The Race was due to start at 1200hrs on Saturday 21st of June but because of severe gale force conditions, much to everyone’s delight, it was postponed for 22hours, which gave us the opportunity to pay a visit to Dun Laoghaire and cast our eyes over some of the opposition, namely ICAP Leopard, which was quite fortuitous, as apart from the start, this would be the only chance we would have to see her close up!
After Saturday’s postponement of the start of the race, nerves really started to jangle in every competitor, as the conditions deteriorated during the day and at 2200hrs that evening, the 10 am start was put back again, to midday Sunday, which eased to tension and anxiety felt by all the competitors. By morning we were recording wind speeds of 35 knots whilst we were tied up in the safety of the sheltered harbour, but ICAP Leopard had set off from her harbour in Dun Lagohaire and was on the way to the start line, so the word was, much to everyone’s alarm – no further postponement the race would definitely start at 12 noon.
The first hurdle was to get off our berth (one which a Volvo 70 didn’t manage to do without putting a hole in her side which forced her retirement even before the start.) Once outside the harbour we were hit by a steady 40 knots plus, but managed to get the main up with two reefs in and steer clear of some of the crewed boats which were wildly out of control, we went for a late but safe start.
The first leg down to Tuskar Rock was manic, beating into heavy seas gusting 45 to 50 knots until one wave lifted the anchor out of its locker taking the lid with it and smashing down and holing the bottom of the anchor locker, allowing water to the inside of the boat, which went unnoticed until Emma went below and exclaimed ‘the cabin sole is awash!’ Initial thoughts were it could have been the recently installed paddle wheel for the speed log, which along with all the other instruments had already decided to take and early retirement! After ripping up the floor we realised it was coming in through the anchor locker, Pete struggled forward to the foredeck to try and lash the anchor lid back down, but forgot to take his shower gel and snorkel, but he did say the water was quite warm!!
We then spent the next 3 or 4 hours bailing water out of the boat, Emma who is not great at being below in heavy weather not only emptied the bucket over the side but also her lunch! An early evening rounding of Tuskar Rock saw conditions ease as we tacked our way along the southern coast of Ireland and made our way to the Fastnet Rock. Monday was a beautiful sunny day which gave us chance to put on dry clothes and an opportunity to dry all our wet ones and also seal the anchor locker with gaffer tape.
All that day the VHF kept giving warnings of gale and severe gales arriving during the night. The sky was so blue and sea so calm it was hard to believe what was to come.
The next small drama we had, was when we tried to start the engine to charge the batteries…… dead…..nothing…zilch. Pete disappeared into the engine compartment and after casting a few spells and swear words over the engine, she decided to start.
Sure enough the gale arrived and the seas started to build. The last reef went in the main and the jib was rolled away as we started to surf down the growing Atlantic rollers, dead down wind. Ruffian was in her element as she sped off at constant speeds well over 10 knots, her hull vibrating, sliding first one way and then the other as she surfed off the waves, on the very edge of control, water cascading down her often, submerged decks, occasionally filling the cockpit, only putting extra pressure on the now, very nervous and exhausted helm.
To our horror, we spotted that the main sail head board sliders and a couple below that, had become detached from the mast. We pressed on regardless but now with the added worry of what would happen if we completely lost the power that our sail provided, would we be tossed around like a rag doll uncontrollably in the ever increasing seas and wind? (whilst we had no instruments to measure the wind fellow competitors in the near vicinity later told us they had constantly recorded wind speeds of 50 to 55 knots plus and a recording from a local wave buoy gave a wave height of 8 meters).
The wind and subsequently the waves were slowly changing direction to the West, causing very confused seas and our thoughts and chat, wandered back to the stories you hear about the 79 Fastnet Race. We had just passed the rocky shores of the Dingle peninsular and in truth our nerves were very much on edge.
Our last opportunity for the next 120 miles to seek cover in the lee of the land to repair the main was about to be passed and a decision was made to change course and reach for the shelter of land, a decision which put us beam on to the huge seas which were now becoming very confused and although we felt very safe in Ruffian, steering was becoming quite hard and the cross waves broke and slipped under her hull with the occasional one sweeping across the deck, filling the cockpit and knocking us off our feet, providing much amusement to the one which wasn’t on the helm, trying to regain control! At one point as we came off a wave, it was looking down off the top of a mountain. The visibility was very poor and looking behind Emma saw what she first thought was a big yacht but shooting downstairs to check on the AIS saw it was a big tanker which was struggling to head into the gale, fortunately away from us as we could only see him when we both on the top of the waves.
We made for a natural harbour called Smethwick where the intention was to drop the main, repair it, have a hot meal and continue on our way. Although the water was flat in the bay the wind was still very strong funnelling down the mountains. Pete managed to make a temporary repair to the sail and we were getting ready to return to the fray when the VHF came through with a new severe gale warning and the outlook for the next three days giving variations of gale to severe gale.After a lot of heart searching and tears (Emma’s not Pete’s) we made the decision to retire. Common sense told us this was the right thing to do, but our dreams were devastated. As we were trying to work out where to go for more shelter we got a call from fellow competitors, Rob and Tim on Star Dancer (two round the world yachtsmen) to say they had already retired and were in fact only 20 miles away in a sheltered marina called Fenit, so we decided to make for there.
The next two days were spent soul searching and questioning whether we had made the right decision – but it is very easy to question yourself when you are tied up safely in a sheltered marina.The most devastating thing, though, was to read on the BMW website, Ruffian DNF.
This was, without doubt, our toughest race to date, the shortest way around an island is quite simply, as close as you dare go to the shore line and this course, probably aided our down fall. Discretion is the better part of valour as they say and we live to fight another day but this time with the added experience we have gained.