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Night of the long grinds

Rob Hodgetts | 14:21 UK time, Friday, 14 August 2009

Looming out of the darkness, the black boat crept up on us.

Like a pirate ghostship, our nemesis emerged silently, stealthily from the mist when we were least expecting it.

For two-and-a-half days we had managed to keep her at bay. But in the Irish Sea, she reeled us in. Now it was a dogfight to the finish.

We were sailing back from the Fastnet Rock off southern Ireland in the 608-mile Fastnet yacht race, a crew of seven young hotshot sailors and me on board 60ft ocean racer Artemis the Profit Hunter.

Starting off Cowes at 1200 BST on Sunday 9 August, we worked hard for position sailing up the Solent in light downwind airs. We passed the famous Needles in fourth place, behind British round-the-world star Samantha Davies on our sistership Artemis II, celebrated Frenchman Seb Josse on BT and big-name Kiwi Mike Sanderson on Pindar.

Leaving the Solent in the Fastnet Race

An encouraging start, and our 33-year-old skipper Simon "Lovely" Clay took us out to the south east in search of more wind to get a slingshot west.

"We're in the glamour here boys," he said as the plan looked to be paying dividends.

But racing to beat the adverse tide around Portland Bill the wind went light and shifty and we lost touch with the leading pack. Another of Britain's leading yachtswomen Dee Caffari on Aviva, as well as Akena and Safran, also went through. But we were still ahead of the well-known Alex Thomson on Hugo Boss. There was a friendly rivalry there, and scores to settle.

In the early evening we ate a freeze-dried meal and then settled into the watch system. Three hours on - driving the boat at maximum speed, tacking or gybing, changing sails, keeping an eye on the opposition; three hours off - slumping into a bunk in the black, stripped-out carbon interior.

Sleep, to begin with anyway, doesn't come easily with the crashing, groaning, creaking and banging of a boat slogging upwind. The first wake-up call defies belief. That can't be three hours already.

Into Monday we passed Plymouth, Falmouth and Land's End and by evening we were leaving the Scilly Isles to port.

Sunrise over the Irish Sea

On watch at 0500 on Tuesday we witnessed a spectacular sunrise over the Irish Sea in perfect sailing conditions. Hard to believe this was the stage for the tragic 1979 disaster when a furious storm led to the loss of 15 lives.

Race record holder Leopard, a 100ft monster, flew past us on her way back, followed by the leading Open 60s - Artemis II, BT and Pindar.

We rounded the rock in seventh at 1413 BST on Tuesday and were soon hoisting the spinnaker, unleashing 370 sq m of downwind power.

Hugo Boss was still visible in the distance but 15 miles behind.

"There's no way they'll be able to do 18 knots in 12 knots of breeze like this," said crewman Olly Young, who had sailed with Thomson.

We relaxed and enjoyed the ride, everyone up on deck, spirits high as we surfed along, trying to get her over 20 knots.

"We've had 25 knots out of her," said watch leader Mikey Ferguson. "It's like skimming along a bed of stones. The adrenaline rush is the same as driving a car really fast, except that things can go very wrong, very quickly."

In race mode the spinnaker has to be played to keep it filling. This means a trimmer easing the sheet in gusts to avoid us being knocked over and another man on the winch, hauling the sheets back in to refill the sail.

Added to the noise of the sea rushing beneath the boat there's a constant dialogue between trimmer and grinder.

"Trim...hold, trim...hold, trim...big grind here... ok, hold that."

The helmsman and trimmer have to concentrate hard but for the grinders it's bursts of intense, physical effort.

"This is going to be a long night," said Olly.

Rounding the Fastnet rock

We raced onwards towards the Scilly Isles, the routine punctuated by bursts of banter, treats of chocolate and a freeze-dried evening meal.

Going off watch at 2000BST I slunk into my bunk arms pumping from the effort of grinding. But three hours later, as we dressed to go back on deck, Mikey broke the bad news. "Hugo Boss is just there," he said and pointed out the window.

The Profit Hunters had been hunted.

"It happened about an hour go. We just saw this glow start to appear behind us. I still can't believe it," added Mikey.

Lovely's reaction was less printable, but watch leader Andy Tourell said: "This should give us an extra bit of motivation."

We poured ourselves into keeping the boat sailing at maximum speed in the best direction possible.

The placing in the race didn't matter so much, but Thomson's would be a notable scalp.

The wind was up and down, between about 10 to 18 knots. When it was stronger they surged forward, in the light stuff we clawed our way back.

"We're match-racing in Open 60s," laughed Lovely. "Come on, little boat."

By dawn Boss had pulled ahead, but the lead was not insurmountable and we enjoyed a brief renewal of hope when they gybed short of Falmouth and sailed way out to the south.

Artemis the Profit Hunter could sail closer to the wind under spinnaker so we could possibly travel a shorter course and eat into their lead.

Unfortunately, it didn't work out. Boss hooked into a band of pressure and the wind direction changed to knock us off course.

Back in shorts and T-shirts for the first time since the first day, we crossed the line an hour behind them in eighth at 1413BST on Wednesday, a time of three days two hours.
~From left to right: Sam Goodchild, Ben Rogerson, Oscar Mead, Mikey Ferguson, Rob Hodgetts, Andy Tourell, Simon Clay, Olly Young
"It's disappointing not to have beaten Hugo Boss but we did well to be up with the leading pack for so long," said Lovely. "It's an eight-year-old boat competing against the brand new breed of Open 60s."

The two-handed BT won the Open 60 class in two days 17 hours, while Leopard took line honours in two days 11 hours.

We may have lost the battle with Boss, but we survived the Fastnet unscathed and that's the main thing.

You can read my Twitter feed from the race at

My thanks go to Lovely and his crew for all their help and for making me feel very welcome on my first Fastnet Race.

Artemis the Profit Hunter crew: Simon "Lovely" Clay, Andy Tourell, Mike "Mikey" Ferguson, Olly Young, Sam Goodchild, Ben Rogerson, Oscar Mead


  • Comment number 1.

    Thank you for a great description of what it is like on an ocean race. I have done the China Sea race from Hong Kong to Manila many times and know well the exhilaration, and the frustrations, and the "Oh my God it can't be my turn on watch again this soon" of ocean sailing. Maybe one day I'll get the chance to do a Fastnet or the Sydney to Hobart.

  • Comment number 2.

    Brings back memories.Down here in South Africa we have a similar race based on the Fastnet,it is called the Agulhaus.You start from Royal cape Yacht Club in Cape Town Harbour on Boxing Day and round a marker at Mosselbaai and then sail back to Simonstown to get there before New Year.
    It's a run usually down and a beat back.One year we were leading by miles,carrying too much and went into a "hole" and when the boat came back up we were left with no mast.Jury rigged in.


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