By Richard Houghton
As some of you know Act of Defiance is a busy boat and the mast having got
slightly peeved at all this hard work decided to opt for pastures new. On
the first day of Cowes it made it's great escape and snapping it's shackles
the mast and sails briefly fluttered like a butterfly before doing a belly
flop into the Solent.
Having a yacht without a mast is like having a groom without his tackle and
thus the impending marriage of Act of Defiance and the Fastnet race was suspended
when a member of the congregation namely the RORC said "He can't marry boat
and race cause he's got no mast" and to be honest if I was the bride I wouldn't
want to get married when there was no chance of a consummation.
I returned home the next day with chin on chest and feet dragging along the
floor feeling like a dispossessed refugee kicking any tin can I could find
while chanting obscenities. Having entered the house I sat and ate a cold
tin of baked beans and watched Coronation Street, so that I could really feel
sorry for myself.
The next day I started to receive phone calls from friends and strangers
alike offering me all sorts of offers to do the race which didn't involve
being a cabin boy, but still feeling rather forlorn I declined them all. I
told myself that as this was my sixth Fastnet as a skipper I would find it
difficult to get on another boat that wasn't as exciting as Act of Defiance,
and after all I owed the boat my loyalty and if she couldn't do it neither
Feeling quite alone and defiant "man and boat " "boat and man together against
the world'ish" I settled down to take stock and had another tin of cold baked
beans when the phone rang. Some 24 hours later I was tactician and watch leader
aboard a French water ballasted maxi yacht called La Folie des Grinders. On
the basis that it was a French boat and the extent of my French amounted to
"un beer please" I dragged Dawn Saunders along to act as interpreter.
We met the skipper Pascal who explained that the boat only had 6 crew plus
a non-sailing cameraman and he needed someone who knew the race and the Solent.
I promptly declared that I knew the Solent better than a cat knew it's privates
and I would be pleased to do the race with him. He clearly had some difficulty
understanding this description, at which point Dawn stamped on my foot and
said something completely different to him in French. An hour later we caught
the water taxi and went out to the boat, which was on one of the moorings
outside the Squadron.
Now I have sailed on a few boats and had some experiences but this boat was
a leviathon and the topsides were so far from the water you needed ropes and
crampons to climb on. Some 87 feet long with a 97 foot mast and triple water
tanks along each side carrying some three tons of water ballast this wedge
shaped aluminium, carbon fibre state of the art monster was indeed something
Based on his lack of understanding of my questions and constant referrals
to Dawn to explain what I meant and then listening to his explanation with
a gormless look on my face, persuaded him that Dawn would be a useful person
to have along and thus once she had explained her sailing CV to him she was
We were shown to our British living quarters and became known from that night
on as the British team. Also onboard were his wife, daughter and another guy
and a family friend, which formed the entire crew.
The next day we left the mooring early to prepare for the race. I wasn't
quite sure why we did leave so early until all three guys took half an hour
to winch the mainsail up the mast and the boat took off like a ballistic missile.
We sailed around a bit and then went for the line at 5pm well after all the
other boats had started and soon we were powering down the Solent in blustery
conditions. It was only at this point that Pascal sucked in the water ballast
and the boat started sailing as flat as a surfboard at 12 knots. While he
helmed I stood by his side whispering into his ear about when to tack and
it was only at this point he mentioned to me that I had to tell him to tack
a minute before I should do so that he could transfer the water ballast from
one side to the other.
In that instant my heart froze and the baked beans started to take effect
because I could see that we were almost at the point of powering through the
class 2 and 3 fleets and I had to tell him when to tack a minute before we
tacked so in real terms it became two minutes before the tack happened. Have
you ever watched a packed moving fleet of race boats and tried to calculate
where other boats will be in two minutes as well as your own 87-foot monster
travelling at a much higher speed and scaring everyone to death?
In any event we managed to stay out of trouble and once outside the Solent
we powered offshore into clear water and started to relax into the race and
I took time to absorb the awesome power of this machine. Powering along sitting
flat at 16 knots the waves hit the hull and disintegrated into almost a constant
stream of water pellets that stung your eyes and the soft tissue of you eyelids.
Looking forwards was almost like trying to look at a power showerhead on full
flow and I bitterly regretted not bringing some form of goggles. After the
first day despite copious amounts of waterproof sun cream I burst out in facial
salt-water spots and although I resembled Kevin the teenager no one called
After our first watch I lay in my bunk and although I was indeed very tired
I couldn't sleep because every few minutes the hull juddered to the extent
that I was bounced into the air. Although gifted with an unbelievable ability
to sleep in any circumstances the violent motion also prevented Dawn from
As we lay in our bunks being bounced off the cushions we could hear the screaming
of the aluminium hull (which was undergoing some degree of wave twist) and
it seemed even the most insignificant clunk sent an amplified clang through
Dawn and I decided that it was probably as near as we would get to comprehending
what it must be like to be a mouse in an oil drum going along a fast flowing
river and then concluded that the mouse would have been better off.
Knowing of Dawn's legendary ability to sleep, I still suspected that she
might drift off so I shared my anxiety with her that the keel, which extended
15ft below the hull, could easily fall off and we could drown - and I embellished
this with the statement that the hull creaking was in fact the keel straining
on the retaining bolts. I forgot all about this little ruse until later the
same day and having given it some thought she again raised the issue in the
"what if" type of format and I had to confess to her that I had only told
her that the keel might fall off so that she didn't fall asleep before I did.
Monday night we screamed past Bull rock and the Seven Stones and at that
stage looked good for an early Wednesday morning finish, then 10 miles from
the Fastnet rock itself the wind died to all but nothing and we bimbled along
at 4 knots.
knew that Whirlpool and Solidaire had already rounded the rock and could only
look on with dismay as they powered away from us back towards Plymouth. In
any event we eventually got around both the rock and the Pantaneus buoy and
started back down the Irish Sea towards the Scillies. For a while we had very
little wind but as we moved further south it went from almost nothing to a
little of something and when Dawn and I came on for our watch at 4am I took
the helm with 8 knots true wind speed and a 580 square metre spinnaker and
full mainsail. Within 2 hours it had built to 20 to 24 knots true wind speed
with a boat speed just under 19 knots. The helm was as difficult as trying
to steer an articulated lorry through axle deep mud and with the integrity
of Pascal's £12,000 spinnaker much in my mind, at 6am Dawn went and woke him
up. I must admit when he appeared I felt relieved because I knew I would soon
be able to crash out into my bunk and tend to my aching shoulders but it wasn't
to be. Pascal, quite rightly, decided to take the monster kite down which
took a further hour of him and the other crew wrestling with this 90 foot
snuffed angry Anaconda and me now just under mainsail and drenched in sweat
fighting the helm to keep a straight course.
Well, the Scillies came and went and we entered Plymouth Sound, and eventually
made it over the finish line on Wednesday afternoon just 20 minutes after
Solidaire. I think the most striking memories I have of the boat is the incredible
and sometimes frightening power that these machines are capable of producing.
In 20 knots of wind a flogging sheet on Act of Defiance can be unpleasant
if it strikes your forearm. On La Folie des Grinders it would break your forearm
and that's the difference. Everything was heavy and took a long time and it
did make me appreciate how incredible the achievement of Ellen Macarthur really
is. But the person I felt sorry for was Stuart the official cameraman who
had been put onboard to film for TV. The poor soul lost his camera to a wave
after only 40 minutes, which I must say was a great relief to us all. It seemed
to me that during the muck and bullets and tension of the post start Fastnet
yacht filled Solent that every time I turned around I had Stuarts camera pointing
at me from a distance of a mans interpretation of 6 inches. I think him rather
fortunate, because but for the fact that it may have appeared on channel 4
after 9pm I would gladly have shoved Stuarts camera up his kyber.
Overall a fantastic experience, and the icing on the cake was that Pascal
asked us if the British team would be interested in joining him for future
long distance record attempts.
Quite a compliment to Dawn and the club really when you consider that Dawn
only started offshore racing when she joined me for the Fastnet in 1999.