When Dan and I were planning our 2013 season in the Class 40, we were sitting in San Francisco. It was warm, sunny, and we were very excited about the idea of racing all season in Europe. The April 14th start date of the Normandy Channel Race was a bit worrying, as we already had obligations in the Caribbean in March, so arriving in England before the start of April would be difficult. But we knew that our new boat Concise 2 has been excellently prepared, and we did as much advance logistical groundwork as possible, so what could possibly go wrong? It’s just a sailboat race, and we’ve done a few of them between the two of us.
Then we got here. We were still very excited, and the boat was as awesome as we’d thought it would be, but it was snowing. And then we only got out sailing once before it was time to leave to go to Caen, France and the start of the race. But that was ok, cause we could train during the delivery. But then it was upwind in 25 knots the whole way across the Channel, and did I mention it was cold? So we got the autopilot working, which is important, and we tested out our new Gill gear, which is amazing, and then we were there, up the canal from Ouistreham, through 3 bridges, in the basin in Caen.
The pre-race process for Class 40 races is quite similar to that in the Mini- You’re obliged to be in the port a number of days before the start and then complete a series of security and equipment checks. Unfortunately for us, there have been a few rules changes since last season, and so we had a bit of scrambling to do to meet the new standards. And, as with most things in sailing, that basically just meant shelling out a few hundred more euros here and there.
In addition to the normal security checks, Dan and I had some other tasks, including putting on some new stickers. After a half-day of carefully measuring and applying them in between rain showers, I think it’s safe to say that if a relationship can withstand that, it’ll get through just about anything else. In the end, they look fantastic, and it really made the boat feel like it was ours.
Between all the normal pre-race stuff, we managed to get in some socializing with the other skippers, who are all such an interesting group. I’d already met some from my Class 40 sailing last season, a lot of the others had done the Mini the same year as me and Dan. In fact, I think at least half the fleet had done the Mini at one point in their career- it feels pretty nice to be part of that club.
The day before the start we had the final skippers’ and weather briefing. Not surprisingly for April, there were a few low pressure systems on their way towards Ireland. One in particular looked as though it would be getting to Tuskar and Fastnet right about the same time as us- and the race committee made sure we were aware of the procedures for potentially changing the course. We were all to check our email 30 miles before Land’s End, 30 miles before Tuskar, and 30 miles before Fastnet, and they would notify us of a course change as soon as they had decided on it. They’d written in the options of sending us first to Fastnet, then to Tuskar, from Tuskar straight to Guernsey, to Fastnet without Tuskar, etc. It’s amazing how having a satellite phone and downloadable weather on board eliminates a large amount of the pre-race stress that we had during our Mini seasons. For Mini races, the last hours before the start would be spent downloading the most current weather, printing it out, and then fingers-crossed it wouldn’t change too much in the days it would take to get around the course. No more! And if the race committee wants to change the course? They just call you on your sat phone. Amazing.
On the morning of the start, we were at the boat by 10:30. At 12 we cast off from the dock one by one and went out the first bridge into the New Basin. As we were one of the first boats off the dock, we tied up in the New Basin and watched the chaos as 19 other Class 40s motored around, waiting for the big Navy ship that was our Committee boat and some spectator boats. Once we were all assembled, we fell in line and paraded down the canal, through the 3 other bridges (including Pegasus Bridge, the first bridge and house liberated on the night of June 6th, 1944), and into the lock.
By the time we were out in the ocean, it was nearly 3PM, and it was feeling like a long day already! With the breeze up around 20 knots, we decided to go into the start with a reef. Of course it wasn’t as simple as starting and heading to the Isle of Wight- we had a start, upwind buoy to starboard, downwind leg to a cardinal buoy to starboard, reach to another cardinal to starboard, and then leave the pin end of the line to starboard and head off to a cluster of islands which we would leave to starboard and finally head north across the Channel.
In hindsight, with our recent acquasition of the boat and limited training, I think we did well in the triangle course, but at the time, it was hectic, we second-guessed our sail choices, and ended up doing the whole thing with just main and jib. All around us boats were doing sail changes, some well, some not so well- and there were a few boats well behind us once we finally left the pin to starboard and started off towards the islands. They did that to us in the Mini a lot- making us sail little courses as a bit of a show for spectators… NOT one of my favorite things. Sailing an offshore boat short-handed around a small course is not easy! But, by the next time we have to do that (probably Les-Sables Azores in July), we’ll have had the hours in the boat to make it easy for us.
Once we finally got going, it was a beautiful evening, and we jib reached along, somewhere in the middle of the fleet. After we rounded the islands, we went to the code zero to stay a bit high and in close to shore to avoid the bad current. Sure enough, that theory started to pay off, and we watched as the early leaders (Mare and Campagne de France) slowed to almost nothing as our pack along the shore made quick progress north. Eventually we peeled to the big kite, and were doing really well until I managed to sail us into a complete and utter hole with no wind, and we slatted around while many of our competitors’ nav lights disappeared over the horizon.
In the early morning, we all converged on the eastern end of the Isle of Wight, the entire fleet was visable as we went up the Solent, against the tide. Dan was excited to be going through his home waters, and was a bit disappointed when so many of the other boats knew where to go to avoid the worst of the current! There were a few though that stayed out on the Island side too long, and we left them far behind as we snuck past Hurst Castle, inside the waves breaking on the sand bar and headed down the coast.
From there to Land’s End it was all upwind. We were starting to emerge as part of a group including Phoenix, Picoty, Al Bucq (which was being co-skippered by Ned Collier-Wakefield, who’s been sailing our boat since its launch and who won the Normandy Channel Race on it last year), Partouche, Earwin, and Red. Though we could still see Mare, GDF Suez, Roaring Forty and Campagne de France, it was clear that they were just that much faster- we’ll be keeping up with them by the end of the season but couldn’t make it happen yet. But in our smaller group, it was amazing how much faster we were at times, and since we could all see eachother, it was really fantastic speed testing. Dan and I learned so much about the boat in that day.
Unfortunately, we had a few little problems. Three of the jib lead adjuster lines broke, as well as the jib halyard. The breeze built, so we were able to hold with everyone else using our staysail, but we wasted a bit of time with each incident.
Over the night, we started to be aware that some of the other boats were dropping out. I was downloading position reports from the race committee, and there were fewer and fewer with every update. We were also watching the weather, with that low looking worse and worse. We breifly talked about what we would do if the race committe didn’t shorten the course, but didn’t want to dwell on it too much. Sure enough, when we arrived at Land’s End the next morning, we received an email and then phone call from the RC. They wanted to make sure we would be OK with it if they shortened the course- sending us to an imaginary point 50 miles north of Land’s End and then straight back to Guernsey. Fine with us! So we went around Land’s End, put up the big kite and started to chase down Red.
It was sunny and beautiful and we were just in front of Picoty, Al Bucq and Phoenix, and by the time we got to the mark we’d passed Red and then been passed back again. The breeze had gone light, and we headed in towards the shore just in front of Picoty, trading tacks with our little group of 5 the whole way to Land’s End. From then to Guernsey it was fairly icky- 20 ish knots upwind or just cracked off. We ddn’t want to use the solent too much- we could hoist it on the fracitional halyard, but that comes out of the rig a bit higher than the headstay, which means the halyard loads up across the headstay. In hindsight, it probably would have been fine, but we didn’t want to risk breaking that halyard and then being really stuck if we wanted to use the fractional kite later on! It was pretty frustrating to have to stick with the staysail when the others all put up their bigger solents and slowly advanced on us. By the time we got to Guernsey, Picoty was well ahead, Red was behind them, Al Bucq and Phoenix had almost caught us.
We had a serious moment of brillance rounding the islands as we went first to the code zero and then did a perfect peel to the big kite. We’d obviously learned a thing or two about the boat in the last 48 hours. Heading past Sark the breeze built up to 20, and we held on with the big kite thinking maybe it was just an acceleration zone. By the time it was gusting over 30 we realised there was a bit of a cloud line behind us so it was probably a little front… We were going really quickly, but things were a bit unsustainable. In the takedown, everything was going so well, Dan was bringing the kite on to the deck, everything was fine, and then one tiny bit of sail went into the water and…. About 10 minutes later we were back on our way, a bit bruised and battered but all in all, in better shape than we should have been! Dan’s a genius on the bow so it’s very rare that anything goes wrong on that end of the boat. But when something does go badly, he’s able to see a way out of it quickly enough to greatly reduce the impact.
We threw in a reef, up went the fracitional kite and we were off- right behind Al Bucq and Phoenix. Tide against wind meant we had a really nasty sea state, and Dan did a great job of driving while I talked to a really nice captain of a ship who kept being right where we wanted to be- or vice versa. Either way, he does some sailing himself, and wanted to know all about where we’d been, where we were going, who we were racing against, which was a very chilled out conversation to be having while Dan was doing his best to keep the boat under the kite!
Eventually we had to harden up around Cherborg, and went to the code zero. The sea-state mellowed out, and things got a lot more civilized. With the code zero up and some water in the aft ballast tank, the boat is so balanced, it’s amazing- we hit 18 knots while I was down below making dinner.
Over the next few hours we hunted down and passed Phoenix, managed to avoid a very wide variety of fishing boats, dredgers, nets with strobe lights, and just about every other imaginable obstacle, and finally crossed the finish line at about 4AM French time.
Exhausted and happy, we came in 8th out of the 20 boats who had origially started the race. Once in the lock, we were told that only 11 boats would finish- which made 8th sound a little less impressive, but we’re still very positive about our result.
The next few days were spent sleeping and eating and chatting with the other competitors and race organizers. Everyone had very nice things to say about how we’d done after such a short training period, and I think we’re in a really good place to build on for next time. By finishing the race, we’ve qualified for the Transat Jacques Vabre- which is a great step.
On Sunday, we went to the market and got some bits for a picnic, and then headed North back across the Channel to Hamble.
Now we’re in England for a week before we head to Douarnenez for the Grand Prix- a very cool event with IMOCA 60s, Class 40s, MOD 70s, kite surfers, Dragons, windsurfers and lots of others. Douarnenez is one of Dan and my favorite places from our Mini days, and we’re looking forward to having a fun weekend of sailing. There will be coastal races as well as timed speed runs, and we’ve got a bit of a rockstar coming to join us so I think we’ll learn a lot!