From The Deck of Prospector 0900Z 18 August 2015

From The Deck of Prospector 0900Z 18 August 2015

This is one crazy Fastnet Race.  The race is normally a beat out to the rock and a run 

back in a strong SW wind.  We aren’t experiencing anything like that.  Other than a brief 

sea breeze that kicked in a bit after the start and lasted until night fall on Sunday we 

have had mostly a light wind out of the NW to NE, or at times, no wind at all.  We have 

also had to deal with very strong currents, often greater than 5 knots, particularly around 

the headlands we have we have been passing on the English coast.  The combination 

of light fluky winds and strong currents have made the race thus far a navigators 

nightmare.  

Because we have been so busy dealing with very challenging sailing conditions, we 

haven’t had much time to write about the race.  This morning, in the middle of the Celtiic 

Sea, things have settled down a bit.  The approaching warm front that is the leading 

edge of the Atlantic low to our east has provided us with our first steady breeze since 

Sunday night.  Finally, we are pointed towards Fastnet rock, free of the various 

obstacles and obstruction zones along the English coast, with a steady wind and a little 

bit of speed.  We have some time to catch you up on our adventures so far.

The Start

WOW!  It was crazy.  An unbelievable spectacle.  None of us had ever seen as many 

boats in one place at one time.  It was an amazing experience to be part of such a large 

fleet. There were boats of all shapes and sizes.  Spectators in RIBs mingled in among 

the boats, checking them out, cheering on friends and watching the starts.  Nearly 400 

boats in one place with no wind and a lot of current, facing a 15 mile beat in a narrow 

channel.  For those of you on Shelter Island, imagine 400 boats racing in the channel 

between Greenport and Shelter Island, the only differences being that the channel is 

twice as long and the current three times as strong.

We arrived at the starting area, off Cowes, just before the first start at 12:00 BST.  

There was no wind and the current was still flooding.  Boats in the first couple of starts 

struggled get to the line, let alone get across it.  Our first task was to mark both ends of 

the starting line, which ran between the Royal Yacht Squadron flagpole and a buoy in 

the middle of the Solent, in our Nav computer. Because we were going to start in light 

air with a 5 knot current pushing us over the line, knowing the exact location of both 

ends of the line was imperative.  The Race Committee placed buoys marking the inner 

and outer and outer limits of the line, but the sailing instructions warned that they might 

not be on the line. The actual starting line was a transit formed by lining up the RYS 

flagpole with a white line on orange diamond on the RYS club house.  To help 

competitors locate the line the RYS installed two vertical light beams that get brighter as 

you approach the line and momentarily go out when you are on the line.  This is all 

simple in theory, but complicated in practice.  With all of the boats milling around the 

starting area, the RYS clubhouse, flagpole, orange marker and lights couldn’t be seen 

from the outer limit buoy.  After a few tries we gave up on that and headed to the Cowes 

side of the Solent to ping the line from there.  On our third attempt got a good ping on 

the port side of the line.  We headed back out to the starboard end of the line and 

finally, after about half of the fleet had started enabling us to see the RYS, got a ping we 

were happy with there.

With the starting line located, we put the deck computer in start mode, and began to 

experiment with different starting strategies.  We knew there would be a crowd fighting 

for a start at the inner marker.  Boats that had started there in the earlier classes had 

done better than boats out toward the outer marker.  We also knew it would be fatal to 

be over early.  We could see several boats from the earlier classes that were over early 

with their spinnakers up fighting the tide to get back to the line.  All of them were failing 

as they were swept backwards away from the line by a foul tide that was getting 

stronger.  These two observations became the basis for our starting strategy.  Not 

wanting to get into a fight we would likely lose to the likes of Comanche and Rambler88, 

we decided to start one third of the distance of the line away from the inner marker.  We 

also decided to intentionally be 30-60 seconds below the line at the start to protect 

against being over early.  We made several attempts at timed runs to the line, starting at 

15, then 20 and finally 25 boat lengths behind the line.  It was amazing to see how 

quickly we would be carried back to the line in the building current.  After several tests 

we settled on being 25 boat lengths behind the line 90 seconds from the start.

Our strategy worked well and we got the start we wanted.   We were 30 seconds below 

and one third of the way down the line when the gun went off.  We even got a little lucky 

to get a puff that we tacked to port on to get away from the boats that started to 

starboard of us and clear our air.  After few minutes on port we tacked back to starboard 

to head towards Cowes.  We crossed in front of several of the boats that had tried to 

fight for the inner marker and were off down the Solent.

The Solent

As crazy as the start was, our beat down the Solent was even crazier.  We had to sail 

among and through the nearly 400 boats, thirty of which started with us, and the rest of 

the fleet that started ahead of us.  It was an unbelievable sight.

Immediately after the start we were sailing in a 5 knot NW to NE wind with 5 knots of 

current pushing us down the Solent.  Every boat wanted to be in the same place, which 

was in the deep water to maximize the benefit of the current and wherever the wind was 

strongest.  Everyone also positioning themselves for the SW”ly sea breeze that was 

forecast to develop over the course of Sunday afternoon.

Shorly after our tack on to starboard to head towards Cowes, we found ourselves off 

Gurnard, and getting a persistent lift and crossing boats that had been ahead of us.  

When we tacked to port to head back out offshore we lost the lift and were in turn 

crossed by boats that heading in to the shore.  Based on this observation we decided to 

work the Isle of Wight side of the Solent and tack offshore only when necessary to avoid 

running aground.  This strategy paid off well for the first half of the beat down the Solent 

and we gained ground both on our fleet and the fleet as a whole.  We gave the 

shoreside spectators a thrill and got a big cheer as we tacked within feet of the shore off 

Hamstead Ledge.  

About this time the sea breeze built in and we enjoyed great sailing conditions in a 12 

knot SW’y wind.  The arrival of the sea breeze dictated a change in tactics.  With strong 

wind all across the Solent, and at its narrowest stretch, we began to use the whole 

Solent, tacking from side to side across it rather than only playing the Isle of Wight 

shore.  The key to this phase of the race down the Solent was finding and maintaining a 

good lane on each tack as we picked our way through the rest of the fleet.  The crew did 

a great job, picking the right moment for each tack and ducking or waving boats across, 

as necessary, to keep our lane clear.  We gave the spectators at Hurst Castle a thrill, 

approaching them on starboard tack at full speed and tacking away within a few feet of 

them to waves and cheers.  As we pulled away from our tack at Hurst Castle we saw 

Lucky aground, hard, just ahead of us, nearly where we would have been had we not 

tacked.

Our trip down the Solent ended as we tacked away from the Needles and out into the 

English Channel at 15:30 BST.  Both Prospector and her crew performed well and we 

found ourselves in third place in our fleet.  It was a fun, exhilarating, challenging and 

memorable experience.  Experiences like that are why we do these things.

The English Channel

Past the Solent we faced the challenges of the English Channel.  This section of the 

race covers approximately 165 nautical miles and is dominated by five iconic 

headlands, St. Alban’s Head, Portland Bill, Start Point, The Lizard and Land’s End.   

Around each of these headlands the winds and currents swirl and the sea can get pretty 

kicked up.  In a fair current you go as close to each headland as you dare.  In a foul 

current you go offshore to seek current relief.  These headlands act as tidal gates, 

alternately opening and closing every six hours.  Get them right and you can win the 

race.  Get them wrong and it is game over.

By the time we exited the Solent we knew we could get past St Alban’s head with the 

remaining fair current we carried from the start.  Portland Bill was another matter.  If the 

sea breeze held, which was unlikely, we might just make it.  If it didn’t we needed to get 

offshore in a hurry to pick up a light northerly gradient wind.  As expected the sea 

breeze began to die off as we neared St Alban’s Head.  Our decision made for us we 

headed offshore and got past Portland Bill at around 19:30 BST.  We remained 

offshore, approximately 20 miles offshore for the rest of the night, passing Start Point, 

as the wind velocity began to drop. At 06:00 BST, we pointed Prospector at The Lizard, 

to catch the strong currents that live there and in hopes that a sea breeze would 

develop over the course of the day.  We passed so close to the Lizard we could pet its 

snout at 12:30 BST.  Continuing to play onshore with the current and sea breeze we 

tacked in to Mounts Bay, between the Lizard and Land’s End.  Short tacking the shore 

we checked out the crowds on the beaches in the coves along the coast. 

As we neared Land’s End, we were wrestling with what might biggest decision in the 

race, how to deal with the Land’s End commercial traffic separation scheme, or TSS.  

All of the TSS zones in the area of the race course are designated as obstructions for 

the race.  If you enter them you get a 20% scoring penalty.  The other TSSs require 

relatively minor course adjustments to steer clear.   The one at Land’s End is a big deal 

for two reasons, it is the largest TSS requiring a large course adjustment and it dictates 

how you exit the English Channel and enter the Celtic Sea. Avoiding it leaves you with 

two choices to get to the Celtic sea, southeast through the Scilly Islands or north along 

the coast of Cornwall between the TSS and the coast.  Both routes are governed by 

tidal gates, when one has fair current the other is does not.  The route along the 

Cornwall coast is longer.  Which one you chose is determined by what the wind and 

current is doing when you get there, what your competitors do and what you think the 

wind will do once you get through.  It isn’t an easy decision and one we haven’t been 

looking forward to making.

More on that in our next post.+

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