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How to conquer the world’s toughest offshore race?

How to conquer the world’s toughest offshore race?

Sail to the top, c'est la vie

December 11, 2023 by anni.tactical

The Fastnet Race is a legendary offshore race which often is referred to as the toughest race in the world. […]

The Fastnet Race is a legendary offshore race which often is referred to as the toughest race in the world. The race starts in Cowes, Isle of Wight, UK and goes via the Fastnet Rock lighthouse outside the Irish coast and finishes in Cherborug, France. The race course is 695 nautical miles (approximately 1200 km) in total. Many offshore sailors dream about competing in the race.

Two of Tactical Foodpack fans had the opportunity to fulfill their dream and cross the Fastnet Race off their bucket list. Sanna and Julius from Finland are double handed (DH) aka two-person crew sail racing team. So here are their experiences and emotsions from the adventure, straight from the source!

BY SANNA MOLIIS (@iriesailing)

We both have long experience of offshore sailing and sail racing with different keelboats, mainly in the Baltic Sea but also from Atlantic crossings, the Mediterranian and the Caribbean. We have been sail racing together with our boat s/y Irie since 2021 and have participated in long offshore races in the Baltic Sea with great success.

Transfer sail from Helsinki to the race start in Cowes

After a hectic spring filled with preparations on the boat we were finally ready to start our delivery sail in end of June. We had reserved two weeks for our delivery sail to Cherbourg and one week of preparations before the race start. Luckily, we had reserved much time for the delivery sail as we mainly had strong headwinds, or no winds at all. We had to spend one week in Cuxhaven, Germany due to the storm “Poly” which caused gale force headwinds on the North Sea. Despite bad luck with the winds and weather we made it in time to Cherbourg where we spent a busy week with race preparations before crossing the English Channel to the Isle of Wight, where the race started.

This year the race celebrated its 50th anniversary with a record breaking 450 boats on the starting line. As the race start approached there was a special feeling of anticipation and nervosity in the race harbour. Particularly when the weather forecasts started to stabilize and it became clear that the conditions were going to be extremely tough for the race start. We also got a weather briefing during the skippers meeting, and warnings about the incoming cold fronts and strong winds.

On July 22nd the Fastnet race started in heavy rain and strong breeze. Many boats, including us were prepared with storm sails, the conditions became really tough when we came out of the shelter of the Solent. The strong tidal currents made things even more interesting, the current was with us pushing us forward whereas the wind and waves were against us – this combination created steep and high waves. The first night of the race was tough, many boats were struggling, many abandoned the race or went in to harbors to seek shelter to continue the next day. We sailed very conservative and managed to push through the night.

At the mercy of the weather

During the second day the weather conditions calmed down, we sailed along the coast and even got to enjoy some sunshine after the rain, but most importantly we finally got some sleep. Neither of us had slept during the first night. We also got the opportunity to dry our sailing gear and fix some minor damages we had during the night. We were excited to be able to focus on the race, tidal tactics, wind shifts and boatspeed instead of surviving through the stormy conditions. The weather forecast did however not look too good, two new fronts with strong winds were approaching and would meet us on the Irish sea, one on around the Scilly islands and another front would pass us on our way back to Cherbourg, we started to prepare for the upcoming weather conditions.

As forecasted, the wind picked up on our way to the Lands end and the Scilly Islands with very messy sea state, with waves from different directions and strong headwind. We discussed about abandoning the race but decided to continue to the Fastnet Rock and evaluate the situation again there. Luckily, the cold front passed quite quickly and we had a nice crossing of the Irish Sea until the wind dropped the next day. Together with a bunch of boats we were floating around moving nowhere for 3-4 hours, we entertained ourselves by filming dolphins with our gopro camera. We were among the first boats to get the new breeze and gained some positions in the race, and had a nice evening sailing downwind towards the Fastnet rock.

At 02:00 on the 26th of July we rounded the fastnet rock in complete darkness and rain. We celebrated with some champagne and candy!

It was a fast crossing of the Irish sea back to the Scilly islands. As forecasted, the wind picked up all the time when we approached the Scilly islands and big waves from the Atlantic rolled over us. We were eager to reach the Scilly islands and turn our course downwind towards Cherbourg. Just before dark we reached the rounding mark and could ease the sheets. Little did we know how difficult it would be to steer down the steep waves in pitch dark! Luckily, we had some other boats around us and their navigational lights functioned as landmarks. During the night we made the speed record of the race, 16,9 knots surfing down a wave with only storm jib and 3rd reef in the mainsail.

The night felt like forever, but finally the sun rised and the wind dropped during the day. We could finally hoist our biggest downwind sail and focus on tactics and racing instead of surviving! The strong tidal currents, thick fog and busy shipping lanes of the English Channel added some extra challenges.

Might and magic of the sea

We were frequently visited by dolphins playing around our bow and swimming along the boat, we do not have dolphins in the Baltic Sea so we were always excited by their company. Late in the evening we arrived to the Aldernay race, the strait that runs between the island of Aldernay and the French mainland (Cap de la Hague). The area is known for the extremely strong tidal currents, which can be up to 12 knots and can cause chaotic sea conditions, particularly when wind is against the tide. Luckily, we had downwind and the current with us. However, even with mild weather conditions sailing in the Aldernay race was tricky and bumpy! After many gybes we passed the Cap de la Hague in the morning and could change our course towards the finish line in Cherbourg. At 6 am we crossed the finishing line – just in time for the race closing party!

After the race we spent a week in Cherbourg, cleaning the boat, getting the delivery sailing stuff onboard, changing sails and other preparations for the delivery sailing back home to Helsinki. We managed to catch a magical weather window and sailed nonstop downwind from Cherbourg to the Kiel canal. Pleasure crafts are not allowed to use the Kiel canal during night so we stopped in Rendsburg, approximately in the middle of the Kiel canal and spent a few nights there while waiting for better winds in the Baltic Sea. We made it back home to Helsinki in just 8 days!

We would like to thank Tactical Foodpack for supporting our Fastnet Race project with delicious outdoor food and the heater-bag solution . We could focus on the most important: keeping up the boat speed (surviving the storms) and sleeping but still enjoy hot meals three times a day, even in the toughest conditions!

Follow future adventures of Sanna and Julius on Instagram: @iriesailing