The “Storm” Fastnet Race, 1979: Racing with Sir Peter Blake on Condor of Bermuda.
by Chris Windley.
As the smoke rose from the cannon, four of us strained at the linked coffee grinders that drove the drum holding the genoa sheet. It was as though we were winding the boat up to be released across the starting line.
Owing to Peter’s expert manoeuvering, the seventy eight feet of varnished African mahogany that was the hull of Condor of Bermuda crossed the line at the windward end, ahead and above of our rival Kialoa, one of the fastest maxi-raters in the world. In this position we were in control and she would have to fight hard to get through us.
We headed towards the spectator lined shore of Cowes and Kialoa began to employ subterfuge, using thier cunning and knowledge of the rules and tactics to trick us into a mistake.
This continued as we beat our way towards the Needles with long sweeping tacks. We began to sail through the smaller yachts who were short tacking along the island shore in the main stream of the tide. It was better for us to take longer tacks, reducing the number of times that we should have to go about. Every second not sailing forward was time lost and handling thousands of square feet of sail from one side of the boat to the other took time.
Peter had the helm over and slowly Condor turned. Auntie began to slip the genoa sheet; we stood poised, our hands gripping the handles of the coffee grinders, thumbs held tight into the forefinger; they never went the other side of the handle in case something went wrong and the drum began to drive the handles in the opposite direction taking our thumbs with them.
Auntie removed a turn and slipped the sheet, then another as the sail backed and finally threw all the turns of wire off. Those of the crew tending the centre coffee grinders and the bank of winches around the mast dived to the deck and into the wells to escape the snaking whip that was the wire genoa sheet.
On the after coffee grinders we ground so fast that our chests began to burst and we strove to keep up with the handles that seemed to be going faster than the fastest you could drive them. The weight of the huge sail was felt and we changed gear then fought to get the sail in as though our lives depended on it.
We almost made it but had to change to third gear for the last, muscle straining inches. “Good Tack” encouraged the tailor. Four fresh grinders arrived to take our places and we went forward to sit on the weather deck; even in our exhaustion usefully employed as ballast.
So far we had managed to hold Kialoa. Condor was built for the 1977 Whitbread Round the World Race. As such she was of heavier construction than Kialoa. Also Condor’s bow section was fuller than Kialoa’s and this tended to stop her in short, sharp seas. Previously, when the two yachts had met in America, Condor had not been able to beat Kialoa but with the addition of a taller mast giving 10% more sail area and the changes to the stern Condor had shown in the Channel Race and inshore races of Cowes Week that she could hold and beat Kialoa. The Fastnet race was to be the confirmation of this – or not. Condor had a crew of twenty, half of whom were Kiwi’s, who were the permanent crew of the yacht and the remainder were British sailors brought on specially for the race.
The yacht was skippered by Peter Blake, who was the yacht’s permanent skipper and who had sailed around the world in her as mate during the Whitbread. The navigator was Andrew “Spud” Spedding, co-author of the book “Sod’s Law of the Sea” and a character fitted to write such a book as this.
Having held Kialoa tack for tack, we lost her when , whilst going about, the genoa sheet caught under a spinnaker pole. We were feet from the shore when it happened, having just tacked away. There was nothing for it but to go back onto the original tack and free the sheet, despite the danger of hitting rocks. The time it took us to disentangle ourselves allowed Kialoa to get ahead and she lead us out of the narrow Needles Channel.
At 16.20 we were at the Needles fairway buoy. the diaphone droning monotonously, completely unaffected by the hundreds of yachts that were thrashing by. Here a decision had to be made. We had to beat Kialoa who wa tacking towards the mainland shore at that moment. We probably would not do it by following her. Ahead was Portland Bill; when we reached it the tide would be squeezing around it against us at a greater rate than out in mid Channel. Would the wind hold inshore? Would it be greater offshore? The decision made we tacked out. The wind was lighter and we changed to the medium No1 genoa.
We had different genoa’s for set ranges of wind strength from winds as light as breath to hurricanes. The choice of sail called for experience and a critical eye. The medium No1 was set but it did not look nice and we were not moving well. We changed back to the No1 Heavy, not really the right wind range for it but it set better.
The Executive, as Geoff was nicknamed, called the sail trim, shouting for changes in halliard tension, sheet tension, sheeting angle, mainsail track position, pumping “the hydraulics” – the backstay; babystay; kicker – minute adjustments that made the difference between win and lose.
By now the crew had been split into 2 watches of 8: we would work 4 hours on and 4 off for the rest of the race. The off watch went below; the prudent ones straight to thier bunks; the windward ones of course. Just because you are asleep that’s no reason to stop working for more boat speed!! all the windward bunks were full, so we slept on the sails that had been brought from the sail locker forward and piled amidships. All possible weight must be removed from the ends of the yacht where it exerted a turning moment about the centre of gravity.
At 19.22 we were 10 miles SW of St Albans Head, steering a South Westerly course. The oncoming watch ate thier evening meal, prepared by Margaret, who was the permanent cook. here the energy was provided that enabled the crew to go on deck and spend 4 hours driving the boat. It was imperative that the food supply never dried up no matter what the conditions.
At 0300 the Channel Light vessel was abeam. At 0500 we sailed into fog. The radar reflector was hoisted and the fog horn placed near to hand. Minds that had been concentrating on sailing the boat must sacrifice a few moments whilst senses were employed to search for signs of other vessels; watching, listening, even smelling. At 0845, 5 miles SE of Eddystone and we put in a couple of 20 mile tacks that brought us 3 miles due South of Black Head. the visibility by this time was 25 yards. Though we heard shiping from time to time we never saw anything. In the nav room Spud pored over his charts; trying to make his RDF bearings and his DR tie in. He was surrounded by cabinets of electronics that could give him his position to a matter of metres almost instantly but which he was not allowed to use under the rules of the race. Satellite Navigation;Omega;Loran Charlie – all useless. His only modern nav aid was RDF. Unable to take bearings from the nav room he took it on deck – the only one allowed to take his weight forward of the mast when we were not changing sails.
The fog began to lift. Peter, ever watchful and experienced, appeared with the sextant. The sextant sight and DF bearings gave the semblance of a position. At 1605 we estimated that we were 3 miles South of the Lizard. the fog lifted further and, amazingly, we sighted Kialoa South and ahead of us by about a mile. In the Channel Race we had raced within sight of her for 200 miles before losing her in the unpredictable winds of the Solent. Now, it appeared, the Fastnet Race was going to be the same. Kialoa cleared the Lizard whilst we had to tack.
The forecast at 1750 had predicted that the wind, which was Westerly 3/4, would veer to the North West then back to the South increasing to 5/6. At 1945 Seven Stones were abeam and we steered a course slightly to Windward ie South of the Rhumb line. The sea was lumpy and the waves knocked down the boats speed as Condor’s bluff bows fell on them. We started with a reacher and staysail and then changed to the No 1 Heavy; then, as we neared the rock, the “Pastry Cook” chute – a big yellow 3/4 oz with a “budgie” (ie a condor) on it. We strived for more speed but were frusttrated by the waves and knew that we were not going well. Spud continued to navigate by DF, DR and sextant. Near to the Rock he homed in on Mizzen Head beacon which was now behind the Rock. We saw one yacht ahead and North of us that we assumed was Kialoa. Auntie had another nickname of “Hawkeye”. He said it was Kialoa and nobody else could see it to argue.
As we neared the Rock we dropped the chute and put up the reacher and staysail. We rounded the Rock at 1355. At this time we estimated Kialoa to be 1 hour ahead. the wind had freshened by the time we had rounded the Rock and was on the opposite beam ie starboard tack. The barometer was dropping and the low was obviously approaching. Once again we headed South of the Rhumb line to the Scillies.
We now began to work our way down through the whole range of sails. The wind began to gradually increase and veer, which freed us off slightly, but the relative wind was always about 40 degrees on the starboard bow. My watch was off but I lay awake feeling that another sail change was due. “All hands on deck”. The call came almost as a relief.
We struggled into our oilskins and climbed into the cockpit. 60 feet away in front of us the on watch were struggling with the reacher. The oncoming watch always remained aft, where possible, and gradually accustomed thier eyes to the dark. One or two manned the coffe grinders; others helped to drag the old sail aft along the winward deck where it could be bagged in the centre of the boat into its sausage then left lying along the windward rail to reduce heel. It had another very important function which was to provide a comfortable seat for the on watch. the number 2 was trimmed to its most efficient setting then we went below. There was to be no rest this night and we knew it.
I clambered into my bunk with my oilskin trousers around my knees and sea boots still on and waited. The motion began to change. The seas were building up. I pulled the sleeping bag over my head to stop the dripping water from landing on me. Again the call came and we changed to the number 3. We had been too slow in getting up on deck for the last change and this time slept in full oilskins. Mine leaked, treasured from a past Round the World Race, they had served thier time long ago and the water soaked through. Again the call; I swore freely as i clambered over the sails, by now also soaking wet. Water sloshed about near the galley. This was the number 4. The reefs in the mainsail that accompany a change in the headsail to balance the boat had been put in by the on wtahc. By now the wind was howling 40 to 50 knots. Two more changes came, Peter making the decisions as though someone was whispering in his ear of the impending increase in strength. “That was just in time” he said, as the boat took off under the impact of over 60 knots of wind. We carried a storm jib and two reefs in the main. We huddled together on the windward deck sitting on what was, by now, a pile of 3 sails. We were clipped on by our safety harnesses. I sat looking at the wind guage and dumbly registered the times the needle went lower than 60 knots, which was the maximum it showed. We held on while Condor hurtled through the night at 12 knots, leaping off the waves and crashing into others, sending plumes of spray into the air to be whipped aside by the wind and cast hissing to leeward. The power was staggering. The sea threw water down our necks and occassionally the water that swept over the deck threatened to dislodge us and take us with it into the sea.
Below, Spud had wedged himself into the nav room, which was awash. He was speking to Lands End radio, relaying positions of yachts that were in distress. We had seen very few yachts on the way back from the Fastnet; a couple of Admirals Cup boats; a yellow trimaran which we had waved to cherrfully; in the night a yacht hove to on starboard tack. Auntie had seen distress flares astern and to the North and Spud had been speaking to some of the yachts. Some were having a very hard time of it; rudders broken; masts lost; capsized, it was chaos. Spud was keeping a listening watch out for three of the yachts aswell as navigating Condor. Our powerful transmitter and well positioned aerial gave us a good range even in this weather. We were about 38 miles from the nearest yacht and at that time she was not in immediate danger. On deck we sighted the Bishops Rock Light ahead and slightly to port. Spud had done a truly magnificent job. He ended his radio relaying service at 05.00 having been on there since 00.30
At 0400 I came off watch and collapsed on the sails exhausted, cold and wet. While I was below we rounded Bishops Rock, a mile inside Pole Bank Overfalls. We had no idea where Kialoa was. Mistress Quickly, another maxi rater had come up on the radio and we knew that she was way astern but Kialoa had remained silent. At this time we reckoned that the wave height was about 20 to 25 feet and it was still blowing 50 to 60 knots.
Once again we were called on deck as we bore away for the Lizard. It was almost a dead run and we poled out the number 5. This involved running the genoa sheet through the end of the spinnaker boom. Setting up the pole was a tricky business as we rolled downwind. At least the apparent wind was less than it had been before.
Communication was vitally important on a boat this size, although in fact experience was even better. If you knew what to do and when to do it then it did not matter that you could not hear what Andy was saying 70 feet away. We continued under this rig for a while but gradually the wind began to decrease. The waves were still huge and we were carried along by them, surfing at 16 or 17 knots. However, the boat felt underpowered. We had about 25 knots of apparent wiind and we all knew that there was only one thing for it – we had to go to a chute (spinnaker).
There are a lot of offshore sailors who don’t even know how to put up a chute on a yacht and they would certainly have never imagined that you could fly one in 40 or 50 knots of true wind. Peter had sailed this boat around the world and knew it probably better than anyone else. At the beginning of the race he was worried about our new mast but he was now confident that it would stay up. There was a record at stake and nobody ever broke records who did not take (calculated) risks.
We were going to fly the 2.2oz. Each member of the crew moved around the decks preparing and checking and checking again. Meanwhile Condor acreered along under main alone eager for more canvas. Peter guided her down the waves, his eyes roving over the deck checking what had already been checked before, weighing up the risks, calling on all his experience.
We needed more speed.
Finally, the chute was ready in its three legged bag that prevented it from filling until required. I gripped the halliard, looked toward Peter for the final, purposeful nod and then pulled like a maniac to get it to the top of the towering mast. Dennis came up to help help on the last few feet and we sweated up the halliard as sailors have done since the days of the square riggers.
A line led up to the centre of the star shape that star shape that hung innocently from the mast. The two Andy’s tugged on it; it would not come. Take in on the sheet, more, more – Bang!!, the bag opned and suddenly there was the spinnaker, straining to pull the mast out of the deck. Condor accelerated instantly like a jet with its brakes just released. Sheet!! Sheet!! The sail had to be flat. Now she was going !! We grinned at each other like naughty children. He must be mad – but what exhileration; adrenalin coursed through our veins. Now she used the waves. They towered high astern, flecked with foam, lifted up the transom, pointing the bow down into the chasm that was the trough of the wave. Then she began her mad slide like a big dipper. The bow wave grew higher and higher and moved aft until it was higher than the boom. Astern grew a cockerels tail 4 foot high.
The digital speedometer went through 10 knots and began to count again; through 10 knot again and on and on until it reached 9.5 knots. A total of 29.5 knots. Crossbow here we come !! Where is Beken now !!
A sound like a rifle shot brought us back to reality. The block that the spinnaker sheet turned around on the starboard quarter had exploded. Les had his leg in the path of the released rope as it ripped through six feet of stanchions as though they were not even there. He could easily have lost his leg. Luckily he did not but he limped in memory of his close call for days after. “Get the guy in” I shouted but this crew were faster than the time that it took for somebody to tell them what to do and already the grinders were grinding in the lazy guy. Gradually we got the spinnaker under comtrol again and breathed a sigh of relief. Our hearts pounded.
Once more the wild surfing began. Spud had given up navigating. The miles flashed by. When would we be there ?? Very, very soon !!
“Look out everyone, she’s going” What now?? I sat by the centre coffe grinders. If she broaches, I thought, I’ll hang on to these. My expensive oilskin with it’s built in safety harness lay on the deck. The safety harness clipped to a wire and protecting the jacket from going anywhere!! It was too late for it now. Slowly, reluctantly, accepting the power of the sea over her Condor swung around into the wind, heeling more and more.
Pray to every god you have ever heard of and hang on !! Beam onto the sea and the wind, she was flattened.
If it had been my Lazer I would have climbed over the windward side and stood on the centre board. If only it was that easy. I ended up sitting on the coffee grinders, which were now horizontal, looking down at the, amazingly calm, sea. Slowly she began to right herself. Then the spinnaker went aback and she went astern. Peter said at 3 knots. The oncoming waves finally halted her (Peter had steered her around in an arc). The spinnaker half filled, obstinately refusing to set. For endless seconds Peter juggled with the wheel, coaxing and understanding. Suddenly the chute filled with a crack and we were off again. Everything was all right. We had not lost anybody.
Were we insane?? The exhileration was draining. A three point turn in a 78 footer with a spinnaker up in 45 knots of breeze. “If that happens again we’ll have to get it off” said Peter. We laughed uncertainly.
Then, sliding down a wave, we caught up with the one in front. The bow buried itself into the sea. I reached for my favourite coffe grinder and put a lover’s grip on it. The sea foamed up over the foredeck, past the mast, over me and I then did not know how far behind. Deeper and deeper she buried. Then we were on our beam ends again and she was coming up, shaking off the water, undefeated, her mast still standing erect. Again the spinnaker filled and we careered away. “Get it off” Peter said “enough is enough”.
Plymouth was in sight. We changed to the reacher poled out with the staysail set inside. We were still flying. Where was Kialoa ?? Were we in the lead ?? We could be. We just could be.
Spud was worried that we could be heading for Fowey instead of Plymouth. Come on Spud, we know it’s Plymouth. He went down to speak to Race Control on the radio. After a few minutes he appeared at the hatch. “There are no other yachts in” he said simply. We’d done it. We only had to get to the line. We wanted to get rid of the staysail. Come on Peter, let get it off. A boomed out headsail is a tricky thing to get down and we were heading for the breakwater at a vast rate of knots. We looked pleadingly at him. Finally, he gave the word. As we began to get it down a last vicious gust swept across the sea, ripping the flogging sail from our hands. The breakwater loomed ominously close as we struggled to get it on board. Finally we overpowered it and seconds later flashed through the breakwater.
Where was the finishing line ?? Andy was on the bow, ready to take the time of crossing. Spud went up and sent him back aft for something. Bang!! The gun went. “Ha Ha” yelled Spud ” I was first across the line !!”. One and a half hours sleep in three days and the guy was still making jokes!
We yelled and and danced, shook hands and slapped backs and laughed and smiled. Line Honours – The Record – beaten Kialoa. Perhaps even first on handicap. We put it all aside and began to stow the sails. Our time – 71 Hours 37 Minutes and 23 Seconds. We had beaten the previous record by over seven hours.