Fastnet 2017 – Blog Episode 4 (A New Hope?) – First Training Sail!

Chichester Harbour, Itchenor Reach, just before noon.  There’s a south westerly force 3, the sun is shining on a beautiful spring morning and the Sail Boat Project Fastnet 2017 crew are together on our boat, Jalapeño, for the first time.  We’re tacking down the channel to the harbour entrance trying to avoid the Saturday morning dinghy racers as they zip around with spinnakers flying.

“Hmm, it’s not that wide, this channel”, I muse as I take the helm from Trevor for the first time.  I glance at the depth meter – 6m, OK.  I have a look around and notice we’re approaching a channel marker buoy.  “Get ready to tack!” I shout and the crew slips into its routine, impressively slick after just a few minutes on the water together.

I want to hold this tack for as long as possible and look for the depth meter again.  Dammit, there’s someone in the way – the cockpit is quite crowded with everyone on deck for our first sail.  I ask him to move and … 1.5m!  “READY-ABOUT-LEE-… oh.”  Jalapeño gently comes to a stop on the soft Chichester mud midway through the tack.  We back the genoa and, with a little nudge from the engine, we’re free.  “Nice of you to take the pressure off the rest of us” Mark quips as we set off down the channel again.

There’s a lot to learn.  And not just about the boat or sailing or navigation.  13m by 4m is not a big space for 9 middle-aged men to share for a week.  NINE middle-aged men?!  Yes, we’ve been joined by James, who’s also sponsoring our adventure through his recruitment company BRS Global.

Fortunately, we’ve all spent a lot of time on boats, most of us know at least one other person reasonably well and – as Mark showed earlier – everyone has a ready sense of humour.  Dhara, first mate and one of Sail Boat Project’s founders, links us all together: Luke, Phil and Woody have done half a dozen Round-the-Island races with Jason, our skipper, and are old school friends.  Mark has known those 3 lads for some years and he and Luke know James through Brighton Surf Life Saving Club, Brighton Sailing Club and some crazy masochistic keep-fit thing called Spartan.  Trevor’s been helping Jason rebuild one of his boats for some time and did a lot of electrical work on Jalapeño.  It turns out I went to the same school as Luke, Phil and Woody, a few years ahead of them, and we have friends in common, and I’ve known James for years – we once tried to sail round an island in the North Sea in Hobie 16s but 4m waves got the better of us …  Only Phil and Woody were missing this weekend, as they were on a rugby tour with their sons.

So, the sailing.  We gathered at Itchenor on a gloriously sunny April morning and spent the first couple of hours familiarising ourselves with the boat basics – safety equipment, sails, engine, galley and heads.  Once out of the harbour, we set about building ourselves into a well-oiled machine, starting with learning how to change the genoa.  We had three on board (plus the storm jib), the biggest a huge 145%, and hoisted and stowed all three several times during the weekend.  We took turns on the helm, with Dhara coaching us on buoys, landmarks and underwater hazards as we made our way west into the Solent between the Forts, and Jason giving us tips on sail trim.

As the sun set and the wind dropped, Dhara helped us identify ships and buoys by their lights and we made our way gently into Cowes, very eager for some hearty refreshment!  The food and drink did their job and Jalapeño rocked gently through the night to a chorus of basso profundo, baritone and tenor snoring …

Fully refreshed we awoke to a just-boiled kettle as Luke took on the role of principal morning tea-maker.  Not long afterwards we were heading east past Ryde, hoisting the spinnaker and trying to work out how on Earth we supposed to gybe the thing.  20 minutes is OK in daylight, force 1-2 wind and a flat sea, but in the middle of the night in a gale and Atlantic swell?  We’ll need a bit of practice …

The wind dropped to barely a whisper as we completed our man-overboard drills and approached the entrance to Chichester Harbour, so we treated ourselves to another of Dhara’s fabulous lunches as we dropped the sails, motored back to Itchenor and reflected on a fun and educational weekend.

Next stop – our first Fastnet qualifying race!  Time to do it for real.  3 days and 160 nautical miles.  It’s the De Guingand Bowl Race on Friday 12th May – may the Force be with us!

ISAF flare picture

Fastnet 2017 – Blog Episode 3 – Meeting the Crew & Sea Survival Training



I spin round and catch sight of the flames starting to blaze in the corner just a few feet away from me.  Everyone’s shouting; alarms are blaring.  It all melts into a single disorientating racket.  I can’t think straight.  It’s getting hotter.  What do I do now?  Who’s doing what?  Where’s the fire extinguisher?  Is it the right type?  How does it work?  It’s getting really hot now.  “JOHN!  HAVE YOU SHUT OFF THE ENGINE?!”  Er …


Ross from Vortec Training takes pity on us and opens the door, allowing us to escape into the cool, fresh spring air.  He puts out the fire and turns off the alarms.  We breathe more calmly and try to think about what’s just happened.

All of us in the crew have spent quite a lot of time on boats of various sorts, in difficult conditions at times, and have had to deal with incidents and emergencies in different situations, yet we would have lost the boat and perhaps some of the crew if that had been for real.  We’d met each other briefly a couple of hours before, exchanged greetings and had an introduction to the course.

Ross then took us to the simulator – codenamed Pressure Cooker – and explained the controls and what was about to happen.  But he’d only explained it once.  And we hadn’t drilled it.  This was one of the themes of the weekend.  Practise as much as you can the things you can practise so they become automatic.  Do them again and again and make sure everyone can cover different roles.  This will give you more brain space to think about the situation you’re in.

Because, in an emergency, there are very few “in this situation, do this” rules.  But there are guiding principles, aids to prioritisation.

We’ve just spent a weekend on an ISAF/RYA Offshore Safety/Sea Survival course run by Vortec Training in Port Solent.   On Saturday, James, our trainer, focused on what you can do to avoid forfeiting the race and get the boat home still afloat with all crew on board – hence the fire-fighting training, as fire is one of the most serious hazards on a boat.  We examined races and events where, tragically, lives were lost, and from which important lessons have been learned.  One of these was the 1979 Fastnet, after which many improvements in safety equipment were made.  Another was the 1998 Sydney-Hobart, which highlighted the importance of training – not just having the equipment, but knowing how to use it, and more generally what to do when things turn against you. In both of these races some boats finished, battered but intact.  They weren’t the biggest boats, but they were the best prepared.

On Sunday we looked at what to do if you can’t get your boat home.  The first thing is – stay with the boat as long as possible!  It’s your best liferaft.  When do you abandon ship?  Only when you have absolutely no other choice.

What would we want to take with us on a liferaft if we had to abandon ship?  What would we expect to find already on a liferaft?  How much space is there to take all the stuff we’d like?  (Answer – not a lot!)  How can we be best prepared to make sure that we can get our hands on everything we’d need?  And if we could only take a few things, what would they be?

What are our priorities?

PROTECTION (shelter, warmth) – LOCATION (be found) – WATER – FOOD.

How long will you survive if you’re immersed in water?  3 hours at 15OC.  If you’re lucky.  3 minutes at 5OC.  If you’re very lucky.

What does my PLB do?  Is it AIS or EPIRB?  What do these TLAs mean?!  Flares.  Hold the cold end!  Read the instructions well before you need the flare.  Be familiar with your equipment.

We learned the Survival Rule of Three: 3 weeks without food, 3 days without water, 3 minutes without air.

We ended the day in the pool, getting very familiar with each other climbing in and out of a four-person liferaft (it’s tiny!).

It might never happen but … if it does, I’ll be glad I did the training … again.  I first did the course 5 years ago and I realise how much I’d forgotten, or never really taken in.  It was also a good intro to the rest of the crew – Jason, Dhara, Luke, Mark, Phil, Woody and Trevor – I’m sure they’ll have my back if I need them.