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Rock & Roll - Arthur's 2015 Fastnet Race

The Fastnet Race fleet departs from Cowes on the Isle of Wight, before heading out southwest through the Solent and down the south of England, passed Lands End, before turning up northwest across the Irish sea to the very southern tip of Ireland and Fastnet Rock Lighthouse. Turning around the Rock, the yachts then head back down across the Irish Sea again where they came from, around the outside of the Scilly Isles this time, and back in to finish at Plymouth – a race course distance of over 603 nautical miles. The record for the race is 30 hours; most of us will take rather longer; 3-5 days depending on wind strength and direction.

The dock at Hamble marina on Saturday afternoon ahead the race start is loaded to overflowing with sailors, sails and provisions; more like a giant boat jumble than race preparations. Where's it all going to go? Somehow we stow all our gear below in Arthur Logic and later enjoy a crew dinner together with families ahead of the big race in the morning.

The forecast for Sunday and the race start does not look great if you're an offshore sailor: light and variable winds are going to come from anywhere and without enough pressure to make us move. Could be a frustrating race. We motor out to the start line around 11 and decide a brew of tea is required before the race starts! A near-riot occurs when the choices are: mint, (some other) herbal and Earl Grey tea. No Builders' Tea!! While Ronan is physically restrained below, an SOS call is broadcast to shore and one of the 'family' boats restocks us about 15 minutes later. Catastrophe averted…   

Food is clearly important and the crew's physical condition is sustained over the days of racing, through a carefully constructed diet, designed to keep us at peak performance throughout. Our Dr, now thankfully over his tea crisis, provides the first 'injection' through a box of Krispy Kreme doughnuts. Packed with nutritious ingredients, we're soon ready to go racing.

Watching the first boats in the starts ahead of us get under way, it's not the pretty sight that it should be. Sails are simply hanging limp and lifeless from their masts, and with the tide still flowing against them, most are moving backwards away from the start line. Not a good start, and worse still for those unlucky enough to be over the line ahead of the start gun, as they have to sail back with no wind, and as the tide turns against them they are in double jeopardy.

At our own start time, a short time after, things are only marginally better; the tide has at least turned and a faint zephyr of wind is crawling around our sails. Not sure whether it is that or the tide, but we are at least moving over the start line in the right direction, but even Lands End seems like miles away. The on-board GPS prediction software says we'll reach Lands End in October based on current speed!

Family and friends have come out on various fast Rigid Inflatable Boats (RIBs) and follow us as we slowly patrol down the Solent at walking pace; the whole crew are on the low (leeward) side of the boat to 'hang' the sails out to catch any faint breeze. There are shouts and waves of encouragement from our families and hundreds of photos taken. We implore them all to blow hard on our sails, risking the race committee's penalty for accepting 'outside assistance'.

We approach the Needles at the end of the western end of the Isle of Wight picking up a little more wind and boat speed. Before we get there, the first of the bigger mono-hulls catch us up. Comanche is 100ft long and the largest in the Fastnet fleet, but she has to obey the sailing rules like any other racing yacht. We are on starboard tack (wind on our right side as we're sailing) and on a collision course with her; she is on port tack and has to give way to us. The 100ft of ocean-going thoroughbred gives way to our 40ft upstart! The bowman on Comanche, looking 'way too-cool-for-school', talks to the helmsman, some 80ft behind him through one of those Secret Service radio and ear mic sets; they guide the giant yacht safely behind us.  She is soon out of sight ahead though as her massive sails power her away to eventual line honours for the mono-hulls in Plymouth.

We get to Portland just as the tide is turning against us, and despite having headed offshore to get away from the worst of it, and once more as the wind dies yet again, we start 'sailing' in a circle at the whim of the tidal stream. The tide changes after a couple of frustrating, windless hours and we're once again making headway down to the west with a light following breeze.

Throughout Monday, the wind stays behind us and we're soon moving steadily, if not too quickly, along under spinnaker. Before we get too cocky about this turn of fortune, the spinnaker halyard shackle pops open and the sail gently floats down from the mast-head (so slowly on the breeze in fact that we catch it before it's had a proper rinse in the sea! Or maybe we're just getting better at recovery?). Zus is dispatched up the mast on the only other halyards we have available. They only reach about three quarters of the way up the mast though, but with a 6ft boat hook, she snares, untangles and brings the guilty spinnaker halyard and shackle back to the deck. We hoist our sail again quickly and carry on.

Running downwind past Plymouth and on to Lands End for the outward leg, we changeover spinnakers. Imagine the forces needed to pull a 10-ton yacht through the water at 10 knots, much of these concentrated on the spinnaker guy controlling the end of the spinnaker pole and windward bottom end of the sail. Releasing it can be a tricky business and is done by pushing a marlin-spike through a quick release mechanism in the shackle.  The release of these forces on this occasion causes Zus to lose her footing in the bow and go over the guard wires and over the side. She's still attached though and since she is also our chef, and hot food is important to us, George and Anna decide to bring her back on board and send her down below to dry off. In a reversal of roles from the last race, Will the Machine checks 'Florence' is fine to continue.

Overnight, we sail at speeds between about 2- 8 knots toward the Scilly Isles, and at dawn on Tuesday, in a complete windless state (again), and on a mirror-glass sea, we almost stop once more and wait; thankfully at least the tide is pushing us where we need to go this time. Slowly and almost imperceptibly, a thin wind reappears; it’s a real lottery, as some boats get away and some not, including us on Arthur – very frustrating while we wait for our number to come up.

After what seems like an age, we are on our way again, slowly and then a little faster as the breeze builds to a gentle force 3. This is more like cruising in the Mediterranean than blasting around the Irish Sea; bright blue skies, flat azure seas, and then pods of dolphins arrive. Guess they must think it's pretty quiet around this part of the coast, except for a few days every two years when 300 boats come crashing (or crawling in our case) by. They make the most of it and play for ages in the pressure wave created by the yachts bow.

Listening to the forecast on Tuesday evening, we hear about a low-pressure system approaching from the west. More wind, but also rather limited visibility coming our way. The wind soon increases as promised and we're getting a lot more speed on; we put a reef in the main sail overnight and the visibility closes in with a combination of moonless night, mist and spray.

We make changes to the watch system overnight to ensure that we have as many people on deck and on the boat's windward side rail as possible, at all times, in an attempt to stay as upright and powerful as we can: two hours on steering/trimming duty, two hours stand-by (on deck, sat as a watch group together on the rail) and two hours off, eating when we can. Eat, sleep, sail, repeat… will be a recurring theme for the next 48 hours.

We press on overnight on Tuesday. Very quickly, our gear gets soaking wet as we take it in turns on our standby watch to sit at the front of the row of huddled figures ranging from level with the mast backwards, hunched and curled around the guardrails, heads down, harnesses hooked onto lifelines. Waves frequently break over the foredeck; the lead person on the rail taking the full brunt of the wave with anything from full immersion in the wave to more mercifully, just waist down. After a while we stop wiping the drips and spray away; just take it as it comes.

With almost zero visibility overnight and 300 yachts in the vicinity doing different speeds, steering is challenging too as inevitably you catch up with other slower boats, that being lighter, made better progress in light airs. As we ride over the top of one wave, in inky blackness, and into the trough before the next one, I realise I'm reading the lit instruments of the boat in front, not their stern light; this is way too close for comfort; we bear away from them and go quickly around keeping a lookout for more.

The next sight is like something out of science-fiction: the dolphins are back, but at night, they are like green phosphorescing torpedoes, their long luminous wakes, trailing and snaking out behind them, as they randomly 'home' in from either side. Since Richard, Will and Sue were off-watch and squeezed like 'sardines' into the starboard aft cabin to keep the weight high on this side, this may have been the attraction to our 'attackers'. All too soon though, they are gone again, but will return repeatedly over the trip. Never seen so many dolphins, day and night!

The Fastnet Rock appears out of the gloom, and in daylight, on Wednesday morning. It has to be the only benefit of a slow first 48 hours that we actually see the Rock in daylight. Galahad Logic are the first Sailing Logic boat around, followed by Winston Logic; we get a few photos of the iconic Rock and each other and then get back to the serious business of racing to catch up with our Sailing Logic competitors. We spend the day and night blasting along over the waves with our favourite Code Zero sail up; exhilarating stuff!

Thursday morning. Radio 2's breakfast show presenter Chris Evans' 9.8 million listeners tune in to hear Sally H join Chris's early morning club wishing Arthur Logic a fast sail back to Plymouth in the Fastnet Race, where she expects to welcome us back on shore. Was this the greatest media coverage that the whole race got in terms of audience numbers? On top of this, the Facebook comments and likes seemed to just keep coming as friends and family follow the pictures and video posted from Arthur by Sue throughout the race. The Yellow Brick online tracker was a real hit ashore and addictive once people were following our progress online 24/7.

The last 12 hours is intense; we are trimming hard on every wave, every team member taking a turn; the spinnaker sheet is literally humming too and fro on the winch; out as we slow down to keep the power in, then grinding back in again as boat speed increases. The main sail sheet gets a mighty pump, on the front of every wave, to accelerate us down the face and pick up speed. With only hours to go, we are gradually winding Winston back in too. Additional rock and roll motivation is supplied, courtesy of Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones at full blast into the cockpit – we're all pumped up now to finish well. It works and we're faster still, creeping ever closer to Winston as the minutes tick by. Then as everything is going brilliantly, our spinnaker blows out, tearing right across the top. Thankfully, the tapes down either side of the sail remain intact and we pull the halyard down quickly. In only moments we have the second kite hoisted and are powering along again. We should get a prize for the speed of that change.

As we close the finish line in Plymouth, a 60ft 'Challenge' boat rolls alongside and almost completely blankets our wind! We slow right down until they head up and take their own spinnaker down. Winston crosses the finish line just ahead of us, but not far enough. The handicapping system works in our favour, and means that after 4 days, 5 hours, 38 minutes and 54 seconds of offshore racing, covering some 637 miles, there is only five minutes between us; we finish in 39th place in our class, just one place ahead of Winston.

Sails come down inside the breakwater at Plymouth, and we motor around to the yacht haven. It's already heaving with the earlier finishers; there are Fastnet flags flying out from every mast; it's really some sight. We tie up alongside Winston and Galahad, pop the champagne, crack open the tins of beer and begin the family reunions and general celebrations. It's great to be finished. As a team on Arthur we have given everything in the cause of boat speed, physically and mentally, particularly in the last 48 hours, but it's all been worth it. Someone told me when we started this campaign a few months ago, that I'd arrive at the finish line and say "Never again"…. You must be joking, right?

- Simon H, Arthur Logic  

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