When we talked about finding a boat to sail in the Caribbean 600 at the solitaire in June I was instantly excited. Having done the race twice before it was hard to put thoughts of sunny islands and warm water out of my mind and get on with racing. After six months of scouring the globe for the right boat and crew we found the perfect boat in “Yolo” (yes, as in you only live once) a very sorted, new Jeanneau Sunfast 3600 that had just raced across the Atlantic. Unfortunately the perfect crew were unavailable due to current ethical issues with using human cloning to create four more versions of myself and we had to make do with a bunch of model yachting lads from Southampton.

After a delightful plane journey we got to Antigua, checked out the boat briefly, checked into our Hostel (where I think all the lads were secretly pleased we had a five man dorm room, complete with poorly curtained shower in the corner) and got straight into the Caribbean way of life. Luckily jetlag and rummy hangovers did nothing to put us off a hard days training in our new toy the next day. Matty even managed to tear himself away from looking really sea sick and grumpy to use his 40-40 vision to spot us a lovely, shiny, black whale that gave us a massive wave with it’s tail before disappearing into the deep, no doubt to wrestle with giant squid as the do. After this we embraced jetlag a bit late, had all sorts of issues for Tom to sort out with the boat computer, did safety stuff and received a very illuminating lecture from Jamie about hygiene on the race, namely the application of talc and sudocreme to ones crease between watches.

start

Into the race. We did a nice start and used our superiorlength on the rest of IRC 3 to get off to an early lead on the first beat before putting our girth to devastating effect on the long reach to Barbuda. At some point we noticed a vibration under the hull and decided the propeller must be having troubles folding. The standard play here is to get in and put an elastic band round her to keep her shut but still allow her to open up when needed. After a bit of rummaging we realised we had no suitable stationary with which to pull of this simple feat. It was at this point that I had to sheepishly admit that they were probably some rather old, unused condoms in the side of my sailing bag. I’d like to point out I hadn’t actually brought them along on a boat full of lads on purpose, they’d been there for ages. Wishing I’d brought they head attachment for my gopro I dived off the bow at the first turning mark as the guys dropped one kite, tacked round and hoisted the other one. The water was absolutely lovely and I felt like a bit of a hero for climbing straight back on board and bouncing the halyard at the rig. We were still in the lead and all was good.

RORC Caribbean 600 2015

The next leg was fairly chilled and as the sun was going down we ate Lancashire Hotpot from a bag and listened to Pink Floyd on a tiny speaker. Mixing the excitement of heading into the first night of an offshore race and being in the Caribbean with a group of excellent mates was really great. What was also great was the number of stars, absolutely loads. Less great was the amount of weed around and having two rudders we picked up a fair chuck of it. Matty and I quickly became lead de-weeders, a process that involved a lot of scrabbling around with your arm, face and chest in the sea at very regular intervals. Necessity forced practical Matty into action and he somehow conjured up a serviceable weed stick by destroying half my tool box and all the spare battens. Great job mate but I wish you’d though to put as much effort in tying it on as you did making it.

Without too much more blow by blow accounting of what when on at sea highlights included:

  • The moment we stopped being stuck in the wind shadow of Saba after cutting it too fine on the first night. Any amount of wind from one direction feels incredible after an hour trapped in the vortex behind that island.
  • Rounding St Baths. A) it looks lovely and B) Tom appeared to know all the scary rocks really well which made things a lot less stressful.
  • Getting hooted by the French Police around the back of St Martin (being in a French boat I think they thought we were one of them). If the class win hadn’t been within reach we had all agreed to use this cunning deception in an Aubrey style attack thereby boarding and taking the much more heavily armed vessel as a lawful prize.
  • The 160 mile reach to Guadeloupe. We all thought it might be a bit dull but actually we got quite into trying to sail fast etc. Nice surprise.
  • The opposite of a highlight. Misuse of common folklore, over reliance on technology and general idiocy led us to take a course a bit too far away from land leaving us becalmed and sailed extra distance on our competitors. We did see a pod of whales though…
  • Seeing a shooting star come so close we heard it and loads of people thought it was a flare and starting spooking each other with distress messages. All good practice and that. I’m just sad I forgot to make an extra good wish.
  • At one point we did just over 20 knots with the reaching kite up down a big wave in a big squall. Even better ‘Spring watch’ as they liked to call themselves (consisting of Matty and Tom) were downstairs and they missed it.

Leaving aside the bullet point format for a bit an instantly forgettable lowlight for most of the crew would have to be the 35 miles beat to finish back in Antigua in the dark. It’s not that fast and it really wasn’t that cold but after three and a half days with a wet arse the thought of a beer, a burger and then a dry bed can be torture. Luckily all these things did come to us in the end much helped along by our super shore crew in the form of Leila and Lex. Overall this counts as about as much fun as I’ve ever had on a boat and all the sitting around with the Redshifters afterwards, debriefing over much wine and rum didn’t hurt either. I really hope I get to do this race again loads and to sail with this team again.

Now I’m back in Lorient with the real Redshift getting ready for three intense weeks of long training races and the first proper test or the season, the Solo Basse Normandie which starts on the 26th of March and you should be able to follow here.

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Warm and wet

After being a bit apprehensive about the coldness and the wetness on offer from the Breton winter a while ago, this last week has been a total gift. Out training the last five days, albeit in full thermals, mid layers, boots, dry smock etc, I’ve spent more time being too hot than too cold, by loads. This could have been due to the super high intensity of my solo boat handling effort, which has been pretty sweat inducing, but hopefully its just some sort of chemical change that’s happened inside my body  which means from now on I am impervious  to tOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAhe elements. I haven’t even been upset about getting waves in the face while taking jib photos or clipping on sails on the bow.  Clearly all the years spent reading tales of Shackleton, Aubrey and Moitessier, singing shanties and drinking rum with water have caused me to morph into some sort of hybrid sea dog creature.

 

After an autumn spent tearing around the west country with Team Bomby, lurking in a paint shed seeing to the now flawless Redshift and a little bit of time on the water with super coach Andrew ‘Dog’ Palfrey, the end of date has now changed to 15 which officially means its business time. I’m now comfortably settled between the Nazi submarine bunkers in Lorient for the real business of practising. This month is about working on the simple stuff like getting reacquainted with where all the local rocks are and  boat handling before focusing on the sailing fast bit from February onwards. I really like working on boat handling because it just takes hard work and only small amounts of thought, like how to prevent each little cock-up after it occurs. With a video camera, some notes and a few days on the water it’s not rocket science getting to a stage where you can sail thIMG_5781ese boats around the course without making it look really difficult. Sailing a tiny, tiny bit faster on the other hand takes a lot more head scratching. For now the rest of my intellect is being put towards planning ahead for the season so that details like where I’m going to stay during races and who’s going to fix my boat when it breaks won’t trouble me when I’m trying to win said races.

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Getting back on it

There are approximately 257 days till next year’s solitaire and compared to the previous three I’m in a much better position. I have the boat, budget and time to put me on even terms with any of the best French guys. Being my fourth go Lack of experience is beginning to look like a weak excuse and I’m deeply excited about the prospect of putting a bit of pressure on myself to perform. Specific goal setting is never easy, particularly in a race that typically involves a good deal of drifting around on the tide, but my aim next year is to finish in the top ten. The dangers of saying something like this now are two fold: firstly you could come across a bit arrogant especially if you then fall short or you could potentially limit yourself by aiming too low. I’m quite clear that I don’t see the Figaro as a stepping stone, it’s a very worthy challenge in itself and I would like to try and win it one day.

For the moment I’m right in the heart of the planning stage. It feels like I have a lot of time at the moment but factor in days lost to bad weather over the winter, time spent refitting the boat etc etc and after Christmas I’m sure the number of useable days left will look scary already. The key thing is to work out my priorities now and focus on the really important things right from the start.

At the risk of sounding a bit simplistic the aim is to find more boat speed, consistent, repeatable, all round speed upwind, reaching and downwind, in all wind speeds, day and night. Pretty straight forward? It starts with a shiny boat with everything working reliably, good sails, straight mast etc. Then you need to know where to pull the sails into, how to set the rig, the rudders, pilot, stack etc for every wind speed and angle. Once you know all that then you have to be able to do that every minute of every day for four days at a time whilst sleeping, eating and working out which way to go. Figaro racing is a beautiful sport because of the completeness of the challenge. Piling all these demands on top of each other makes working out the ‘best way’ to get there a complex puzzle. The one thing I do know is that it’s going to take a total commitment to get it right. I’m very glad to have the support of everyone involved with Redshift as we work at this.

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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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