I can remember exactly when it started – Saturday 24th October 2015.
Dermot Cronin and his son Paddy had just won the Rolex Middle Sea Race Double-Handed class in Dermot’s First 40.7 “Encore”. Some of his old crew (myself included) had joined up with other friends and chartered a J-122 to do the race as well. As both crews celebrated in the basement of a restaurant in Valetta’s old town, Dermot pledged to race fully-crewed again. I suggested that he investigate the possibility of a boat swap that would allow us to do the Sydney-Hobart or the Newport-Bermuda ocean classics. That culminated in Encore crossing the finishing line of the Rolex Fastnet 2017 race in Plymouth on Friday 11th August at 00.16 with 3 Aussies on board.
It took nearly two years of planning and deliveries to get Encore to Cowes, including 4 of the race crew facing 24 hours of 40+ knot winds in the Bay of Biscay. In that time, Dermot had made contact with an Australian owner of another First 40.7 and agreed a crew swap. That lead to Dermot doing last year’s Sydney-Hobart, and 3 Aussies joining us for this year’s Fastnet Race. Two days of practice in the Solent saw us iron out some cultural differences, such as the correct name for the spinnaker uphaul and downhaul, and how to gybe a large spinnaker easily.
At 11.40am on Sunday 6th August, the starting gun fired and we were off. 84 boats in our class, all fighting on the line like it was a round-the-cans race !! A conservative but safe start saw us beating down the Solent in 18kts of wind, ducking sterns and crossing other boats. The maxi’s and Volvo boats caught up with us just after the Needles, as the adrenalin faded and we faced into a 4-5 day race. A long starboard hike from the Needles into the middle of the English Channel saw us well placed on Sunday evening, but light breezes and calm spots during Monday caused us to lose ground to the smaller boats in the class. That night we went up the most easterly of the Traffic Separation Zones off Lands End, and Tuesday was spent beating towards the Rock. The wind steadily built and by dusk on Tuesday evening we were on starboard tack in 20kts of wind, alternating between a full main and no.3 genoa and one reef in the main and our no.2 genoa. A confused sea made for difficult conditions, with sleep almost impossible. Wednesday dawned bright and sunny, with a clear blue sky, and the Rock visible in the distance. We rounded at 9.15am, accompanied by fishing boats, media boats and a helicopter. A great experience.
We turned for home and immediately hoisted our biggest spinnaker, but the wind gods were playing tricks again and the breeze became very light and shifty. It did build throughout the day, however, and Wednesday night gave us champagne sailing in 20-25kts with full main and no.2 spinnaker, hitting speeds of 13kts and higher. It seemed like everyone converged again at the Traffic Separation zone around the Scillies, and it was boat-to-boat combat. We battled with another First 40.7 all the way along the south coast of England to Plymouth (almost 75 nautical miles), finally ghosting over the finishing line in darkness and in 5kts of breeze.
Less than an hour later we were in the 24-hour bar in the race village, mixing with other crews and swapping stories.
Massive thanks to Dermot for allowing me the opportunity to participate in this iconic event, but also a big shout-out to everyone who helped get the boat home from Greece to allow us to do the race. I’m sure we’ll do a winter talk covering everything in more details.