Myth of Malham Race, 2019
Our race crew gathered on Friday evening with early arrivals clearing heavy items that wouldn’t be needed from the boat; electric heater, dinghy, and sail covers were moved to spend the weekend in the car park (the outboard had already gone for servicing). The heavy weather jib was dropped and stowed to be replaced (after some discussion) with the white genoa rather than the recently repaired black one. The logic for this was that the white one would allow us to reef, giving some flexibility in sail pattern while enabling us to keep the mainsail full.
Realising there would be no time to eat by the time we got across to the Isle of Wight, we grabbed Fish and Chips to eat in the cockpit and then motored across to East Cowes to pick up a berth for the night – note to skippers; weekday berths in East Cowes are still included in our Haslar marina fees.
We were all up bright and early on Saturday morning, making the most of shore based facilities – the last chance for a shower for three days! A quick bowl of cereal and we headed out of the Medina to join the other 130 yachts milling around on the start line. The congestion started to clear from 0800 as the IRC 4 and 3 groups were sent on their way, then it was our turn with the 29 boats in IRC 2 starting at 0820.
Our challenge was to get along the Solent and through Hurst Narrows with the tide turning against us after the first hour. Once it turned, and with light winds on the nose, it was time to do textbook deep then shallow water and the crew got better and better at quick tacking. With all seven hands on deck there was little for the spare hands to do but sit on the high side of the boat and soak up the sunshine.
Once we were out of the Solent, with the wind having increased to a F4 the tacks became longer and we settled into our watches, with Alasdair MacKenzie, Janet Carroll and I taking the 2100-0000 watch, while the off-watch; Ian Stevenson, Moira Barber and Rafal Stanzyck settled into their cabins as best they could with the boat close hauled and everything at a 45 degree angle. Skipper Laurent Morlet floated between the two watches, napping on the saloon berth when he could but leaping into action, day or night, whenever the crew needed instruction – which was often!
Over the course of a 107 NM beat it is the efficiency of sail trim and helming that matters. A fraction of a knot loss of speed over 24 hours is the difference between keeping up with the fleet and falling behind. This is the real difference between cruising and racing; maintaining an intense focus while on the helm for an hour at a time, trying to keep the boat in the groove without luffing up and losing speed, and without accidentally bearing away for an easier ride but on the wrong course. Trusting your watch mate to drop the traveller if a gust makes the boat too much to handle, and realising that the boat can handle more then you expect! It struck me that it is a lot like trying to walk a tightrope in the dark – in a hurricane!
On our watch Alasdair was by far the best helm so generally took the first turn, showing Janet and I what to do, and by the end of our watches we were always pleased to be relieved by Ian, Moira and Raf. Getting woken at 0245 and being back on watch at 0300 is a tough alarm call, but the reward of the 0300-0600 watch was a beautiful sunrise and helming becoming progressively easier as light levels rose until it became possible to actually see the sails.
By the time we got close to Portland Bill it had become misty but the light was still visible. We were on track to clear it with tide and the plan was to fall into Lyme bay to minimise the effect of tide against before coming out again. Unfortunately the gods were not with us and the wind dropped. A quick change of strategy meant we headed out towards the casquais TSS keeping in mind to stay out as per trace instructions.
After a couple of hours sleep we were off Gamon Head and getting kitted up for the 0900 watch change, when there were shouts from Ian’s watch and we rushed up on deck to see a pod of dolphins playing in our bow-wave. They stayed with us until we changed tack and we saw them a while later following another yacht that had continued on our previous course. It was good to know that we were making enough speed to attract their attention!
We reached the Eddystone rocks at 16:38 on Sunday and had time for everyone to grab a selfie with the lighthouse in the background before leaving it to port and heading back the way we had come. We were now “back on an even keel” and never has that phrase been more welcome than after having spent a day and a half being close hauled. Being on a run also gave us the ability to plot a direct course and the opportunity to fly the kites.
Unfortunately it also highlighted our lack of practice as a racing team and it took the best part of an hour to deploy the spinnaker, but we did manage a couple of hours with it before the skipper directed we switch to the asymmetric, for the night’s watches. This was a good decision because with only starlight to guide us, even the asymmetric was a handful in the dark and there was only a few degrees difference between sailing too close to the wind and bearing away too much. Finding the balance to keep the kite full, and hardening up to quickly re-fill it when it emptied and moved in front of the forestay, blotting out the stars and the few stern-lights ahead was tricky, but very satisfying when it worked – often for several minutes at a time! I think Laurent was right to comment that we would have needed a lot more practice if we had entered the Fastnet race this year.
When we went off watch at 0300 the three flashes of the Start Point lighthouse were still visible behind us and the four flashes of the Portland lighthouse were a sweeping glow ahead in the distance. By the time we were back on watch at 0600, Portland Bill was illuminated behind us in the early morning sun and we had made it through the infamous tidal gate and into Lyme Bay. Soon the Isle of Wight became visible on the horizon and, still flying the Asymmetric, we were able to make good progress towards it.
By the time we got to St Albans head, there were a few other yachts keeping us company at the back of the fleet and it was interesting to watch the different sail strategies: A blue boat was flying a symmetric spinnaker so making good speed, but obliged to go straight downwind, a Sigma 38 was using a Code 0 and opted to head close in to shore, but paid the price by suffering more from adverse tide. We chose to gybe 5 miles off St Albans Head. A 100 metre advantage for us when we crossed became 2 miles when we emerged in Poole bay
Our series of long gybes, eventually finished with us close to the Needles before turning back inshore to pass West of the Shingles for our final run to the finishing line near the North Head starboard buoy.
With Laurent at the helm we were hitting 10 knots over the ground as we raced towards the buoy, with a plan to furl the asymmetric, gybe around the buoy to starboard and cross the line on mainsail alone. Everyone was in their places, with an assigned task as we approached the buoy… Laurent gave the command to furl … the sheets were released … the sail started flapping and Alastair started furling… and furling… and furling… but nothing happened. Raf went to help him and both continued pulling on an endless loop of line to absolutely no effect! Eventually they tried pulling the furling line in the opposite direction and managed to get the sail away.
So we crossed the finish line at 1220 in not quite as much style as we had hoped, but fortunately the Committee Boat had long since gone home so there was no-one there to witness our confusion. We put the engine on, dropped the asymmetric and had lunch motor sailing back past Yarmouth. Our finishing position was 27th of 29 in IRC 2, and 121st of 134 in IRC overall. Plenty of room for improvement, but at least we finished and that is something that hasn’t happened for a few years!
The Myth of Malham certainly isn’t a cruise, in the same way that the London Marathon isn’t a relaxed walk in the country. It is a hard slog, but very rewarding and a great opportunity to improve your sailing skills and move outside of your comfort zone. Apart from the Fastnet, none of the other RORC races are as tough – many are only around 24-36 hours and offer the opportunity to get ashore in France for a shower and a meal before heading back, either on RelaX or on the Ferry if a mini-cruise is following the race. There are spaces available on RORC races to Dieppe, St Malo and Cherbourg and the Channel race (which is an extended Round the Island). There is even a place still available on Round the Island race itself if you want to try a shorter inshore race rather than an offshore one. You can view all of the forthcoming races here.