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News 2000
News 1999

Fastnet Folie

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 would I.

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 completely different.

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 also invited.

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 me that.

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 sleeping.

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 the boat.

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.

We 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.

Copyright © London Corinthian Sailing Club, 11 Sep 2001