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Fastnet fever takes grip

Rob Hodgetts | 18:53 UK time, Saturday, 8 August 2009

Sleep deprived certainly, soaking maybe, cold probably, possibly hungry and perhaps even a bit scared... sounds a right laugh doesn't it?

What better way is there to spend a few lazy days in August? Beats watching England play cricket anyway. Where do I sign up?

Actually, I already have after bagging myself a spot on a boat in the infamous Rolex Fastnet Race from Cowes to the Fastnet Rock off southern Ireland and back to Plymouth.

I say infamous for good reason - the cavalier attitude is just a front. This is the event that exactly 30 years ago witnessed one of the worst disasters in yacht racing history.

Fifteen sailors died as pleasant summer weather at the start gave way to horrendous storm-force winds and mountainous seas which battered the fleet.

Obviously we don't want that. But nor do we want no wind. It's not called the Slownet is it?

"You must be the only group of people in the UK who want to see a depression," said weather expert Chris Timms at the final pre-race briefing in Cowes.Artemis cockpit

I'm racing on a 60ft yacht called Artemis the Profit Hunter, an Open 60 and the type of boat used in the round-the-world Vendee Globe race among others. Star British yachtswoman Sam Davies is sailing on our sistership, Artemis II.

The Profit Hunter is skippered by 33-year-old Simon "Lovely" Clay and crewed by a crack team of aspiring young professional sailors - Oscar Mead, 19, Sam Goodchild, 19, Olly Young, 21, Ben Rogerson, 25, Mikey Ferguson, 26, and Andy Tourell, 31.

The boat's older than some of the others in the class but "Lovely" reckons there's some scalps to be had. Not least that of Ms Davies.

"It is a race. There's no point in being out there if we aren't trying a bit," he said with a glint in his eye.

I'll let you know how he got the name and just how lovely he is when he's screaming at me to grind harder or get up after a couple of hours' sleep at three in the morning.

Now, I've done a bit of sailing and can tell the pointy bit from the blunt end but I've never raced at night or operated on a watch system.

We'll be doing three hours on, three hours off with three sailors on each watch. As skipper, Lovely will float and I'll try to spend time on both watches.

But as well as the sexy stuff such as finding out what it's like to go fast and surf down waves - at night - I'm also interested in the minutiae.

How, as a notorious early-morning grump, will I cope when I'm woken up for my watch?

"You'll be amazed how quickly you slip into the routine," says Mikey. Reassuring words. But how quick's quick? We've only got a few days.

And what about ablutions? On a stripped-out racer such as Artemis, there's no "heads" (the nautical term for toilet) - it's the old bucket and chuck it method.

But that means doing your number twos in the main cabin, amid slumbering crew, and then wandering past the on-watch to dispose of it. Nice. (I should point out, the term "cabin" rather glams up what is a spartan carbon black hole containing mainly just a computer, some buttons and lots of wires).

Then, for a speccy clown like me, how do ocean racers get their contact lenses in when the boat's bucking like a bronco? In fact, if you're only grabbing sleep in batches of a couple of hours at a time, how often do you change lenses? It would cost a fortune to slip in a new pair of disposables for every watch. But if you just stick with the specs, how do you see without permanent windscreen wipers? Anyway... Artemis cabin

There's other aspects that have always intrigued me. What will we eat? How often? And who will hand me my morning tea?

Only slightly more importantly, there's the question of how do you get on with seven strangers thrust together on a 60ft yacht for three or so days? Do you run out of chat? Do their habits annoy you? Is it actually you driving everyone else mad? Well, we're about to find out. The hard way.

The weather is expected to be light winds (8-13 knots) for the first day or so, with maybe a bit more puff after that, followed by light airs again when a new high moves into position.

"We'll be working our socks off to start with to maintain our boat speed, then it could get a bit more feisty in the Irish sea and hopefully if we round the rock early enough we'll get a good downwind sleigh ride home," said Lovely.

Good. I like toboganning. And I've always liked the idea of offshore racers stepping straight off the boat into the bar for a beer and a steak.

Whether it will be open at 3am is another matter. Whether I'll be able to keep my eyes open is more to the point.

The race for our class of Imoca 60s starts at 1200 BST on Sunday and I'll be Twittering constantly from the boat, coverage permitting (ominously, I lost signal for a spell on the train down from London), so follow our progress here (www.twitter.com/robhodgetts).

You can also track the race here: http://fastnet.rorc.org/2009-fleet-tracking.html. Bare in mind, though, that sometimes boats drop off the tracker for a while. It doesn't necessarily mean we've sunk. And if we have, I'll Twitter about it.

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