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Lessons learned

Yacht Racing Podcast

Lessons learned from racing two-handed in a rough 2023 Fastnet Race.

The 2023 RORC Rolex Fastnet Race had its toughest weather conditions in recent years. Three frontal systems crossed its track, the first of which was a SW gale force eight, gusting nine from the Needles to Portland Bill. In these conditions, with only two co-skippers aboard, any equipment failures can have significant consequences as there can be little slack before you are overwhelmed by the conditions. After the race I spoke to a range of different boats in the UK Doublehanded Series fleet to find out what worked and what didn’t.

Main image: Christina and Justin Wolfe came from Washington State, USA to race their SunFast 3300 Ruby in the 2023 Fastnet. They had a few issues with a waterlogged chart plotter and the wild conditions kept both of them on watch for the first 18 hours of the race.

The biggest failure across the double-handed boats was the electronics. Despite some carrying out extra waterproofing pre-race, the persistent rainwater and waves found their way into the network and on most boats, electronics failed.

Autopilots are critical on a double-handed boat, especially in a long race, so many shorthanded boats carry two autopilots. On Cora the autopilot malfunctioned, probably from a short circuit in a damaged cable elsewhere in the system. The pilot kept auto-engaging and trying to go hard over so it was fortunate that they had installed a breaker switch specifically for the pilot. Another boat had the pilot auto engaging whilst they were hand steering and trying to tack the boat. Bellino has a second pilot that the crew can run without any data from the network and this proved fantastic as it was merrily steering the boat at speeds of over 20kts as their primary pilot wouldn’t work because of corrupt data on the network.

Red Ruby had issues with the chartplotter after water incursion. It took on a life of its own and began creating thousands of man-overboard waypoints. On top of it all, the chartplotter turned to Polish and they subsequently had lots of grimacing fun trying to silence the alarms. On other boats the chartplotter just randomly shut off.

AIS was also unreliable. Some reported AIS data was very limited due to steep heel angles, on another boat the AIS decided to lose its cable connection with GPS and therefore they stopped transmitting. Finally, laptop and phone chargers don’t like salty water either and charging problems were common.

Knowing the electronic layout and being able to fault-find proved crucial. Jangada ran without instruments for six hours whilst the crew considered all options, including retirement. Fortunately, time spent before the race indexing all the connections on the network meant they were able to clear the fault once the sea state had eased.

Conor Corson and Matt Bird, both under 30 years old, raced the SunFast 3300 Asgard.

Another common failure was loss of deck safety gear. Disko Trooper had a lot of safety gear washed off the transom/pushpit by the waves. The crew concluded the standard fastenings need reviewing for strength whilst retaining quick release mechanisms. On Jangada the dan buoy jumped off its bracket and self-inflated. Black Betty had the life raft self-inflate after they had turned the boat around and got swamped by a wave, it then fell off the back and was towed for a while before detaching itself. This caused extra traffic on Ch16 as many boats called in to report it.

Three teams we spoke to lost wind instruments, or part of them. Jangada lost the seawater pump and toilet pump; both broke their mounts due to flimsy designs that could not withstand the battering if knocked.

It is particularly important to secure heavy items. Bellino had a fire extinguisher go flying, another boat had the EPIRB fall out of the holder, luckily not going off. Jago had a cupboard door open and a spare bottle of gearbox liquid emptied itself with an awful smell, making the skipper puke for next 48 hours.

The SunFast 3200 Cora 2 sailed by Tim Goodhew and Kelvin Matthews won the UK Doublehanded Offshore Series for the third time in 2023.

It was essential to have a handheld radio or VHF speaker on deck, though both proved difficult to hear in the wind. The crew of Cora sums up the reality of the situation for many boats; ‘Despite having our radio on the loudspeaker upstairs it was so noisy, the Rolex backstay flag sounded like it was breaking the sound barrier three times a second, and the radio was largely drowned out. It is difficult to manage and monitor this when you’re trying to negotiate 35-40kt breezes as a double handed team.’ The upgrade most wanted was the ability to clear the VHF DSC alarms from on deck as this would have saved many precarious trips below.

When you are double-handed in heavy upwind conditions it’s unlikely you are going to find the time or energy to go below to cook hot food. On Red Ruby it was 18hrs before either skipper went below for any significant time. Quick access snacks and sandwiches are essential with a mix of healthier food (nuts/seeds, eggs, chicken, fruit) alongside the need for sugar and caffeine. Some packed foulies with bars, others just had them ready in the cockpit bags.

Ready-made breakfast milkshakes (oats, milk, sugar) were useful for getting calories in quickly. Orbit had food that heated itself up with cold water. One crew made hot drinks in flasks before leaving the dock which kept hot for six hours. Another had a big box of homecooked vegetable pasta ready to eat. I’m told oranges proved a great source of energy in bad weather – no need to worry about the mess, it’s gone with the next wave.

When you do finally get below for a rest don’t forget if you have heating to fire it up. Jago got to Land’s End and reported ‘… it dawned on me “why not put the heating on” …. oh, wow did it have an immediate impact on our wellbeing and mood!’ Thanks to the co-skippers of Fastrak, Jangada, Disko Trooper, Cora, Jago, Surf, Solenn for Pure Ocean, Orbit, Black Betty and Mzungu! for sharing their insights.

If this has inspired you to join us then the UK Doublehanded Series welcomes new members into our supportive group. Our race schedule for 2024 is now live and the series includes the IRC Doublehanded European Championship (Drheam Cup and Cowes Dinard St Malo) and the IRC Doublehanded UK Nationals.

Click here for more information on the UK Double Handed Offshore Series

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