Above: Looking very business-like on the final leg. I get to look good on the weather rail, clutching my trusty Garmin and looking like a tactician, while the rest of the crew do all the real work, out of sight behind me in the cockpit! (image copyright Sailing Scenes, used with permission)
The plan had been for the three of us to put in a decent test-sail on the day before the race, but as ever the pressures of work had put paid to that. We'd already elected one of our number to act as skipper, by virtue of his racing experience, and he and I got two hours out on Southampton Water in the early evening, while the third crew member made his way down from London by train.
This very short test-sail was bedevilled by the same light airs as the first such attempt had been, a week earlier. We'd planned on at least seeing how Arabella would handle in stronger breezes, but it was not to be. We'd also planned on calibrating the log, but the paddle wheel had decided to clog up, presumably with the some of the copious weed that afflicts the marina where Arabella is kept. Our final crew member called to say that his train was pulling into Southampton Central, and we turned back towards home, resigned to unscrewing the paddle wheel and freeing it once we were tied up alongside.
As luck would have it, the paddlewheel unclogged itself seconds before we turned into the marina. That was one less job at least. Our final crew member, waiting on the dock, took our lines, and we headed off to the pub to, um, settle our tactics.
We finally got our heads down just before midnight, sleeping among the debris that inevitably takes over the cabin of any boat as small as Arabella when you try to squeeze three adults into it.
Just before the 3.00am alarm, the first hints of race day's wind began to rattle the halyards and awoke me, curled in the nest I'd manage to clear for myself in the forecabin. It was still dark. I contemplated rolling over and trying to grab a little more sleep, but at at that moment the alarm sounded.
The ship's company stirred and, somewhat less than energetically, extracted themselves from their berths. Bleary-eyed, we carried anything surplus that we could - seat cushions, kit bags, all but a couple of fenders, spare dock lines, the tender - up to the car. Then we staggered back down the pontoon, got the outboard started and warmed up, and cast off at 3.50am. Under power, I helmed us out into Southampton Water as the wind began to pick up and daylight began to appear behind a mass of dark clouds. It looked like a very grey morning was in store.
Above: Pre-dawn. The other members of Arabella's crew look more cheerful than they probably feel.
Our elected skipper took the helm as we raised the mainsail and headed down Southampton Water to the waiting area for the start. The paddlewheel for the log was still working and we quickly calibrated it, using the Speed over Ground (SOG) data from the GPS; the tide was slack, so we hoped we'd got the calibration more or less correct.
I went below decks and rustled up bacon rolls and coffee for the ship's complement. The Origo spirit stove onboard runs on meths. It didn't take long for the smell to get to me. I'd woken up with a headache. Now it began to get worse. I couldn't know it, but it was going to stay that way for the next 15 hours or so.
Ahead to port, we could see boats streaming out of the Hamble three abreast, all making their way to the waiting area. By now it was 5.45am, and we could see the early starters already pouring across the start line and heading off down the Western Solent.
We switched off the outboard, and let the main, assisted by the now-ebbing tide, pull us slowly down towards the northern waiting area. It was getting very light by now, and one of the passing boats reminded us to switch off our nav lights.
Time to pull the outboard out of the well. It was passed down to me, below decks, and I wrapped it up in an old sail bag and laid it down on the cabin sole in the saloon. There was already a mess below decks: bags of food and drink mixed up with sailbags and oilies. I tried to create some order out of the chaos, pushing food bags up forward, leaving downwind sails near the companionway, laying out charts, firing up the handheld GPS chartplotter and re-setting it.
The smell of the stove, the motion of the boat in the increasing chop as we moved into the waiting race fleet and the greasy breakfast all conspired to worsen my headache. Nausea began to set in. Hurriedly, I slipped on my oilies and popped up above decks to grab some fresh air.
Above: In the northern waiting area, twenty minutes to go. Everyone's being very civilised at this stage!
Twenty minutes to go to our 6.40am start. We were in the northern waiting area now, manoeuvring among the fleet. The wind was filling in, but not too strong, and everyone around us was pretty much in control. It was busy in there among the waiting fleet, but not too dramatic.
As expected, the wind was to the right of the axis down the Western Solent. Our pre-agreed tactics in such conditions called for us to cross the start line at the north end, right under the committee boat, and to favour the Hampshire side - but never straying far from the main channel where the ebb tide would be at its strongest - before crossing toward the Island side halfway down. As the 10 minute warning came over the VHF, we unfurled the genoa and began to work our way towards the committee boat as subtly as we could. It was fairly clear that others had the same idea, but we seemed to have got the drop on them and, as the five minute warning was broadcast, found ourselves in clear air near the line and in no danger of being forced over it. The question now was whether things would stay that way.
By and large they did. A handful of other starters began to cluster in around us, and we had to start sailing more aggressively, putting ourselves on to starboard tack to keep near the front of the fleet, but just to the right side of the line. That wasn't perfect, as we were now heading south, away from the northern end of the line where we wanted to be, but after what seemed an interminable 15 second countdown, the gun sounded and we could at last head up into the wind and crossed the line almost immediately.
Just as immediately, we lost our advantage. The mainsail was being squeezed forward somehow. Its foot was unfeeding off the front of the track on the boom. It took us a moment or two to figure out that the first reefing line was bar tight and that all our attempts to harden up the main halyard were succeeding simply in making the problem worse. Each swig on the halyard merely caused the mainsail to work forward, more of the foot unfeeding every time.
Competitors that we had jumped on the line now began to swarm around and past us. The reefing line was jammed fast and no amount of pulling and fiddling with the break would release it. We were going backwards through the field. It was an easy decision to get out a knife and cut the reefing line, before tightening up the main halyard while feeding the mainsail foot back into the boom track. Arabella surged forward again and we began to make up places.
Above: Mainsail finally sorted out, Arabella (centre boat, light blue hull, sail number K535) attempts to claw her way back up through her Division on the leg down to the Needles mark. (image copyright Paul Wyeth, used with permission).
The making tack down the Western Solent was definitely starboard. Against that, we had to balance the tactical need to keep north for the first few miles. We did the best we could, me on the weather rail, holding the handheld plotter and trying to guide the helm along the north side of the main shipping channel to pick up the best of the tide. Despite Arabella's twin keels, we were able to point up well to windward, getting the benefit of the making tack for longer than others. They appeared to be sailing freer, perhaps getting more boat speed for the water. The Garmin, though, was telling us our SOG and we knew that we had to hold the making tack for longer even if we sacrificed boat speed - the tide was making all the difference, piling the ground speed on top of our 4.5 knots through the water.
When we finally ran out of deep water channel and tacked onto port, it was clear that we had made the right call. Port tack was truly, truly slow. We got back onto starboard tack as fast we could, and again overhauled another bunch of boats that had been sailing freer and forced onto port tack too soon. Now that it was clear what we had to do, we kept up that tactic all the way down to the Hurst Narrows. The tide picked up here, and we sailed through the standing waves with an incredible 10 knots SOG appearing on the Garmin. At that kind of speed, it was just a matter of minutes down to get down to the Needles.
Time to decide when to turn downwind and round the lighthouse. Painfully aware of the Varvassi wreck and boilers strewn around the seabed there, waiting to catch us out, we dispensed with the usual trick of lining up the top of the lighthouse with the Coastguard cottages and put our trust in the incredible accuracy of the GPS. We turned inside much of the fleet and cleared the boiler with, I reckoned, just a few yards to spare.
That moment of nervousness past, we came downwind and raised the cruising chute. The mobile phone had been ringing, and as I went below and pulled out the sail bag containing the chute, I took a quick look around, but there was no chance of finding it. Below decks looked as though it had been through a washing machine. There was debris everywhere, pre-packed sandwiches and drinks scattered around with charts and gloves and binoculars and goodness knew what else. Nausea set in again and I ducked out of the cabin and back up into the fresh air. My headache got worse.
(I later found that the missed calls were from another Pandora International based in the Solent, Ladybird. He had been given a different handicap and an earlier start than us, but the plan had been for us to hook up if possible and enjoy some match racing at the back of the field. He'd seen us at the start and again near Salt Mead, but we had become so engrossed in keeping our position well up in the fleet that we never noticed him and had now, although we didn't know it, left him far behind. It was in the back of my mind that he must be somewhere up ahead of us, given his earlier start, and I wrongly assumed that we hadn't caught him up yet).
We got the chute up, after a couple of failed attempts and tangles - more lost time - and began to accelerate downwind. The mood on board was turning. This had started out as an excuse for a picnic and a few beers afloat. I'd even promised to provide a hot meal, which was sitting in the pressure cooker somewhere down below decks.
But that had all gone by the wayside . A number of things were now very obvious to all of us. First, Arabella was fast. Perhaps that shouldn't have come as a surprise, but for my part I'd been conditioned to believe that bilge-keeled Pandoras were slow and fin-keeled ones were fast, and as far as the other crew members were concerned, just about any small, cheap old boat was a dog by definition. The limited test-sailing we'd done, while demonstrating that Arabella would move along in light airs, had been insufficient to overturn those preconceptions. Now, however, we knew different. Second, we were turning out to be pretty good as a team: the other two were physically and psychologically much better attuned to racing than I was, but between us we had a great helm, a great crew and a decent, aspiring tactician (and I've always been a strong navigator). Given that we had never sailed as a team before, we were doing an exceptionally good job in a boat that was giving us her all. Third, we could see by the way we'd got well in among the the fleet that had started ten minutes before us that we had made serious places on the first leg, and we were beginning to get competitive about it.
Nobody came right out and said it,but we all knew something had changed. We were serious now. This wasn't a boy's day out any more. Our elected skipper began to get tougher on us, his usual affability replaced by a sharper, more businesslike approach.
Using the cruising chute was frustrating - we couldn't get a straight downwind run, but had to put in a series of gybes that meant we zigzagged our way in and out, always staying close inshore. Meanwhile we watched others, flying proper spinnakers, heading straight downwind and overtaking us. Most of the fleet seemed to have headed further out into the English Channel - some of them quite a few miles out by the look of it - and we couldn't tell if we were losing ground to them, but it felt like we were. One competitor near us had gone very close inshore, despite the hazards there, and he also pulled well ahead. Only a few competitors were adopting the same strategy as us, staying inshore but not so close that Peter Bruce's "Wight Hazards" needed to be open on the page.
Nausea took over. I went over to leeward and lost my breakfast. I would not eat again until after we got back to port. The others occasionally reached down and retrieved what food they could from the melee below decks. I stuck to sipping bottled water and hung grimly on as the channel swells passed under Arabella and rolled her sickeningly from side to side. Taking the helm might have helped, but the skipper was, rightly, showing no signs of surrendering it and in any event I needed to get back onto the tactics.
We took turns to use a pee bottle. Using the sea toilet was unthinkable, even if it could have been reached under the debris below decks. My own mood was getting darker, as my headache worsened and the nausea refused to release its grip. The other two crew, both far more experienced than I as sailors and racers, were carrying me now. I could feel it, and it was embarrassing and frustrating, but there didn't seem to be anything that I could do about it. To try and make some meaningful contribution, I took a spell on the sheet for the cruising chute. The sun was out now, and was high over the mast, right in my eyes as I stared fixedly at the luff of the chute, sending piercing stabs of pain deep into my brain. I began to wonder why I had ever decided to do this, I clearly wasn't up to it - unlike the boat and the other crew, all of whom were strong.
As I had expected, we picked up the inshore tidal eddy in the run down to St Catherine's Point, and the mark arrived surprisingly quickly. The wind was with the tide now, and the overfalls were very mild. We took a conservative line, a few hundred yards offshore, as we rounded the point and set about trying to find some point of sail on which the damn chute would pull well and which was also vaguely on the course we wanted to set. It was a forlorn hope. While the main fleet still stayed well to seaward, those competitors who were around us continued to sail off downwind under spinnaker, while we gybed back and forth as best we could.
The making tack just kept taking us further inshore than I wanted us to be as navigator. Matters were not helped by the fact that my pre-race homework had been at its weakest in relation to the run down to Bembridge: I knew what the tide was doing, but the Garmin just kept showing obstructions close inshore and I couldn't make out the charted depths.
Time passed. The Princessa cardinal appeared in the binoculars. I gave the helm a course to steer and hoped I hadn’t set us across anything that we wouldn't want to ground on. The fleet was beginning to bunch up again, as the main body to seaward began to close in on the mark at Bembridge, a couple of miles further on. Spinnakers and chutes were being doused up ahead.
Time to gybe again. The chute tangled itself around the forestay. It had done this once or twice before, and on each occasion I had been able to go up on the foredeck and free it. But this time, the problem was worse, and one of the sheets was under the boat. We had no choice now but to drop the chute and raise it again. My headache ratcheted up a couple of notches. Once the chute was down, we had a hurried debate. There were boats behind us, a lot of them, still under spinnaker. The nearest, a couple of SCODs, were pulling up fast on us. But the mark at Bembridge was now on the nose, and our boat speed was good even under main and genoa. We opted to leave the chute down and brave it out all the way down to the mark.
It paid off. We rounded the mark still ahead of the SCODs and rejoined the main fleet, now stretching ahead of us in an unbroken wall towards Cowes, out of sight ahead. The Beken of Cowes dory was there, snapping pictures of the fleet as it passed. Arabella was now on a fetch and went over on to her ear. Back up to the weather side, weight over once again.
Above and below: Arabella rejoins the main fleet at Bembridge (images copyright Beken of Cowes, used with permission)
There was a long overdue lift in the crew's spirits. We were clearly well up in the fleet, mixing it with much larger boats that had been in the earlier starts. We could also make out a few other competitors who had been in our start, flying their distinctive dayglow green fleet flags, and set about trying to get on terms with them.
It helped that I was back in familiar navigational territory now, using the Garmin handheld and my tactical homework to guide the helm inshore of No Mans Land Fort, comfortable that I knew the height of tide. The body of the fleet headed north, across the main channel, towards the Hampshire shore. We felt sure that was not the right thing to do, and stayed in the smaller stream of boats that kept over towards the Island, out of the now adverse stream.
Above: Arabella battles against increasing chop on the leg from Bembridge to Castle Point. (image copyright Sailing Scenes, used with permission)
The fort flashed by, and I guided the helm out to the posts marking Ryde Sands, easing him ever so slightly to starboard, to starboard. It was a battle of wills now: he wanted to stay in, I wanted him just a bit further out to clear the shallowest part of the sands which were showing clearly on the Garmin's tiny screen. The posts came into sight, and ahead of them, through them, we saw boats going hard aground. Our part of the fleet took the hint, and so at last did our helm, falling off the wind, aiming further out.
Out towards Sturbridge. The water was deep here, and the adverse tide was telling. The helm wanted us back in towards the Island shore. I was happy to agree with 2.5m of tide under our keels in addition to the charted depth. But the drying sands inshore shoaled rapidly and all I could do was warn the helm to tack as soon as he noticed a sharp reduction in soundings. We headed in, almost in to the end of Ryde Pier, tacked back out again, then again back towards the Island shore. The helm was braver than I was, ignoring my pleas to tack and holding his course inshore till the last possible moment before tacking out again. We passed quite a number of yachts aground on the sands.
The Island shore began its pronounced curve towards Castle Point. We could now work the wind along the Island shore in around 6 or 7 metres of water, reasonably safe in the knowledge that we would be clear of all obstacles. All sense of time had been lost. I couldn't remember how the tide was setting, and there was no chance to go below and grab the tidal charts, as we were now needed more than ever out on the weather rail.
The wind was building, and with it the chop. I hadn't given much thought to the Pandora's reputation for being a wet boat before now, but all that changed as water bucketed over the bow and caught me, the forward man on the weather rail, full on. It was a good job the Garmin was waterproof.
I leaned under the boom from my perch on the weather rail, and looked over at the main body of the fleet, still packed over on the Hampshire side. They were scattering before an inbound container ship. I was meant to be in charge of tactics, but I couldn't for the life of me figure out what they were all doing over there. Was it herd mentality? Who knew, we were still getting a decent SOG of 5 knots, cheating the tide by staying so close inshore. I felt confident that we were where we should be.
The atmosphere in the cockpit was becoming fractious. Our skipper was letting out the mainsheet at the same time as the other crew member was trimming the genoa, continually catching the crew member's head with the end of the boom. Tempers, which had stayed remarkably calm in the face of the pressure we had imposed on ourselves, were beginning to fray very slightly.
The Island shore was arching out to meet us now as we closed on Castle Point. The wind was getting flukier, mostly force 4, but with gusts of up to F6 as we passed valleys and gaps in the trees on the shore. Ahead of us, we could see yachts on our tack heeling over, occasionally broaching, in gusts. There was a unenthusiastic debate about reefing the genoa at least - bearing in mind we'd cut the mainsail's reefing line at the start of the race - but we opted to carry on under full sail. Arabella didn't seem to be losing any boat speed even in the gusts.
The finish line came into sight. We made one of our few tactical errors by not staying over close in to East Cowes, on port tack, once we passed Castle Point. Instead, we headed out and tacked back across to the southerly finish line, but that required us to put in one final tack right on the line and in so doing we crossed a much larger Moody, which rammed us up the stern with an almighty crunch, his pulpit hitting Arabella's pushpit and demolishing the MOB danbuoy and horseshoe. There was no question of stopping to remonstrate, we were on port tack now, the pair of us, both desperately trying to build up boat speed once again to get us those last few yards over the line as other boats poured over on starboard.
We crossed the line at 4.32pm, having taken 9 hours 52 minutes in uncorrected time to complete the course.
The Moody came over once we were clear of the line and checked we were okay, and we left the matter at that. Fortunately there was no real damage to either boat. His nav light had detached from the pulpit, which otherwise looked okay, and Arabella's pushpit had torn out its mounting screws to starboard (note to yard: it should have been through-bolted!) and was very slightly bent. The MOB gear and mountings looked more-or-less capable of salvage provided the mountings could be straightened, but we left a detailed examination for later. My inclination was to treat it as a genuine racing accident and leave the matter there, as long as I didn't hear further from the Moody. It didn't even seem worth protesting.
We handed in our declaration forms at the barge and set sail once again across an increasingly choppy Solent to Southampton Water. We were all exhausted. Our skipper had taken the helm quite some time before the 6.40am start, and had relinquished it only to take a leak twice during the race. Now, more than ten hours later, he passed me the tiller and found a spot below decks, near the main hatch, to sit and nurse a beer. The other crew, who had frankly made up for my lack of prowess, was just as knackered and sat back in the cockpit, trying to relax.
I was beyond coherent speech and my head was exploding, even if the nausea had finally started to subside. But I didn't care. Not only had Arabella safely made it through ten hours of very intensive sailing, but for the first time I was helming her myslef in decent winds, F5-6, and I was revelling in it! I might not be much of a racer, but as a cruising sailor I could really appreciate her speed, her balanced, responsive helm and her forgiving nature in the gusts. I could see that I was going to have a lot of fun sailing this boat in the months and years ahead.
Before long, we were in the lee of Calshot and into the smoother conditions of Southampton Water. I set a course for Southampton, and Arabella romped homeward through a series of rain squalls. The sky darkened under the black clouds, even though it was supposed to be daylight for many hours yet, and we switched on Arabella's nav lights once again.
Safely tied up back in the marina, we three fortysomethings were so stiff and bruised that we could barely walk. We staggered up to the marina office, terra firma rolling alarmingly under our feet, and bullied the duty staff to log onto to the official website so that we could see our result. We couldn't believe it when we saw we were 29th overall (as we then were - subsequently the results were corrected and we were awarded 30th place).
In as celebratory a mood as our physcial condition permitted, we grabbed hot showers and headed back down to the boat. I lit up the stove for the first time since our 4.30am breakfast cook-up, heated up the minestrone in the pressure cooker - better late than never - and dished it out.
Dusk fell. A companionable silence descended upon the cockpit while we appreciatively spooned up the hot soup.
"That," said one of the crew, "was fun. What a great little boat she is!"
"Absolutely," I said, as if there'd ever been any doubt. Then stood up, walked over to the side, and smartly vomited my wife's finest minestrone into the marina.
(Edit: a modified version of this entry was published in the Twin Keeler Newsletter, 2007 Issue 4)
Conditions: NW F3-4, becoming W F5-6 later. Mixed sun/showers, some heavy. Sea state slight/moderate.
Distance covered (GPS over ground): 88.6 NM
Total distance covered to date (2007): 107.9 NM