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TSC members take 700 mile Fastnet race by storm

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Published 20:26 on 2 Aug 2023

Ben Palmer, member at TSC and helm of Thames A Rater "Ulva", and his sailing partner Sam Eversfield, who used to sail on "Lady Jane", recently completed one of the hardest Fastnet races.

An accomplishment of teamwork, persistence, grit and determination, the pair battled three storms across a 700 nautical mile passage from the Isle of Wight to Ireland, finishing in Cherbourg.

Not only did they finish, but they finished well. The pair came in 6th place in the IRC 2 double-hander class and were the first British IRC 2 double-hander to finish. They were the 8th double-hander to finish out of 100 boats, and the 2nd British double hander. And the duo finished 31st in the IRC class overall, out of 358 boats.

This was a lifetime aspiration of Ben, who said: "I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to do, it with one of my best mates and have such fun. It was super hard but we loved every minute.

"I am immensely grateful for Adrian Dyball the owner for the amazing boat Surf who let us race his boat. I can imagine his nerves as we headed out of the Solent into gale-force winds at the start.

"I was in awe by the coastguard that Saturday afternoon and evening, they did so well to deal with multiple incidents at the same time, from yacht sinking, to injuries and dismastings.

"Finally, my teammate Sam was an absolute legend in this race. Sailing this race double-handed is considered mad by many. Sam was amazing the whole race, never stopped smiling even in all the bad weather. We sailed the whole race with grins from ear to ear."

Below is a diary of the race, written by Ben Palmer:

Day 1

We started the race in Cowes, as we pulled off the dock the Coastguard were announcing Gale Force Wind warnings (something I have never faced before). I can honestly say I was really nervous, apprehensive of the conditions but also extremely excited and just wanted to get started.

We managed to get through the start with the other 100 boats on the start line with no incident, the first relief. As we were approaching Hurst Castle at the end of the Solent the wind had really built up to solidly above 30 knots and the rain was lashing our faces. We made a quick decision to turn hard right at Hurst to escape the worst of the sea state (wind against tide) in the Needles channel and managed to find some flatter water under Old Harry rocks in Studland.

The wind was fierce, and it even blew off our wind instruments so we no longer knew how strong or where the wind was coming from (probably a good thing). We were a little over-canvased with a reefed jib and 2 reefs in the mainsail. Boats with storm sails up were faster than us, but we decided against changing sails as that involved going on the foredeck which was like a bucking bronco. We then headed out into the big ocean at Anvil Point. The waves were immense way higher than the 2.5m forecasted in my opinion. The boat was slamming upwind. It was really hard going. We fought on and I remember turning to Sam and saying it can't get any worse than this, 40 knots, 3m waves, stinging rain and little to no visibility. A few hours later Sam turned around and said it can be worse it is now dark! Luckly as we headed into Lyme Bay in the early hours of Sunday morning the wind eased, we were able to shake some reefs out and get some sleep.

I was scared at points in the big winds, mostly for the boat. I was also exhilarated and enjoying the thrill. Definitely felt alive at that moment. Never once did I consider what the hell am I doing. Just focused on keeping us safe and getting the balance right with sailing safely and conservatively, surviving the storm to fight another day.

Day 2

On Sunday morning we had sunshine and nice 20 knots of breeze a complete transformation from the day before. Today was tidying up all the mess inside the boat as all our kit had been in the washing machine. Unfortunately with all the water pouring over the boat, it got very wet down below, the casualties were my phone and pretty much all of Sam's clothes. After a good breakfast, we tacked up around Start Point and headed to the Lizard in 'Champagne Sailing' conditions and were able to catch up on sleep from the day/night before.

Round Lizard at midnight, we had a choice to make, do we go West or East of the exclusion zone at Lands end? We choose East because as we were approaching the Northerly wind had yet to set in.

Day 3

The second storm, as the sun was rising over Cornwall the second storm was brewing, this luckily was not gale force but had some pretty strong winds in it. We rounded the top of the exclusion zone in 30 knots and big waves. As we were rounding our reef 1 line snapped and disappeared in the boom, so we quickly went to Reef 2 which was a good call.

We were then heading straight at the Fastnet Rock 140nm away doing 8 knots, the sun was shining. It was windy but the boat was handling it fine and we were flying. As I saw other boats reduce sail area even further I thought: "Are we pushing it a bit too much?" When Sam popped up from a short rest in the bunk he said: "Ben have you seen that," pointing at a rip forming in the mainsail. We then had to quickly take the mainsail down in 30 knots and big waves. We managed to get it down and onto the boom and strapped down.

What next we were thinking. I could think of 3 options: one. we retire to the Scilly Isles only a few miles away at that point; two, continue and either use the storm main or use the full main in lighter winds and hope it holds; or three, try and repair when conditions improve. We were still doing 8 knots on the jib alone, so decided to keep going and wait for calmer weather. When the weather improved and the boat was now slow on jib alone we managed to get the mainsail off the boom and down below. We luckily had brought a big roll of heavy-duty sail repair tape and managed to use all the tape we had to patch the mainsail. Hot work down below in rolling big seas. Then was the moment to test it. We got the mainsail out, back on the boom and hoisted the full main and the repair held. What a moment of relief. I celebrated with a snack and a snooze.

Then we had a very pleasant upwind medium to light wind sail towards the Fastnet Rock.

Day 4

Day 4 dawned with sunshine and no wind a few miles from the Fastnet Rock off the coast of Ireland. A great opportunity to get all our clothes outside drying in the sun. We managed to sniff the wind out well, put some clothes back on as we got close to the rock and rounded Fastnet around lunchtime. We had a brief moment to reflect on the adventure it took to get to this point, not just the race but the qualification miles it took and our sailing journeys from youngsters. Then we were off, foot to the floor, heading back to the Scilly's. A lovely straightforward night of close reaching in light to medium winds was just what we needed to get some sleep in and rest up.

Day 5

Our game plan was to go close to the Scilly Isles, stay to the east of the Exclusion zone, allowing us to go fast with reaching sails and then quickly head up onto an upwind course to round the exclusion zone before then heading straight for the finish in Cherbourg on a downwind course. As we were approaching the Scilly Isles we slowly became more isolated and there were fewer boats around us. Clearly, everyone else thought differently and was going to the other side of the exclusion zone. When we rounded Bishops Rock of the Scilly's it looked like our game plan worked and we were in the mix with lots of teams.

At the Scilly's, we also checked the weather and saw we were in for a wet and windy night. We got the heavy weather spinnaker up and headed straight for Cherbourg in what started as initially pleasant conditions. Over the course of the afternoon, the weather got worse and worse, the rain came and the wind built. However, the sailing got better and better. This was some of the best downwind heavy-weather sailing I have done. The boat loved these conditions, we were surfing massive waves, hitting sustained 22 knots with massive smiles on our faces.

We tried to get some rest, but lying in your bunk was like a theme park ride gone wrong. The boat was flying and there was so much water noise rushing past your ears. "Like someone had taken a grinder to the boat," Sam said. Towards the evening we were really flying, surfing every wave and massive grins. That was, until the wind went that notch up and we went from in control to not really in control. Time to take the spinnaker down. We managed to manhandle it down in 30 knots, adrenaline pumping through our veins. Sam couldn't sleep building up to the drop as he knew this was going to be tough and we didn't want to catch the kite in the water as that would be a big mess. Sam was a legend on the drop and we nailed it. Then we put up the smaller reaching fore sail and used it as a downwind sail, we were back going fast and in control.

As night approached and the wind was still building, there was no visibility with the rain and we were approaching the shipping lanes, sensibility kicked in and we dropped the reaching sail in the last of the evening light and continued into the night with a small jib and reefed mainsail. The next challenge was passing the shipping lanes, with the boat is flying at 14 knots, without even being able to see the wave in front of you with the driving rain. Sam described it as trying to cross the M25 blindfolded. We managed it, I was glued next to the AIS radar plotter calling out course directions to Sam.

Once through the shipping lanes, we breathed a sigh of relief. However, then we had wind against the strong tides off Alderney. The waves were super steep and you couldn't see them so were sailing completely blind in a washing machine of water. Rounding the point of Cherbourg in the morning dawn, we had a final quick blast into the finish. Finishing at 6:30 am, completely exhausted, soaked to the bone and a bit delirious.

With the rain still lashing down, we managed to slowly tidy up, and have a warm shower and long 4-hour sleep (what a luxury) before getting a well-deserved moule frites and beer.

The race overall

We were super pleased with the result and didn't expect to do that well, just hoping to be in the middle of the fleet in the mix was good enough for us. We were more pleased and completely buzzing by the adventure, firstly finishing the race taking on 3 storms, repairing mainsails and keeping the boat and us together. We both enjoyed the whole race even the tough moments, looked after each other and kept each other going. We forged bonds of shared experience that brought us together. We never complained or got upset and spent the whole race with grins from ear to ear. This experience really brought us together.

It was also incredible experiencing the raw power of mother nature, connecting to the elements. We saw so much wildlife, dolphins continuously, sea birds and phosphorescent algae. In the end I felt completely physically exhausted but completely buzzing mentally.

Asked if I would do it again, the answer was yes, with Sam and double-handed again. Let's see what the next adventure is.

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