inside the topping lift (for non yachty readers, this is a total F-up that stops the big balloon shaped, colorful sail doing its business and makes me look a tit in front of all the cameras).

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Sailing into night one with Corentin Horeau right on my tail. We had some banter

With only  a few more little sail handling errors I managed to get round the inshore course and off into the deep blue sea with the rest of the fleet, somewhere fairly comfortable in the middle. Rounding the top left corner of France we enjoyed a very interesting tour of all the other short handed racing classes in the area coming up against the mini Fastnet race (not very chatty on the radio, except Nick Bubb), some solo class 40s (worse than us for being on deck), about a hundred double handed mixed types off across the Atlantic as well as several thousand fishermen all leaving port at the same time and hammering across our paths. Needless to say sleeping wasn’t the most restful of activities on night one. As a result morning two’s big shut down near Belle Ile which spanned into morning three (yawn!) was quite a tricky affair. More than once I found myself waking up from an extended micro sleep at the helm feeling a little confused.

Drifting around. Not much to see here, or do.

Drifting around. Not much to see here, or do.

I love to argue that these big park ups where the whole fleet forms up into a tight pack all moving at less than three knots before boats sail off towards glory at the finish one by one are like a big group lottery. That the chosen few who get the wind first just get lucky and if I’m left over then its a tough break but nothing I could do. Unfortunately we’ve had a few of these now and the best guys seem to get the luck a lot more often so I think I’m going to have to concede there’s some art to coming out alive. I don’t know what the answer is at the moment but I’m keen to find out and get better next time.

Days three and four all merged a little bit after the great shut down off Belle Ilse. Sailing out to a weather buoy in the middle of Biscay was fairly featureless with several exceptions:

1) Excellent radio banter from all the brits and a few Frenchmen too. Items up for discussion included, the best way to sabotage your own boat (or person) to bring about an early finish, what we’d eat and drink at the finish and what all the sleepy flies all over our boats were up to.

2) Great stars. Literally thousands of them and no moon or clouds to get in the way. Some of the best stars I’ve ever seen.

3) This is probably a race/ lifetime highlight, glow in the dark dolphins! Strong phosphorescence combined with a real glut of dolphins made for some incredible viewing as they played around the boat perfectly outlined in luminous green. Every now and again you’d see a little pod coming from a different direction like a torpedoes changing direction at the last minute to join in the game or one dolphin get distracted by what might have been a small phosphorescent fish coming the other way. Leaning over the side watching this display whilst listening to ‘Dark side of the moon’ was probably a bit of a distraction  from the race but it was unforgettable, just a shame that it doesn’t show up on camera.

The rest of the race passed by with no major events except for plenty of naked sunbathing as I couldn’t see any other boats for a while and getting lucky on the final leg to the finish. Most of the boats ahead of me sailed into a hole which I was luckily able to see on AIS and managed to avoid. A nice lifeline to let me back into the race and save me losing too many hours on the fleet. Thank you karma and also maybe a slight vindication for plugging away at the back and not doing anything too rash.

In terms of debriefing myself on this leg I did something that i’m very proud of at the last stop over and wrote a bit of computer code that made my computer into a sleep timer/ recorder. Instead of using my usual egg timer on the boat when I went to sleep in this race I just pressed ctrl+alt+s on my keyboard and the program set my nav software as a sleep timer and made a note on my track, stopping the note when it woke me up. This all added together to show me a slept for 17 hours in four days. More than I expected but maybe that’s a symptom of being at the back by myself for half the leg. Next leg I’m going to try and sleep less and win more.

The black bits show where I slept.

The black bits show where I slept.

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Off to a bit of a slow start

I normally try to avoid giving too much a of a blow by blow description of these races for fear of boring the few visitors this site gets away. Maybe because I can’t think of a catchy angle and also because I’ve spent all winter reading every word of every British ultra marathoners race blogs (and I’m not sure you’re allowed to enter those things without your own blog page) that’s what I’m going to do now. It also sort of doubles up as my debrief. So here goes:

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Start – sort of a disaster being over early. Having had four hours to kill on the water I dropped my anchor like everyone else, finished the latest Robert Harris novel I hadn’t manage to finish  but which was getting really good, had a little kip and then spent about 20 minutes longer pulling my anchor back up. I’d never actually anchored alone without the use of an engine before and made quite a mess of the process the first few times. Anyway I ended up feeling a bit rushed before the off and didn’t really get my pre race routine right. The mantra in my head was going ‘don’t be late, you don’t want to be late’. Unfortunately I took this a bit too far and had to go back along with three other keen beans including race favorite Ed Hill and fellow Brit Yann Ellies. Still, I really didn’t mind this mentally, normally I start well then get over taken, at least this way I got to sail past a load of boats for the first hour which is always a nice feeling.

The first bit across to England. This should have a been a simple, straight leg but as we were warned by our weather guru there were a few thunder storms about to watch out for. Unfortunately he didn’t give us any ideas on exactly what to watch out for, basically because there was nothing clever we could do. One minute you’d see the whole fleet’s tracks begin to curve over on the AIS, then we’d all tack, then we’d tack back again once the wind went back to normal. Sometimes different sails would be hoisted and sometimes some boats would stop and others would fly by. Conclusions from our group debrief a while ago were that apart from trying to bank some Karma by being nice to animals and not dropping litter etc there’s not a lot you can do here, sail fast, don’t stray too far from the fleet and roll with it.

IMGA0687The south coast. This was the bit I’d been looking forward to since the course was published ages ago, especially as there were options to go north of the Isle of Wight on a madcap flier through home waters. I’d spent a fair while working out exactly what conditions and states of the tide this might pay off in and just after we rounded Owers buoy it was still looking well on. Being towards the less sharp end of the fleet here I got a bit of perspective from the boats ahead and opted to sail a bit higher and fast than most on a course that left the inside route open for quite a while. In the end I wimped out and went to the left of Bembridge not right, still enjoying my leg up from behind and sneaking along the edge to the beach in Sandown bay out of the tide to make ground on the guys in the lead. Annoyingly whilst I felt like a hero at the time and I’m told gained the lead on the tracker however fleetingly this wasn’t really the best use of the view from the back and Henry and a couple of other wild card heros took an offshore route and smoked through in
to a more long lasting lead that did them a lot better. I still don’t know how the Solent route would have gone but you’d look a real tit doing it and losing hours on leg one…

At this point we were into some classic Figaro racing, tacking halfway up a rocky beach with 38 other boats all on top of each other in no wind nearly a day into the race. From here on in we left the island behind and sailed off towards the Portland, Start point and the Lizard, the holy trinity of south coast headlands. The wind was still buggering us around a bit but I was well into the offshore mindset, eating boil in the bag food with a batten end because I forgot my spork and enjoying a range of sea shanties on my newly installed stereo. Apart from an increased use of my outdoor lavatory facilities off the back of the boat (about ten times in less than four days, all paper and nearly all wet wipes gone) brought about by the careless choice of water with a load of minerals in allegedly designed to keep old french people regular everything was good.

Sure I could have been sailing faster and not made bungles of most minor tactical options available but I’ve been reading Bernard Moitissier’s book recently and making an effort to take pleasure in the small things like sea birds, the endless wake of the boat trailing behind etc etc. All very philosophical. With the early pioneers in mind I also enjoyed the hell out of my first jib peel in a year at start point. I probably spent about twenty minutes getting hosed on the bow trying to remember how to change sails and by the time I got things sorted I was still bone dry inside. I might have lost a solid mile on boats around me but I’m bloody grateful to the people at Musto for making sure I was at least dry even if I wasn’t fast.IMGA0676

Wolf Rock – I love light houses and Wolf Rock is as good as they come, it’s rocky, it’s old and if I remember righlyt from Coast on the telly it’s steeped in a load of history, AND we always have to turn around it which means its a bit of a game of nerves to see who can get closest. This time things were a little somber, I think everyone in the fleet was gutted to see Yann Ellies’ rig come down just after rounding in the lead. Sad for him and sad for the race to lose such a hero but well done to Charlie Dalin in 2nd for getting this video of the moment. Time to recheck all our rigging I think.

The last bit – Not much to say about the second channel crossing, I wasn’t fast or slow, I slept a lot as it didn’t seem to matter either way as long as I checked on her every now and again. Redshift seems to love it side on. The last roll of the dice came as we rounded the buoys of Roscoff and finally started pointing towards Plymouth. Things were a bit fickle a at first but the leg quickly turned into a long drag race of a reach. I frustratingly had to watch Irish Dave and Rookie Rich gradually inch through to leward of me over the last seventy miles. Like the rest of my race I think my rustiness from not training at all did me no favors here. I did however enjoying hoovering up the last of my food supplies, particularly the pork scratchings and two whole chicken breasts.

The sun shone and progress was made towards the finish, not as fast as I would have liked but I’m sure I’ll get better leg by leg in this race. The fleet isn’t as big as last year but it is still deep, there’s really no easy places. I’m not expecting fireworks this year but it feels really good to be back in the boat and I’m going to make the most of every minute of it. Leg two looks like a total reach around. The Fastnet and back with one gybe around the rock and maybe not even a spinnaker. I’ll have a range of bizarre snacks to mix things up and plenty of varied audio to keep me in the right place mentally.

Off to Rockfish now for what I’ve heard from Henry Bomby Sailing is the best fish and chips anywhere.

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Solitaire 2014

Tomorrow afternoon I will set off on the first of four five hundred mile legs that make up this year’s Solitaire du Figaro. The start port of Deauville has been kind to us but right now I can’t wait to get to sea and get stuck into the racing. It’s going to be a long hard sail to Plymouth with some patches of light, tricky wind and at least three channel crossings to contend with and recovering quickly for the next leg will be vital. By the end of the month I will have sailed just over two thousand miles single handed.
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Since getting hold of the boat (Redshift) just six weeks ago things have been seriously busy. Starting with sailing her back from Belgium, refitting her in Cowes and then sailing to France in a bit of a storm before attempting one race as a warm up. Having only done two days of training might not have been the ideal preparation for a race like this but I’m confident that this almost new boat is now in great shape.
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On the personal side I am hugely excited just to be on the start line at all this year. There’s a certain amount of confidence that comes with having done the race twice before but I’m well aware that most of the other thirty seven competitors have a lot more experience than that. I was pleased with a 6th place finish in the prologue last weekend but I’m really going into this race with no expectations other than a desire to push myself right to the limit. Offshore sailing can be a fickle beast at the best of times and so long as at the end of the race I know I’ve sailed my best then I’ll be happy. Whatever happens I’m sure the next month will be a real adventure and I can’t wait to get stuck in tomorrow.
You can follow the race tracker soon on the event website here and there will hopefully be some updates on my facebook and twitter and wordpress pages.
Thanks for the support, more updates from Plymouth.
Nick
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Plymouth Hoe

Driving into Plymouth under the A38, past that distinctive looking supermarket (Sainsbury’s?) yesterday morning I was strongly reminded of making the same journey to the Optimist nationals in 1995. Whilst this time it was only a day trip, not a memorable two week family camping holiday in the rain, the feeling of excitement and anticipation were pretty similar. With only 64 days (or about 93700 minutes) until the start of this year’s Solitaire I took the opportunity to go and join in with the Artemis guys as they met with Plymouth big wigs and did some training inside the sound. Great preparation for the start of leg two, which should be a bit stadium sailing like as we jockey around in front of the Hoe on our way out the Fastnet rock. As a ten year old from Birmingham I remember how much of an adventure it felt to be sailing on the open sea in my oppy for the first time and I still get a bit of that same feeling back setting off into a dark stormy night alone on a Figaro as a grownup.

For me this little dip back into training, alongside some solo sessions in the one Artemis boat in Cowes, was absolute gold dust as the boat I am looking to charter in June won’t be available until eight days before we get locked away in Deauville for the start. Most of the competition will have been training hard in their boats all winter so there’s no denying I’m starting on the back foot. One of the things I like about solo sailing though is how much of a part preparation plays. Without the distraction of a boat to manage and look after I am free to work on other stuff like doing my navigation homework in advance, making sure I’ve got the right food and kit as well as being as fit as humanly possible.

Maybe ‘as fit as humanly possible’ is a bit of an exaggeration but I have been doing quite a bit to get myself into shape for a tough summer. I think that what drives me to want to race around rocky coast lines by myself for days on end is probably the same thing that makes the idea of running quite a long way in one go sound wise. Having injured myself running a road marathon a few years ago I’ve dabbled in running a bit further and slower and on more interesting paths. Ultra running turns out to be quite addictive; for every daft challenge you hear about there is always someone who has done something much longer and harder and lived to tell the tale (like this guy). The upshot of this is that I’ve entered a 100 mile race in October which I’m aiming to run in one go in less than 24 hours. Training started a while ago and this weekend I’m toeing the line of a 50 mile race with 400 other runners.

The benefits in fitness and endurance etc for offshore racing will be positive I’m sure but at the moment I’m just excited for the challenge of running further than I’ve ever run before in one go. Provided I’m getting some phone signal on the south downs way tomorrow I’ll try and twitter tales of blisters fatigue, and sh*tting in the bushes from the trail.

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Autumn Coaching

With the Figaro racing season over for the year my focus over the past couple of months has been on training and improvement. Not so much my own but the new intake of Artemis Offshore Academy recruits. Now into into it’s fourth season of Autumn training the academy is really starting to mature and its nice to see the four guys on the full time program so committed to putting in the hard work needed to learn single handed sailing. Thinking back to the when I started with the academy in 2010 I can remember how little we knew about Figaro racing so it’s nice to see how the lessons we have all learned are being applied in putting together their training program. From what I’ve seen on the water there has been a lot less carnage and destruction during the tricky early stages of single handed sailing.

Coaching

Whilst coaching might not be quite as productive towards my goal of getting a good result in the Solitaire next year as actually going sailing it is still a useful process. Sitting in a tiny rib, getting washed over by the vicious Solent chop, watching other people sail, analysing their performance and then giving feedback really focusses the mind. Having to explain something to a group of people means you have to be very clear on it yourself.

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Over the next few months my primary focus will be working to secure funding to go back to the Figaro circuit next year. There’s plenty of work to be done but memories of long nights blasting through the dark on the edge of control are all the motivation I could need.

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Tour de Bretagne

Since the end of the solitaire my long awaited few weeks to chill out at home and catch up on life haven’t really materialised. I spent a week catching up on post race (and post race party) fatigue, then there was there was a week of corporate hospitality on the Figaros in Cowes, Ed Hill’s stag do before heading back out to France for the 470 worlds. You can see a brief round up video from the event here. Whilst we didn’t win it was a great couple of weeks living in a tent, eat, sleeping and breathing sailing. If nothing else it gave us a good perspective on the enormity of the challenge of getting to the top of an Olympic fleet.

From here I went straight to the start of the Fastnet where I sailed with up-and-coming Mini sailor Lizzy Foreman against a fleet of nine double handed Figaros. Coming off the back of two weeks hard sailing and an overnight drive probably wasn’t perfect preparation and it showed as we made some really basic errors to finish a disappointing 5th in class. Still it was good to support the Figaro entry in this race and a useful process getting used to sailing Sam’s boat, no85 which is to be my steed for the Tour de Bretagne this week.

The Tour de Bretagne is a great race on the Figaro calendar. Every two years it gives you the chance to sail with a friend over short costal legs around the Brittany coast with a couple of days inshore racing thrown in too. The unofficial tag line for the event is that ‘even the crabs wear helmets’ owing to the fact that the extra hands and short legs mean sailors take the chance to push in even closer to the jagged rocks with a lot of tales of disaster in the races history. Having had to pull out of the race two years ago due to the death of my father, finishing the course this year takes on a little extra significance. I’m excited to be teaming up with James Mchugh, a talented Etchells sailor with experience in the tough ‘Cinq Jours’ race (five days of double handed laps of lake Geneva) and ambitions to get more seriously into short handed sailing. The first leg from Paimpol to Perros Guirrec starts on Sunday morning and the race goes on for a week. I’ll keep you posted along the way.

 

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Leg 2 expected to be mentally exhausting for the Solitaire du Figaro skippers

After only 48 hours of resting and refueling in Portugal after Leg 1 of the Solitaire du Figaro, Nick Cherry (Magma Structures) set sail on Leg 2 of the Solitaire du Figaro from Porto (Portugal) to Gijon (Spain).

Nick also put in a repeat performance of his Leg 1 start, making a clean getaway to hold a top 20 position around the 5-mile windward/leeward course ahead of the drag race north to Gijon. Conditions for the start were light and dreary, with a meager 5 knots of wind building to 10 under a grey sky of rain-laden clouds. The light conditions for the off look set to be the trademark of this Leg, with the 452-mile course already having been shortened (298 miles) by the organisers, cutting out a course mark in the Bay of Biscay.

The second stage of the 1,938 mile Solitaire du Figaro will see the 41 skippers retracing their steps south over Leg 1, taking them back up the Spanish coast to, once again, take on the tricky patches of no wind that burned so many skippers on the approach to the Leg 1 finish line. After getting trapped in an area of no wind, Ed dropped from 3rd to 30th overnight, a once bitten, twice shy Ed is looking forward to a second chance at negotiating the tricky area of coastline: “I’ve been building on what went wrong in the first stage, which was mainly getting caught out by a wind hole, but hopefully it’s something that I’ve learned from and won’t happen again. This is going to be a tough race mentally, with so many decisions to be made that could result in the smallest gain, or a huge loss – it’s one extreme or the other in the Figaro.”

Magma Structures skipper Nick continued: “It’s going to be hard to stay sane for three days in no wind, especially on the back of a good start in Leg 1, but I’m aiming just to sail conservatively and try and keep a view of the bigger picture wind wise.”

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