I drove to Southsea marina along the M27 on Friday night in dense fog, crawling my way off the motorway slip road down into Portsmouth. What is it that Tom Cunliffe says about sailing in fog? "Don't do it". Was this going to be another weekend of wishing that winter sailing had never been invented I wondered?
The skipper and Kate were already on board and we settled down to put the world to rights and polish off a bottle of red wine before putting more clothes on to go to bed (winter sailing for you). The alarm went a bit too early the next morning but Kate was determined we were going to reach the start an hour early and I was greatly relieved that the fog had lifted sufficiently to see out of the marina and down the Southsea channel.
With incredible efficiency we threw off the lines at 0815 and were greeted with a cheery wave from Storm Petrel who were still in their pyjamas as we left the marina. Out into the Solent and what should greet us as we passed the forts but some cheering Spring sunshine. I was the only one on board who had packed their sunglasses for the weekend, not thinking they would be deployed so early on in the day.
The French navy were on manoeuvres off Browndown and two landing craft made an intimidating pincer movement towards us as we drew near. We turned towards the start at NE Ryde Middle and played around with angles to buoys whilst making coffee and having a second breakfast to kill the time until some other LSC boats joined us for the first Fast Cruise.
It is well documented elsewhere on the site that the wind barely got above 10 knots all day and mostly stuck at around 6-7 knots. Personally, I like the cerebral challenge of light air sailing where small adjustments and judgements count for a lot and can make the difference between winning and losing. We had a big debate about whether we would use the cruising chute at all - our experience in previous Fast Cruises this season had been that we lost all the time we gained when we had flown it due to the need to lose the genoa when hoisting or dropping.
We started the first race close to 1100 watching A Day at the Races and Juno scrambling up the Solent to get to the start. Good call Kate to heave us out of our bunks for a relaxed arrival. Down to Norris we headed, I had decided to do a traditional plot for course to steer whilst we were waiting for the start (hadn't done one of those since my YM theory course) and our line to the buoy looked like heading into Osborne Bay. It worked though, we laid the buoy and Kate on the helm squeaked round with inches to spare in a textbook display of mark-rounding.
The next leg up to SE Ryde Middle saw us fighting the tide with the wind behind the beam. The debate about the cruising chute re-opened and we decided to go for it, with the proviso that we set it up carefully so as to lose minimum foresail time when we furled the genoa and hoisted. This was where we could have done with an extra pair of hands but it was our most successful hoist of the FC series and we inched past Ronhilda enjoying their sausage rolls in the sunshine and tweaking their hi-tech spinnaker pole (two bamboo sticks lashed together) which was poling out their genny. Peter had the rather brilliant idea of backing the main to allow the cruising chute to fill properly and we practically zoomed past Ronhilda towards the next buoy.
Just as we were planning our next leg and how we were going to round the buoy and lose the cruising chute without losing time the VHF crackled into life and the organisers announced a course shortening. Confusion reigned on board as we tried to work out what the finishing instructions were, but whatever else the finish was the buoy we were approaching which made the short course a total of one mark if you don't count the start and finish. A bit of communal moaning ensued, largely due to the wind having picked up and the long period to wait between our finish and the start of the next race.
Tea, lunch, a chat with A Day at the Races, a discussion over the VHF about the start time of Race 2 and we were off for the second of our light-air escapades. The start was East Bramble, we chose to tack fairly early and head down towards West Ryde Middle on starboard. Storm Petrel set off at a rate of knots and made it to the second mark first. A Day at the Races rounded before us but our tactic for the leg to Hillhead, after studying tides and heights was to keep the genoa and head straight to the buoy. This paid off as we overhauled ADATR flying their spinnaker and rounded neatly ahead. Good calls and tight sailing, a leg to be proud of!
The next mark was North Thorn with tide pushing us east and the wind dropping to less than 5 knots. At one point we ended up in a wind hole moving nowhere and could see ADATR further east struggling with the same problem. This time it was with some relief that we heard Juno's VHF crackle into life for a course shortening that made North Thorn our final destination.
We headed into the Hamble with a rain squall overhead, mid-afternoon felt late enough to be out on the water in March. After tying up, replenishing water supplies, showering and watching some rugby we joined the rest of the Fast Cruisers for the final dinner of the season and prize-giving. Azanti came second in the progressive handicap competition and gained two LSC decanters to add to the weight on board.
Heartfelt thanks go to Graham and Charles, the masterminds of the Fast Cruise series. They deal with complex handicapping systems, course planning, course shortening, bookings, variable weather and opinionated participants and seem to take it all in their stride. It's been a great winter of sailing. Also big thanks to Azanti's skipper Peter for letting us loose on his boat.
Sunday morning we left Kate at Hamble to visit relatives and set off at 0730 to get the last of the eastward tide back to the forts. With a northeasterly wind forecast to strengthen during the day this was back to proper winter sailing and I could understand why both Storm Petrel and Ronhilda had headed home after the racing the night before. Windhover drew level with us outside the Hamble and shot off towards Gosport. Heading into Southsea the cold had seeped into my body via toes and fingers and it took the drive back to London and an hour on the sofa watching England keep Italy at bay to thaw out.