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Waves of exhaustion

The Times
The gruelling Fastnet race is not for the feeble or unfit


“I am just one of God’s donkeys,” admits Phil Jones. He’s 6ft 4in, 17st, and is known to those in the yachting world as “rail fodder”, big enough and inexperienced enough to sit uncomplaining on the side of the boat while those in the cockpit discuss the finer points of racing.

But when your seaworthiness is calculated in terms of ballast, it’s not easy to find a place on one of the toughest, most gruelling and dangerous ocean contests in the calendar. “Since I was a teenager the Fastnet race has always been up for me as one of life’s great challenges, alongside sailing around the world,” says Jones, 41, who was invited by a friend from his time in the Territorial Army a couple of years ago, to join the brutal biennial 600-mile race, which takes place in August at the end of Cowes Week.

The arduous race demands fitness, staying power and sheer bloody-mindedness. It can also be potentially lethal. During the Fastnet race in 1979, on the Labadie Bank beyond the Isles of Scilly, a combination of unpredictable tides and gales whipped up mountainous waves to create a freak storm that killed 15 competitors and capsized dozens of boats.

Nevertheless, Jones had the mettle for the task: “I jumped at the chance, so much so that I forgot to ask my wife first and was then reminded that I’d miss her birthday.”

Like many others who sail the race for the first time, Jones, now a manager with an oil company, had only dallied with yachting before the season began. Although the race is very tough — west from Cowes on the Isle of Wight, past the south-west of England and through the Celtic Sea to Fastnet Rock, and back via the Scillies to Plymouth — it’s one of the most accessible for non-sailors. Bigger boats finish in a couple of days; the smallest boats, such as the Sigma 33 Jones sailed on, take more than twice as long.

“He was the rookiest of rookies,” says his skipper, Stefan Mieczkowski, who took Jones on as the seventh crew member aboard Wight Spirit. “But I had no doubts about his capacity to remain calm and stalwart despite his inexperience. And he’s a funny man, great for morale.”

And it all began so well, with sunshine and light winds: “It was a glorious start, hundreds of colourful sails, the Solent like a mill-pond,” says Jones. “But unlike many other novices who have the opportunity to get involved, whether it’s hoisting or trimming the sails, because of my weight I had to lie on deck at the front.”

It was only when the boat’s engines failed off Salcombe in Devon that crew differences kicked in. No power meant no navigation lights or global positioning system — they could either sail by dead reckoning, by estimating the direction and distance travelled, and rig up emergency lights, or head back to port: “We split down the middle,” Jones says. “Some were all for going on regardless. But one of the guys, a sailing instructor, said: ‘I teach people not to do this on a weekly basis’. There’s such a thing as controlled risk. I wasn’t going to die doing something silly.”

Happily, one crew member managed to crank the engine back into life just as they were going to retire and the race was back on. After three-and-a-half days of sailing in light winds, they rounded Fastnet Rock at sunset: “A glorious evening. Someone popped open the champagne, we sailed along with dolphins, watching shooting stars,” Jones says. But by the following afternoon the wind was gusting up to 30 miles an hour (27 knots, force 6). Jones, who had been violently seasick throughout practice sessions, grew anxious amid 13ft (4m) waves: “I was sitting on the rail, the closest to the bow. Basically, I was everybody’s windbreak. If I threw up, they all got some. At one point I got up to be sick and Stefan said thoughtfully, ‘If I get you a bucket, could you sit down again?’ ” Through a combination of pills and determination, Jones quelled his nausea, even if this meant remaining out on the rails for about 48 hours with a cold wind on the nose. “The only place I could sleep below deck was 2ft 6in long,” he says. “I was better off dozing outside, done up like Scott of the Antarctic.”

Jones’s flippancy is misleading. As the winds grew, Wight Spirit was beyond the Scillies in the Western Approaches. These conditions would be unremarkable in the Solent or even in the Channel, but so far from shore in a small boat, the crew was more vulnerable. “You can’t compete in the Fastnet without thinking about the tragedy in 1979,” says Mieczkowski.

Jones, who has experienced danger at first hand — he spent several years in former war zones clearing landmines for the Halo Trust — was more than happy to put his faith in the skipper: “You have to put fear into context. Clearing landmines is undoubtedly putting yourself at risk. But life is a risk. I know Stefan is a good enough sailor to get out of an emergency if he has to. I had absolute trust in him.”

One of the biggest hurdles in long-haul racing is to get along with strangers, squeezed into a small space, fatigued and under pressure: “You don’t know how things will pan out when you get tired. Mostly it was fun, talking complete trivia after being awake for days.”

But Jones paid the price once when the helmsman lost concentration: “I heard a cry ‘Ooh, look at those dolphins’. The next thing I knew the boat tilted and where I was sitting was under water, with one of the sails smacking me about the head.” He was unlucky the next time the boat pitched, too: “I’d gone below for a pee. Stefan was yelling to get on with it. Suddenly the boat heeled over to about 85 degrees. I was peeing straight out of the pan, on to my stockinged feet and into the locker.”

Frustratingly, the speedy run they had enjoyed to the Scillies ended when head winds held them up on the home stretch to Plymouth: “It was depressing after we’d made such progress. But you’ve got to be stubborn to want to do it. I enjoyed it in the way that I enjoy scrummaging in rugby. I like the banter, I like being part of a team, and I like doing something I couldn’t do on my own.”

Finishing 141 out of 225 competitors in the small hours of Saturday morning, five-and-a- half days after they’d left, Jones and the crew bought the last 40 beers from the bar in Plymouth. Sailing, after all, is on a par with rugby when it comes to drinking. Since competing in the Fastnet, Jones has gone on though to sail Cowes Week and the Hamble winter series in the Solent — still on the rail.

Fancy it?

Can anyone take part? Traditionally the Fastnet, a biennial race, begins as Cowes Week draws to a close, normally the second weekend of August. It has a good mix of amateur and champion sailors. The organisers, the Royal Ocean Racing Club, stipulate that half the crew members, the yacht and skipper must have completed a minimum of 300 miles of racing within the year.

Are there places this year? Yes — boats are still seeking crew, although if you are a novice you might be better signing up for the next race in 2007. “The sailing’s the easy part,” says Richard Broughton, of Yacht Charter, who has organised eight Fastnet campaigns. “It’s learning how to be a safe and self-sufficient unit for days in bad weather. Anyone can do it providing that they have the right attitude.”

How much? A campaign, which includes the Fastnet race and all on-board expenses and marina fees, costs about £2,500 with charter companies. Visit www.rorc.org.com ; www.yacht-charter.net; www.ambitionsailing.com or www.solentyachtcharter.com for boats that need crew and spaces on charter boats.

What equipment do you need? “A minimum base thermal layer and waterproof sailing suit,” says Broughton. Add a good sleeping bag, Wellingtons deck shoes, hat, knife, earplugs and gloves.

How long does it take? It depends on conditions and the size of your boat. Be ready to take a week off work.

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