‘SPIRIT OF ISIS’ The Results!

05 October 2009

Twenty-one strangers come together to take on one of the Worlds toughest sailing challenges and to raise an amazing amount of money for charity (Sail 4 Cancer).  Below is crew member John McKinnon’s report of how they got on.

After an inspiring talk from Brian Thompson (skipper last year of Open 60 Pindar for the Vendee Globe single-handed round the world race) our Fastnet campaign began on a sunny Saturday afternoon in June. Drifting around in the shipping lane, mid-Channel in zero visibility is a surprisingly good way to bring 21 strangers together, so we decided to do it a few more times over the next few weekends and before we knew it we’d covered over 700 nautical miles and had become masters in fog navigation!

By the time our merry, if slightly bleary eyed band set off on the sunny morning of Sunday 9th August, we felt fully prepared to take on whatever was thrown at us. Although, if we’d known the contents of the freeze dried food bags, especially the ‘sweet and sour’ (we didn’t even know what was in it even after we’d eaten it) then I’m not sure if some of us wouldn’t have chosen to stay on the jetty!

But we don’t leave our people behind, and it was with a full compliment that we shot over the start line under full spinnaker at exactly 13:20. Being such a well honed crew on Spirit of Isis, we were in the last group to set off and were soon making ground on the earlier starters. Full wind in our sails, heeling to port or starboard, we were in contention to embarrass Leopard! Then – DISASTER!!!!

We lost the wind close to shore, about 1km to the north of Yarmouth and there was no amount of chicken curry that could assist us. We just needed to get into the strong tide to the south but Poseidon was curled up watching the Eastenders omnibus or something, so we all bobbed around in the sunshine, slapping on sun cream. We steadily edged our way south with the rest of our class and then fortunately Poseidon must have switched off the telly. Mainsheets strained and Isis flew.

The huge crowd gathered on Hurst Castle spit was there just for us of course, even if it was for only a moment. With the fleet bunched together and The Needles in sight, the anticipation, excitement and delight of the crew was palpable. Now we were truly on our way, with the vast Atlantic stretching out southwards toward our next goal, Lizard Point.

A few hours later, we found ourselves and the majority of the rest of the fleet once again bobbing around on a mill pond with a glorious red sunset to calm our frustration. The tide helped us no further as we were swept backwards almost 5 miles before we surrendered and had to put 150m of anchor down. Toward 03:00 the wind began to lift and our skipper began plotting a careful and tactical race along the south shore of England, hugging the coast to make the most of wind and tide. The wind continued to lift. Within hours we felt like we were truly back in the Fastnet Race and as we arrowed along the south coast, none of us would have preferred to have been anywhere else.

Spirit of ISIS FastnetRounding Land’s End in the dark, we made our way west, eyeing up the competition and trying to learn, via a couple of text messages from family and friends, whether our sister boats Juno and Minerva were behind or ahead of us. We wanted to beat those guys most of all! The second night turned into day and as the rest of the fleet continued west, our crafty skipper Dave Watson (‘What-Ho!’) chucked in a right turn and we tacked away from the main body of the fleet, heading north for several hours accompanied by a pack of dolphins.

One more turn north east put us on a direct course with The Rock and unlike the rest of the fleet to our west, we had found the wind! We put the 2nd reef in the mainsail and turned across the Irish Sea. We ran upwind with 20 to 25 knots on headsail no.1 (‘The Gimp’) with approx. wind angle 15 to 20 degrees making boat speed of 8 to 9 knots, with the freeze dried food producing a greater amount of chemical warfare than gourmet sustenance. But the bacon butties and Snickers bars were sublime.

On the third morning at 05:30 we rounded The Rock. The Fastnet Rock was covered in mist, so much so that her light could hardly get through. But her foghorn was loud and clear and as we approached to within 200 metres the circling, swishing light swept across our sails. We were all awake and on deck and as we circled around we all glared, mesmerised, into the crystalline lens of the lighthouse. It was actually quite surprising that we didn’t crash into the competition, as four or five others were rounding with us at the same time!

For certain, it was far more mystical than any of us had expected it to be. After rounding The Rock we hoisted the midweight spinnaker and off we went downwind. Up came the sun, and although the mist remained, the emotion and excitement on board was tangible, firstly because we had now rounded The Rock and were running for home and secondly the downwind course was much more comfortable after 3 days on the rail, banging upwind!

The fun continued on board, with plenty of spinnaker peeling both during the day and at night. We saw more dolphins. We also had some collateral damage to fight against as one of the toilets became blocked! The skipper even had to fix the toilet door which came off its hinges during an awkward manoeuvre by one of the crew! Also, the Gimp tore open 10 inches about halfway up and refused to be raised in its track without tearing along the front edge. After a little stitching anda few kind words it decided to come out to play again, although we had to be very careful when hoisting.

Fastnet SailorsThe no.2 water tank got contaminated with salt water, (discovered only following a couple of mugs of salty tea and coffee for each of us), so we got fairly low on drinking water. One of the greatest boosts to moral at this time was definitely a couple of slabs of homemade double chocolate brownies provided by a kind friend, Orla Eliot, and she deserves special thanks. We surfed down to the Scillies, during which time we saw up to 14 knots of boat speed. During our time in the Irish Sea, we had little to no idea of our position in the fleet. We were very much under the impression that we must be near the back as we came across very few of our competitors.

However, once again as we approached Land’s End we were blighted by low winds. As the boat speed dropped, we scrambled in the dark to peel down to the lightweight spinnaker, which then stayed with us to the finish line. A few more jybes in the midday sun and we made it into Plymouth before the wind died completely. A speedboat approached with a welcome committee of RORC angels bearing an ice-cold pack of Fosters. I’ve never enjoyed (and probably never will again) a can of Fosters as much as that one – mmmm – the amber nectar!

We had started at 13:20 Sunday in Cowes and crossed the finishing line at 14:56 Thursday in Plymouth after 4 days 1hr 36min. We came 37 over the line out of 300.

Two nights of mayhem followed in Plymouth! We partied hard until 08:00 Saturday morning and then took off back to Portsmouth under spinnaker, a fine mist of alcohol streaming behind us. We arrived Sunday morning 03:00 by which time the port toilet had also, unsurprisingly, finally blocked.

The crew all agree that is was the best race and sailing experience we have ever had. We went from being a bunch of strangers to becoming a band of brothers (with one hilarious big sister). The emotion at the finish line was, for some of us, overwhelming. For others, the beer had much the same effect. From the Royal Yacht Squadron at Cowes to the teardrop of Ireland, this was a most memorable trip, and we are all grateful to have shared it with such good companions and to have had your support throughout.

The last word must come from our skipper Dave Watson (‘What-Ho!’):

“The Fastnet was a race that has been on all of our list of things to do for a long time. It was an unforgettable experience to share with a great crew who were all willing to take the challenge on and share the experience of completing one of the world’s great races. I have got many great memories of the race, and will be constantly reminded of them every time I look at the mug (an engraved tankard presented by the crew) – or drink from it.  I hope we can do it again sometime, or maybe even the great race of the Southern Hemisphere” (Sydney – Hobart)

Sail 4 Cancer would like to add their heartfelt thanks and congratulations to all the team for their brilliant efforts – not only in the sailing, but also for the amazing amount of funds raised in the process. Thank you!

You can watch the crew’s YouTube video of the event here >


‘SPIRIT OF ISIS’ The Results!
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