Sailing: The Race For The Invisible Line
Whilst still very much a novice in terms of sailing, the Helly Hansen / On the Horizon campaign has thrown me in at the literal deep end. After probably a total of two days actual sailing (and then on small dinghy’s), it was time for a weekend in The Hamble, Southampton for a rather intense few days.
Day one, getting to grips with a 40 foot sailing yacht and learning very quickly to become part of a team and be at one with 9 other strangers. Not just 9 other strangers, but 4 other complete novices, 2 with limited sailing race experience (maybe one or two outings) and three who did seem to remotely know what they were doing. As part of a Helly Hansen crew, we teamed up with Britainna Events and Sailing Logic for the boat and team, bringing together sailors of varying ability under one mast.
After nearly having my head removed by a swinging boom within half an hour, the struggle was very much real, and so was the headache. I was given the task of main sail trim, which meant for the next two days I would be continually winding in and letting out a rope by command (or if I got good enough, off my own back). It was a task of non-stop performing monkey, and even should the boat be at a 60 degree angle, I would still be grabbing on to said winch for dear life. Trying to ensure it was trim to the best possible level. The beauty of main sail trim is you do see a direct correlation between what you do and how the boat reacts. From angle to direction and of course speed.
A long day gave the team a good understanding of what everyone’s role was, both as individuals and as part of the collective. We watched some top class crews and monitored what they were doing at race reference points. Only one cup of a coffee in 10 hours? It must have been tough. But whilst the sun shone and it turned into quite the most beautiful day, it could never prepare for the Sunday and our taking part in two actual races.
Sleeping on a boat was no problem, after that I could have probably slept on the jetty. Though a lack of shower does make a difference! The Sunday was an altogether different day. Overcast with rain and a much more changeable wind sitting anywhere between 15 and 25 knots.
Having a head like an owl and seeing all around is a huge plus and there is always something going on somewhere. The ability to always be aware of the other boats around you – not just in terms of those you are racing but also those in other races or categories who may well be heading directly towards you as they track down their next marker.
Whilst watching sailing on television, it is always quite different to work out who may be leading a race. Teams may be on a different tac or jibe (angle) and seemingly heading in the wrong direction. But get yourself on the right gust and you can easily cut back and inside someone who may have been boats ahead. In places like the Solent, the tide also makes a massive difference. Choosing which side to go across underwater contours can make quite significant speed changes.
However, the most remarkable part of any race, for me at least – is the start. The invisible line between usually the starting boat and a buoy. Whilst many may clamber nearside and look at the tide, you don’t want to be stuck in potential dirty air and get squeezed out. It becomes the most intense (and shortest) game of chess ever. Timing is everything, getting to or on the line just before the hooter sounds. Go too soon and you will be literally turning round to come back and start all over. There are no breaks, there is no slowing down. Too eager and as with most things in life. Everything is over before it starts..
For me though, this was the pinnacle, and I am sure where experience of the local water and who is around you counts dividends. Less than a metre either side of the yacht before the next one is right up alongside you. All jostling for position. To say it was intense would be an understatement. But after that hooter bellows, it’s all go without a breathe. In total each race would last around the hour mark with maybe a half hour gap inbetween to take on some vital food before the next one.
In the end we managed a best place 9th (out of 16) over two races. Which is pretty respectable in my book – we beat some much faster and experienced boats during those races. Up wind was not an issue (which sounds strange), we were quick and could out strip most. Alas, downwind we did struggle. Our in-experienced team meant we were only given the go-ahead to put up the spinnaker (the large coloured sail) once, and as such we lost bags of time. I understand the reasoning, but in any race, you want to do the best you possibly can. And we all knew this was the main reason why we lost time and of course places. Were we safer? Yes, without doubt. But of course that comes at a cost.
Even so, it is easily the most unique and quite exhilarating race experience of my life. From the near wacky races start to manoeuvring your way through literally hundreds of other boats going both down and up wind on similar courses. Being alert at all times to anything and everything.
Through the likes of Sailing Logic, anyone can pretty much pay to get out on a serious sail boat and not only learn the ‘ropes’ as it were, but actually compete in a rather intense race. So intense, I don’t think I have ever felt a rush of adrenaline off a start line quite like it. And if I manage to survive the summer, I will no doubt be back next year and doing it all on my own.
How will we fair come Cowes week? Who knows, but it will be a hell of an exciting and hairy ride in the process.