It was a true honor when Federico Sampei, the Japanese skipper of DMG Sailing Academy, asked me to be his co-skipper for the Mini Fastnet race.
I had already participated in the two previous editions of the race, but due to adverse weather conditions, we were unable to reach the legendary Fastnet lighthouse in the south of Ireland.
Moreover, after the last edition, in which I participated with Simone Gesi, I had unfinished business with this event. It was a race under high pressure, completely windless, and with a tightly packed fleet. Just a few miles from the finish, I was in first position, but in the end, I was tricked by a wrong strategic choice right at the finish line and ended up in tenth place.
Sampei’s boat is a new generation prototype. It’s a very interesting boat that I was eager to try, but I had never sailed on it before, and I was unfamiliar with it. The design of the boat is very similar to mine, so I expected to find many common points. But at the same time, the race prologue would be crucial to get acquainted with the adjustments and maneuvers.
Furthermore, it had been almost a year since I sailed double-handed on a Mini.
The prologue didn’t take place due to no wind. So everything was postponed to the day of the start.
We set out early enough to take advantage of the pre-start to test the boat and allow me to get familiar with the adjustments and maneuvers.
Wow… the mast is extremely flexible… it won’t be easy to find the perfect setting. And the boat has a lot of micro-adjustments. Going fast will be quite easy, but maintaining the target speed and keeping up with the others won’t be easy.
Great start, but shortly after, we find ourselves caught up in the fleet and slipping down to the middle of the rankings.
The first night is challenging. There’s little wind, and the other prototypes are consistently 1 knot faster than us. The race is really uphill. I can’t seem to extract the full potential of the boat, and the leading group keeps extending their lead over us.
The miles pass, and slowly but surely, I start to find sensitivity with the boat. We begin to understand each other, to be in sync, and get the expected responses from the adjustments I make. Meanwhile, while I am focused on the boat, Federico, the skipper, concentrates on studying the weather and strategy to make a strong comeback against the fleet.
At Silly*, we are already almost 18 NM behind the leader. A big blow.
However, the race is still long.
Thanks to Federico, we manage to build a solid and effective strategy that allows us to start recovering some ground on the leading group. At the same time, I refine a good pace that enables us both to focus on the weather and how to close the gap.
The third day starts with no wind at all, but this could help us close the 15-mile gap to the leader.
Heading towards the Fastnet. I wonder if I will finally get to see it this year. It’s my third edition of this race, but in the previous ones, we couldn’t reach the legendary lighthouse due to weather conditions.
Indeed, the calm helps us close the gap a bit, and when the pressure returns, we finally have the pace to stay with the others. We start playing for real.
We have a clear strategy in mind for approaching the Fastnet, and it works. We find ourselves close-hauled a few hundred meters off the southern coast of Ireland, fluctuating between third and fifth positions. This boosts our confidence and courage.
At the iconic lighthouse, we are in third position and decide to take a different strategy from the top three. We bear away and immediately hoist the spinnaker, choosing to pass to the east of the restricted zone with the goal of entering the windless area as late as possible. Will it be the right strategy?
Wow… it seems that no one from the leading group has chosen the eastern side, so we have opened up a significant lateral gap from the fleet. This makes us doubt our choice a bit.
By now, the distance from the boats is too large, and we no longer know from the AIS** where our competitors are.
The predicted calm arrives, but the wind shifts are not as expected. We start to panic a bit, afraid that the weather system we are sailing in is not what we anticipated. So we start trying to return to the west.
In hindsight… looking at the charts, it was a grave mistake. But when you navigate solely based on observations and the barometer, without weather information and without knowing the whereabouts of your opponents, it becomes challenging to stay loyal to a strategy.
We reach the upwind leg back, hugging the Silly Islands, and the boats from second to seventh position are within a couple of miles. We can still fight for it.
The eastern option was indeed the winning one. It’s a shame we didn’t believe in it and insist more. Nonetheless, at the moment, we are in second place, with the third and fourth boats right behind us. It’s not the time to think but to make aggressive maneuvers, tacking back and forth along the restricted zone of the Silly Islands.
It’s a battle to gain the east, waiting for the wind to shift… but it refuses to enter the east, and the trailing boats prefer to take a longer route to recover.
This race is truly complicated… the outcome is completely open.
The last miles separate us from the finish line in Douarnenez. The wake-up call comes with a reverse maneuver to try to free ourselves from the algae that got trapped in the keel. The sea is really full, and those who manage to keep their keel clear will have a significant advantage. Unfortunately, we don’t start in the best way…
And it only gets worse. Throughout the day, we have to stop and reverse at least 5-6 times, constantly gaining and losing the third position without ever being able to launch an attack on the second.
The day under the sun is truly intense. It’s hot, there are strong currents, and very little wind. We are all racing on a knife’s edge, trying to exploit every bit of wind gust.
And then, while I’m at the helm, just before nightfall, I find myself in a bed of algae that I couldn’t find a way to pass through. The algae are so long that they extend beyond the stern. I free them manually as best I can, then try reversing… but they are so long that I end up wrapping them around the keel.
I call out to Fede, who was resting at that moment. The situation is quite complicated. It’s dark… and since we can’t see with the GoPro in the water, we come up with a makeshift lighting system. Now we can see, but the maneuvers we make don’t have the desired effect.
No… Fede tells me: “I’m jumping in the water… it’s the only way.” He quickly takes off his clothes. Mask, flashlight, rope tied around his waist, and splash. He frees us. The water is icy… when he gets back on board, he’s trembling.
In the meantime, Thais Le Cam has overtaken us and extended her lead by 2 miles. We have less than twenty miles to the finish line.
The podium seems out of reach. But I don’t want it to end like this. It can’t end like this, with Fede freezing and the joy of the podium fading away.
We put in a tremendous effort, staying up all night, working on every slight variation of the wind. And Fede, once he recovered and warmed up a bit, helped me in this match race that ultimately saw us secure third place by just 4 minutes and less than 9 minutes behind the second.
*Silly Islands – islands south of England
** AIS – Automatic Identification System for boat proximity detection via VHF antenna