Thursday, September 10, 2015

The “Flying Dutchmen” Fastnet Race Sailing Report!

J/111 Xcentric Ripper- The Netherlands team in Rolex Fastnet Race (The Hague, The Netherlands)-  John van der Starre and Robin Verhoef from The Netherlands have been sailing since they were practically crawling in diapers as babies.  Their love and passion for sailing throughout their lives ultimately led them to sailing together in one of the toughest but most rewarding of disciplines, double-handed racing.  Like their country-women, Yvonne Beusker and Edith Voskamp that double-handed their J/105 PANTHER in the Fastnet Race, John and Robin are the top team in the Dutch double-handed circuit.  In fact, they were crowned the first Dutch Double-handed National Champions earlier this summer sailing their J/111 XCENTRIC RIPPER.  Here is their report:

“During the briefing with all the skippers and navigators on Saturday afternoon in Cowes it became clear that we could not expect much wind for the start and first few days of the race. The English version of Dutch weather-girl ‘Helga van Leur’  was able to tell the sailors using weather maps and gribs that we could expect many wind-holes and up to 10 knots of wind. Anchors ready guys?

The start of our class, IRC 2, would be on Sunday at 1300 BST with a westward flowing tide on the Solent. The side of Cowes is favored because there the first current picks up with two knots of speed. On the warning signal at 12.50 there was only 3 knots of wind so we had to be very careful not to drift over the starting line before the start, a greater tragedy is unthinkable, trying to get back with very little wind and all those boats on the starting line against a fast 2 knots of current.

So, we quickly calculated, two knots of current is 1 m/s, then (half) of 4 minutes is 240 seconds.  So, you have to stay at least 240 meters before the line to prevent drifting over the line before the start! With the help of Expedition, we can quickly put down an imaginary line.  This worked out very well for us; a boat that was 25 meters ahead of us got an OCS so after the start we had a very good position.

J/100 Comanche sailing off Fastnet Race starting lineOnly the choice of a windseeker instead of a jib was not optimal, so a quick change prevented further losses in our class. The key to sailing the Solent is staying in strong current.  Nowadays, with all the current information of ‘Winning Tides’ and ‘Tidetech Expedition’, it is a snap. Too bad that everyone does this; sailing is starting to look more like a computer game at such moments! Fortunately, you also have to sail well, sweat pouring down our backs, and with a fanatic face we let it rip!!  Meanwhile, you also have your "wow" moments for example when the 100-foot COMANCHE, with the famous J/24 World Champion sailor Ken Read skippering, passes by as a large black and red shadow with so much power and speed.  Insane!

After exiting the Solent and passing the spectacular Needles, it remained an upwind beat with the wind slowly veering. Nowadays, it is required to have AIS onboard and active during the whole race. This allows you to constantly see what your position is compared to other boats, whether you win or lose on them. In the first 40 miles, we were doing reasonably well, but not super. Beforehand we had looked at where the points would be, where the differences in the race could be made.  From our experience it is often the momentum and flow of the wind- or other major weather changes- that make or break the race. The J/111 is a fast boat, but there are a lot of fast boats in the Fastnet and that’s not enough to win a Fastnet Race.

The first wind hole was expected in the evening/night after the start on Sunday. The gribs (weather forecasts which we can be downloaded via Iridium phone) indicated that the wind would fall sharply and after the calm, veering 30-40 degrees in the morning. The tide was in the general direction of SE, later going E. The wind kept blowing lightly during the night, but fell slightly more than predicted so we still kept some momentum, 2.5 kts of boatspeed was king. (pffft, nothing!)! The windflow was quickly maintaining strength south of the rhumbline; so the question was how far south did you want to go??  The issue was, it was forecast to die, forecasted to turn clockwise and increase in speed.  So, the farther to the right of the field you sit, the better it would be in the end. A Faustian bargain, perhaps??

Despite that, we still had some progress, but with mixed feelings.  When we stopped moving on our GPS, we set our anchor. Easily said, but previous experience during Commodore’s Cup 2012 was an important learning experience, if the anchor is not set correctly and starts dragging, you could easily lose four miles. Therefore, our anchor is a 15 kg (33 lbs) plow design with 20 meter (64 ft) chain and up to 160 meters (515 ft) of nylon anchor line.

Then, I dropped it all overboard and the speed that it swooped to the bottom burned through my gloves! I thought, crap, how do we get this damn anchor out of the water again!! Nearly 60 meters (193 ft) depth, we end up needing 100 meters (330 ft) of line before we had a grip on the bottom and the SOG (Speed Over Ground) was down to 0 kts!!  Wow!!  Crazy!! On the AIS we saw many competitors such as 2013 winner, Night and Day, in the southeast being washed away in the wrong direction.

In the Fastnet, the moments of euphoria and drama lie every time so close together, now we think to be king using our anchor for about four hours.  But, we may get the anchor up in time, and quickly, so lose it all again.  For moments like this, we often encountered during this year’s Fastnet.

After 4 hours, our tactical anchor period ended and the wind picked up. Imagine, you are standing on top of the Dom Tower in Utrecht or Euromast in Rotterdam and you should as quick as possible bring up 100 meters anchor line + chain + anchor.  Luckily, it weighs underwater a little less, but it's really no fun. Especially, to loosen the anchor from its holding ground, we needed the genoa winch!  Will it succeed or not?  Everything squeaked and creaked. Then, it finally popped loose from the bottom and then a sailor’s "Hey-Ho" in rhythm and we dragged up the beast from the bottom!  So, next time maybe we install electric windlass??

It proved to be a very good move.  We were right back in a very good position with the boats in the south like the J/122s JUNIQUE and NUTMEG.  Before the anchoring period and wind shift, they were 6nm in front of us, and now we were 7nm in front of them! A 13nm gain in just four hours!!

The euphoria was, unfortunately, disrupted by the knowledge that by 1200 hrs in the middle of the day, the wind would ease again completely from the west.  We sailed into the ridge of high pressure with the knowledge that everyone would get parked again on that line and that would creates ANOTHER restart where the entire field is again together. Sailboat racing is fun, isn’t it??  Perhaps, we are a bit insane.  In America, this is called “rubber-banding” when cars go fast, then slow, then fast again.

We realized the fact that we would have a hard time to win our Two-Handed Class by the time we got past Start Point (Dartmouth) and we headed to the Lizard (Land’s End). The J/111 XCENTRIC RIPPER is a relatively fast boat on handicap, only 10 boats are faster in our 2H class, but the rest are slower in this class of 57 boats. On the occasion when you are parked up with the smaller boats, they are ‘earning time’ on you.  A restart after 24 hours?  That means almost 2 hrs are lost on a boat like the JPK 1010 Night and Day and the J/105 Jester. This is the time differential that you should have run out on these boats sailing in the past 24 hours!  Ouch!

In reality you can’t, under normal conditions, catch-up this time on them. It became clear to us that this Fastnet Race would really be a ‘small boat’ race, the overall IRC prize would not be the 100-foot Comanche, and the first prize in IRC Two-Handed would not be for the J/111 XCENTRIC RIPPER.  That was the reality.

Anyway, you go for the max and the opportunities are in the future with new breezes or weather. There were two options at Start Point off Dartmouth.  You stay out at sea outside the transition zone, which occurs, in a developing seabreeze or you go within 5 miles of the coast and try to catch the developing seabreeze (if it occurs). In the end, you will have to sail some more miles, but the gain will be assured.

The question was obvious as we saw boats from behind gaining on us in really no time at all on us.  We were parked.  So, do we go to the coast- or not? Staring and gazing in the complete calm around us and doubting ourselves, we saw the first small cumulus over land and we were sure that the seabreeze would come through.

Do not think that you sail straight towards the coast.  It is more a gathering of small wind puffs out at sea and so you try to snuggle towards the coast.

The newest weather grib that we got also showed a strong northerly wind (from land), predicted for the evening.  We were glad that we found the Dutch J/109 JAI LAI (nearly winning the race and their IRC 3 division for awhile) they do the same as we and we ended up in a nice tacking duel with our former crew member Wouter Köhlmann aboard JAI LAI.  This only sharpens you and helps you forget the incipient fatigue.

During the first night we could not get sleep, we gave each other a chance try to get as many rest opportunities as possible. The moments that you are OK, we say to the other: "If you want to lie down, go!"  I lie down first in bed, only thinking what we can do tactically. But, after 36 hours you fall really fast to sleep, you lie down, and you're gone.

We have an agreement with sail changes, chaos, or after two hours to wake up each other to do an exchange, or if situation demands it.

On a regular basis, I can compare our position on the computer to the boats at sea and it looks really good for us, and from 1900 hrs on the second day, the real boost came.  The wind turned 40 degrees clockwise to the coast. It was a genuine land breeze and we could tack immediately that way. So cool, you sail to the wind to the coast and suddenly you get the wind right on the nose, one tiny fast tack and then we can sail with the Code 0 over the entire field along with 7.5-8 kts boatspeed towards ‘the Lizard’!!


After the Lizard, believe it not, the weather prediction showed another major setback in wind, pffft, now hopefully the last one. But, the major problem was that we had to get past another TSS exclusion zone- TSS Lands End West.  Here was a barrier in the course that was right in front of us and the increasing direction of the wind flow.  And, crossing through the TSS was either a DSQ or a massive time penalty.  Not a pleasant prospect.

After 30 miles, we passed the lowest point of the TSS and head northwest along the Scilly Islands and towards the direction of Fastnet Rock. Robin and I kept some space relative to the bottom line of the TSS to not have the risk of getting into this TSS. Anchoring can then of course save you, but it was nearly 90 meters of water, and we would need our full entire 160 meter line out!!

Behind us are some boats which dare to sail a straight line as a sort of Russian Roulette to enter that TSS zone, they make it in the end and they will win distance on us, if they do not make it, then they are out of the competition.

Expedition software on J/111 Xcentric RipperThe wind remains very light, 4 kts and we creep along the TSS line, sweaty palms, super concentrated. Luckily, we keep this 4 kts wind and can circumnavigate with Code 0 along the bottom point with only slightly greater distance to be sure. The dare-devils like the J/111 BLUR get it in a straight line and walk slightly along the edge and make big gains. The J/122 JUNIQUE allows a larger safety bend and loses some distance.

After the Scillies it remains light, up to 10 knots max, and I realize that with the actual current predictions there is hardly any tactical gain to make and the only real opportunity lies, after Fastnet Rock back again in the Scillies direction.

Whichever route you take, outside the TSS West Scillies or between TSS and Scillies that is the issue.  Until that opportunity, we sail as quickly as possible to Fastnet Rock and back.  Also, there is the need to rest/sleep, make sail changes in time if the wind changes or rises.

Do not think for a moment the boat is always running perfectly!  Not!  With the J/111, you know when you can sail faster with the A5 spinnaker or with the Code 0.  The next 30 minutes, there is always change! And, you set up the best sail and keep going.  I find great relief and comfort that we have our fully tuned ‘Expedition’ software, I can immediately see how we are performing and whether it will improve with a sail change and how it will pay off.

At 07:28:30 on Wednesday morning we passed Fastnet Rock, this always remains a special moment! The fact that this is our 3rd time Two-Handed around the Rock with this boat in 4 years time gives a special feeling. The boat is sold and will be delivered after the Fastnet Race and, thus, we will close a chapter here at the Rock. She has never let us down and what a great boat and superb brand the J’s are!  Blazing away from Fastnet, we are removed from our
J/111 Xcentric Ripper rounding Fastnet Rock

melancholic thoughts as we found, to leeward, the Code 0 in the water! The whole sausage Code 0 hangs next to the boat it takes a lot of effort to get it back on board. We get the Code 0 up, but it unrolls not happily, and the loss of speed is serious.  After some minutes, we are again sailing at full speed. Phew!!  Quite a teaching moment again. You could say, what a rookie mistake!! But, it’s probably due to the fact we are less sharp because of fatigue??

Now the major strategy choice, how do we get down the next leg back past the Scillies and the TSS zones. Full-speed planing, losing some height on our rhumbline, and thus obliged to have to take the left side of TSS Scillies? Or, a somewhat slower angle and sail a bit higher with the possibility to leave TSS and Scillies on our left hand?

Quickly, we get loaded with all the latest weather grib files and calculate all the possibilities.  Finally, it looked better for full-speed sailing lower, taking the left passage and also the shortest distance gives the best option and we go for it. The first 4-5 hours after Fastnet, we regularly hit 13-14 kts boatspeed, and we sail like a rocket. But, the moments of despair, of course, remain.  How will this pay out? If the field of boats meets at Bishop Rock, after passage of the TSS, when we get back together, we'll know if this choice was correct or not.  This creates many anxious moments.  Aaggghhh!

At Bishop Rock, we should have the opportunity for GSM coverage again and we will try to figure out the standings on the Internet and at Fastnet Rock.  We see that we are in the Two-Handed division around 8th place (as expected after all those calms), but surprisingly, we find that we are doing very well in IRC 2 Class and, in particular, subclass IRC2A, namely 2nd!

After examination of our standings, it reveals that Scarlett Oyster, an Oyster 48, to be our biggest competitor in IRC 2A. We can imagine at the finish line after 100 hours of sailing a 12-minute loss on him.  But, now he is 6 minutes in front of us! So, we should not allow further increase in this difference. This gives us a boost, you can again focus sailing the boat. Along Bishop Rock, it shows that the inside passage was the good option, the J/111 BLUR with its 160 m2 gennaker (40m2 larger than ours) is way more closer than we were at the Rock and going very fast.

Now, our focus is on Scarlett Oyster. At the Lizard, we see on our AIS that despite all our efforts, the time difference has increased because the wind weakens and then the same distance difference between the boats increases in time. 7 minutes. 10 minutes. Then, 15 minutes. The last 20 miles before the finish in Plymouth, we see one more chance to reduce the now accumulated time difference of 17 minutes. The wind is expected to change from 215 to 195 degrees, so we can sail a curve to the left to sail to the finish. We try to create separation from Scarlet Oyster and create greater leverage by sailing as deep as possible with our A2 and try not to lose too much speed. Meter by meter, we gather our separation left.

They continue to sail higher angle downwind, a bit quicker then we, but we have to bite the bullet now! If we are right behind him sailing along into the finish, we stand a chance and the time difference is too big. With work hard and we are now waiting for the predicted wind rotation, 10 miles to the finish, then five miles.  Still no rotation, #@&#$!!  Suddenly, it starts to drizzle, the wind continued to decline to 8 knots, then it turns 30 degrees!  Insane!!

J/111 interior- fastnet raceThe next few minutes are so incredibly exciting. Hopefully, Scarlett Oyster waits too long to jibe to the finish, the greater our advantage is of the inner curve on the wind shift.  We do not see anything through the drizzle, we can only follow them on the AIS.  We act as the well-oiled team behind wheel and gennaker trimming and only communicate with, "little pressure, up, ok, good pressure .. a lot of pressure, OK I'm going to bear off”.  The boat will continue to run as deep and fast as possible.  We do not have time at all to look down below on the computer.  But, suddenly we see a gray shadow passing in front of us. It's them!  It is no longer greater than 17 minutes.  Robin zooms down below to look, 7 minutes is the separation!

Now, we deal with a past trauma. Four years ago, we were parked up in Plymouth Bay for 1.5 hours at 150 meters in front of the finish line, at the left side of the breakwater. This was also a possible victory back then— not just 2H class, but overall!!  We certainly lost our 2nd and even third position there and this certainly was not pleasant. I had already prepared/ calculated when the river would flow out and that was certainly the case now around 1300 hrs!  The better option (as we had painfully learned) is to stay as long as possible behind the breakwater in the middle of the bay, outside the river wash and there you will even find a little reverse eddy and you can use that to send you at the last minute past the tip of the breakwater and to the finish as close as possible to the lighthouse at the tip of the breakwater!

We saw the Scarlet Oyster gain some distance a mile before the finish and, fortunately, not in the lee of the breakwater.  They remained quite visibly in the river’s current flow, or so I thought. We had a number of short gybes, and now did not make any mistakes!  We stayed nicely behind the breakwater.

We see the Scarlett Oyster finish in front of us and they continue to wait on the line to clock us, they are obviously wondering who will win!!

Our last gybe to the finish is also very sharp.  Our finish time is 13:56:45, sailing after about 97 hours. But is it enough? On the Scarlett Oyster, the crew spontaneously breaks into a sporting celebration in our direction.  The difference is eight minutes and is more than sufficient for our victory in IRC 2A! Robin and I embrace each other! What a race, what a finale! IRC 2A Fastnet 2015 winner!

This was the last Fastnet with the J/111 Xcentric Ripper, but certainly not our last Fastnet for us as a team. The great teamwork, the magnificent race, and also those beautiful moments in beautiful nature with numbers of dolphins, seals and gannets, we cannot wait!  See you next time with a new J!  Our results- 1st IRC 2A/ 4th IRC 2/ 7th Two-Handed/ 26th Overall IRC!! Amazing.  Thanks from John van der Starre, Robin Verhoef, J/111 Xcentric Ripper.”