Yacht Racing

15 04 2009

Before I even started working in Europe, my new boss had me lined up for a yacht race to Ibiza. I’m not sure what his motivation in inviting me was: simply being friendly, wanting to ‘bond’, or desperately needing crew. Since I was (and still am) a useless sailor, I hope it wasn’t the last.

But I’m up for almost anything, at least once – so of course I jumped at the offer. This is a pretty big race: The Ruta de la Sal (the salt road – something to do with salt being desperately needed in Barcelona in 1846). It was a while later I found out they were dead serious about winning the race (on handicap, of course). “They” morphed into a crew of six very experienced sailors. Experienced, as in: four of them (currently) own a racing boat, one lives on a boat, and the other basically grew up on a boat. And they were mostly Dutch, flying in specifically for the race.

Right. I was suddenly a little out of my depth.

But hey, I was here. I’m fit, able and pretty intelligent, I can help out somehow, surely! Well, it turns out I can’t. I tried, I learnt most of the ropes/sheets/guys and roughly what they were used for, but I was simply inexperienced. So during the race itself, my most useful function was to keep out of everyone’s way, and put my body in the most advantageous position to help the balance of the yacht. Ie, go sit over there, out of the way. In all fairness, everyone did all they could, when they could, to include me in the operation of the boat. But the winds were extremely light for most of the race, which meant it was important to make changes very quickly to get the most out of the winds.

The boat has all the technology, a tactical computer, weather station, GPS. Four different sources of weather forecast. Each weather forecast uses a different model, and is slightly different. The computer calculated two optimal routes (based on different weather models) and guess what? We followed the one that dumped us into a patch of calm weather. Several times. Which is fine, if everyone has the same conditions. Apparently a short distance to the west there was wind. The crew got somewhat frustrated at having to work very hard all night to keep the boat moving. I found it quite relaxing. Sitting on the side of a yacht goodness knows where in the Mediteranian Sea, working on my tan by day, dozing on deck at night.

So some of the other boats got wind and we didn’t. So we didn’t win, although from what I saw we would have done very well if we had taken the course with wind. Next year: more technology to find the wind while we are out there. I was amazed at times to see the boat move at an angle to, but into the wind, faster than the wind speed. These guys could really sail this yacht.

The only period of wind came right at the end of the race. We had been basically dead in the water, within sight of the finish line, watching Ibiza not get any bigger for about 4 hours. Suddenly the weather changed (as was predicted, but at a different time). The wind swung around to the SW (the direction we were heading) and rose from more or less zero to ‘force 5’; 20 knots or so. Suddenly we needed to get the waterproofs on and hang of the side of the boat to help it stay down.

We left at 0800 on Thursday. Arrived 35.5 hours later on Friday evening. Approx 150 nautical miles. Average speed: around 4.2 kn, or maddeningly slow. No one had a whole lot of sleep, maybe two or three hours each. Even I didn’t, although sitting is not hard, we were constantly tacking, jibing, changing things up to get maximum speed. I probably got more than most. But we were all really beat up when we got into Ibiza – still ahead of a significant portion of the fleet. So we decided to go out for a meal, and then to a night club and dance all night. I mean until 6 am when the club closed.

Well, you know how much of a party animal I am not. But occasionally dancing is fun, so I did. We all got on pretty well, the others in the crew got pretty drunk. But I was surprised at how dead Ibiza was. This was certainly not the party capital I was expecting! It turns out that April is off season. Really off, as we found out by the weather. The wind that blew us across the finish line brought a storm, and it was crappy weather all the rest of that day and the next. So there were no tourists, a few locals, and no party goers. I’ll have to go back and scope it out later in the year. Or not.

So Saturday we slept. Until some ungodly hour, like 11am, when we had to get up to eat. We then made a few minor repairs to the yacht, restocked the larder and got things ready for the return to Barcelona. Getting there is only half the fun! The award presentation was on Saturday night, we had a small amount of excitement when we realised a boat ahead of us maybe wasn’t playing by all the rules and we could raise a challenge, which was dashed when we found out the time for challenges had long gone. So, for now, we have settled for 2nd in class, and 8th overall. From 150 entries. Still a damn good effort. I can say this because I didn’t really help (and I hope that I didn’t slow the boat).

During the awards presentation/feeding session, comments were made about the storm kicking up in the Med. Some discussion about 35 knot winds and 2-3 m waves. Before we set out, the crew scared the pants off of me by suggesting that I really should take the ferry back to Barcelona. Why me? Why not everyone? Was I especially likely to get into trouble? Was someone calling me soft? Needless to say I would have taken the ferry had I been ordered to, but not because of a bit of wind. Or should I? Was that wind really as bad as they were telling me?

Well, it turns out we managed to miss both of the storms. One passed to our east, the other out west. It took only 24 hours to get back (remember 36 hrs to get there). And we did it, essentially in one long tack. I think we tacked maybe 3 times, and changed sails once (dropped the storm genoa) in the whole trip, and generally got thrown around the boat. The seas weren’t all that huge, but in a 35 foot yacht, 2 meter waves will make everyone wet. The wind only got to 25 knots (which is still fairly respectable in my book). I can only imagine I would have preferred to be in the ferry if it ever got to the predicted 35-40knots (which I now know is a gale – ie walking is difficult).

But we survived. The wet weather gear I borrowed was certainly past it’s prime – I spent 24 hours in dampness, so I escaped below deck after about 2am on the trip back, when we were resonably certain we’d missed the really bad weather.

Next time: Get good wet weather gear. Take a book for the long periods of calm weather boredom. Have some sort of function in the crew.

I took some photos if you are interested.



2 responses

16 04 2009

“we would have done very well if we had taken the course with wind”… Now there is some fantastic philosophy…. Glad you had a good race mate but just sorry that you could’ve done the distance in just one “serious” days riding…. I am still extremely jealous though.

20 04 2009

Yeah, philosophy. Not my major. Well spotted.
Did I write that about a days riding? I certainly thought it. It’s just slightly difficult to ride across the Mediterranean Sea. I’ll have a chat to Moses and see what we come up with.

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