Editor’s note: Quite the exciting Fastnet Race this week! The largest race fleet since 1979, two new course records (outright record to super tri Banque Populaire; monohull record to the VO70 Abu Dhabi), plus the maxi monohull Rambler 100 (ex-Speedboat), which was en route to a record, lost its keel and capsized right at Fastnet Rock. Rather than bore you with newsy details you’ve already garnered elsewhere, I thought I’d share my own (one and only) Fastnet experience.
IT WAS A LEAP OF FAITH is what it was. There could be no other explanation. For the last time Don Street nearly succeeded in luring me aboard a boat of his, that boat had been instantly destroyed. This was Li’l Iolaire, Don’s 28-foot plywood yawl, on which I had agreed to crew back in the winter of 2004. Just hours before I committed myself to this fate by buying a plane ticket down to West Indies, Don had called to share the terrible news. Li’l Iolaire had been swept out to sea and sunk by Hurricane Ivan as it roared over the island of Grenada.
Now again, in the summer of 2005, in spite of the letters J-O-N-A-H stamped upon my resume, he had summoned me once more. This time to serve on the original Iolaire, the antique 48-foot Harris Brothers yawl on which he had long ago established his reputation as a trail-blazing West Indian charter skipper, sailing journalist, and chart surveyor.
“Iolaire will be 100 this year,” he crowed to me over a bad cellphone connection. “I’m turning 75. We’re going to celebrate by doing the Fastnet Race. You want to come along?”
Such invitations, of course, are not easily refused. Still, when I arrived at Cowes, England, a few weeks later to join the boat two days before the race start, I half expected to find Iolaire sunk in the Medina River up to her spreaders. What I found instead, which was nearly as shocking, was that her topsides had been painted white.
“The reason Iolaire is painted red,” Don had always proclaimed, “is so that she matches the color of my bank statement.”
Both the boat and (presumably) Don’s bank account had always been “in the red” for over half a century. “Why the big change now?” I asked.
Don (as always) had an elaborate explanation. “Iolaire,” you see, is actually a Gaelic term that translates in English as “white-tailed sea eagle,” and Trich, Don’s lovely Irish wife, had long argued that the boat itself should therefore also be white. In honor of Iolaire’s centennial, Don claimed he had decided at last to succumb to this reasoning. But the real reason, I suspected, had something to do with the price of paint.
Superficially, at least, in spite of the new paint, the boat (like Don himself) looked like a disheveled marine artifact. But this was deceiving. In fact, I soon learned that Iolaire was a highly organized sailing machine. Within moments of my stepping aboard, Don handed me a five-page single-spaced typed document, which he urged me to study closely. It contained detailed instructions on when to eat, how to change watch, who would serve what food when, how to wash pots and pans, how to use the head, where to stow your boots, and so on, ad infinitum.
Most important of all were the directions on sail and line handling, which were illustrated with elaborate diagrams of officially sanctioned knots to be used aboard. The most important of these, I soon learned, was the towboat hitch, a rather obscure knot I had no prior experience with. It was used to secure sheets on the antique primary winches, which were equipped with fetal cam cleats that no longer worked properly.
THE MORNING OF THE RACE, Don was up at 4 a.m. rattling pans in the galley as loud as he could as he prepared to serve us an enormous breakfast of pancakes and bacon. Clearly, he was anxious to get going.
This was to be his fifth Fastnet Race. His first had been exactly 50 years earlier, when in a fit of pique he had quit his job as skipper aboard Huey Long’s 53-foot yawl Ondine and just an hour before the start jumped aboard Lutine, a 57-foot Laurent Giles yawl owned by Sandy Harworth, who was then a leading marine underwriter, the commodore of Lloyds Yacht Club, and rear commodore of the Royal Ocean Racing Club.
Halfway down the Solent, as Don remembered it, Harworth had turned to him and demanded: “Young man, who the hell are you and where did you come from?” This was how Don’s other career as a marine insurance broker got its start. That same year he also became a member of the RORC.
Because he had been a member for so long, and because of his notoriety, this year the RORC had decided to allow Don to race Iolaire in a class of her own. She had previously raced in the Fastnet under Don’s command in 1975 and 1995, and once, prior to his ownership, in 1953. Now, however, she did not meet the stringent race qualifications imposed by the RORC, but would be allowed to sail as an unofficial entrant, starting alone 10 minutes before the rest of the fleet.
Though we were not rated and could not possibly win anything, Don was still taking the race very seriously. As soon as he finished stuffing us full of food, he bustled us up on deck for some important last-minute preparations.
First he had Bruce and I haul him up the mainmast to attend to some minor detail at the masthead. The mainsail halyard he insisted we use for this was all wire and was controlled by an antique wire-reel winch that had only a friction brake for making things fast. Both Bruce and I thought it might be a little dangerous going aloft on this type of halyard, but Don scoffed at our concern.
“It’s perfectly safe,” he insisted. “I’ve been doing it this way for 40 years.”
Immediately afterward, he ordered Quentin and I to take the anchor off the bow and stow it below. Quentin inspected the anchor and called for an Allen wrench to undo the surprisingly fancy rode shackle. Don, it seemed, was everywhere at once. Instantly his bony hand emerged from the foc’sle hatch holding aloft the foulest, most rusted conglomeration of Allen wrenches I had ever seen.
Like Arthur receiving Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake, Quentin was awestruck. “They’re not metric or imperial,” he exclaimed. “They’re prehistoric!”
All told, there were six of us aboard. Both Quentin, surname Brooksbank, and Rod Spencer had come to us from Besso Ltd., the marine insurer with which Don had done business for many years. Bruce Roberts, our ringer and foredeck maestro, was from Giovanni Agnelli’s hot-shot black maxi Stealth. And John “Barney” Barsdell, first mate and co-navigator, was Don’s oldest friend aboard, having many years earlier managed Iolaire in charter service on Don’s behalf. Don, of course, would be skipper and navigator. I was to be a sort of sub-navigator and was assigned the job of managing our only electronic navigation device, a tiny handheld GPS unit intended for use by hikers, for which we had no instructions.
Iolaire of course had no engine, so we had to sail off our mooring and short-tack our way out the mouth of the Medina River to the Solent, where the start would take place. Don was cool as a cucumber as he steered through the maze of moorings. Then suddenly, once we were clear of the mooring field, an enormous ferry appeared and bore down on us in the narrow channel.
“Oh, damn,” muttered Don quietly. “This is going to be tight.” And it was, but he betrayed no serious alarm. Just the bemused world-weary crankiness of a canny old salt who had spent more time than most sailing engineless boats in and out of trouble.
THANKS LARGELY to the famous race of 1979, during which 15 sailors lost their lives in a terrible storm, the Fastnet has a reputation for strong weather. More often than not, however, conditions are very moderate, and so it was this year. For days after the start the wind was light and variable, and so we meandered slowly, oh-so-slowly, down the coast of southern England, past the celebrated list of landmarks–the Needles, Portland Bill, Start Point, the Lizard, and Land’s End.
Don had plenty of time to pontificate and so shared with us many of his nautical opinions, of which he has always had a large supply. On shore, I’d noticed, listening to Don go on and on about things could sometimes be taxing. Aboard Iolaire, however, everything he had to say seemed remarkably important and relevant. Among the various enlightening lectures we received were the following:
Sheeting Headsails to Your Boom. Don is very big on this. Whenever we were on a reach we led the genoa or yankee sheet to the end of the main boom, which greatly widened the sheeting angle. This eased the helm and made the boat sail faster. To capture the sheet on the high-cut yankee we ran a clever tag-line, which Don claimed to have invented, out to a stopper knot tied into the sheet that was low enough to reach from deck.
Reefing the Main. Raise the boom, boys! Don taught us we should use the topping lift to hoist it in the air a good six feet or more when securing the mainsail’s tack and clew lines while reefing. This dumps air out of the sail and keeps the boom from flapping around while you work. To facilitate this maneuver on Iolaire, the topping lift descended to the end of the boom from up one of the twin backstays so that it could easily be controlled from behind the helm.
What to Do When Not on Watch. Words of wisdom from Don to Ron after he found him loitering about on deck while off duty: “Get to sleep, man! The only reason you should ever leave that berth is if you’re called on deck or if someone tells you there is food being served.”
Becue Your Anchor. If you need to drop the hook in a bazillion feet of water in the middle of nowhere to keep from being swept backwards by the tide when there is absolutely no wind to speak of (as is apt to happen during a Fastnet Race), this is what you should do to be sure of getting your anchor back. Shackle the bitter end of the rode to the head of the anchor, then lash the rode with small stuff back along the length of the anchor’s stock. If the hook gets stuck down there, some strenuous pulling and tugging should break the lashing and will allow you to pull the anchor out more easily by its head.
(I asked Don if he had actually ever saved an otherwise irretrievable anchor by using this trick, and he confessed that he had not. He admitted he had learned it from a book by Uffa Fox, but still seemed very proud of it.)
The Glorious Multi-Purpose Genoa (or MPG). The poor man’s asymmetric sail is what Don called it. It was a flat-cut, loose-luffed, big-assed reaching sail than could take the boat to windward when its Kevlar luff was set up bar tight. Or we could use it as a spinnaker of sorts tacked either to the bowsprit or out to windward on a regular spinnaker pole. This was Don’s secret weapon in light air, hence was the most popular sail in our inventory during our long, slow crawl to Ireland.
ONE OF MANY THINGS I learned during this race, though Don did not lecture on it directly, is that the key to sailing well in light air is to stay very focused.
In the competitive sense, time and the march of modern yacht design had not been kind to Iolaire. In the 1975 Fastnet, Don recalled, she rated at the bottom of Class I. Now, he figured, an IRC rating would put her in the middle of the smallest class. Still, in our drift across the Celtic Sea, we saw many boats behind us. When the wind died down to a whisper, thanks mostly to Bruce, who paid ceaseless attention to our sail trim and constantly harangued whoever was on the helm, they got smaller and farther away. Only when the wind increased did they get larger and pass us by. It occurred to me, finally, that if only we had a big enough surplus of time and a big enough lack of wind, we might actually win the race.
Even if you’re doing it well, however, sailing in the light stuff does have a tendency to bend your mind after a while. I will always remember the third morning of our race, while we were still about 75 miles from the Irish coast, when Don, like Ahab, suddenly appeared on deck with a mad look in his eye and recited to us from Bill Snaith’s book On the Wind’s Way an imprecation to the stingy wind gods of the British Isles:
Oh great gods of the Western Approaches to the British Isles, we on the yawl Figaro racing to Sweden salute you.
Oh hear us, you gracious ones, hear your people on Figaro! We offer this libation to you. We ask that you look kindly upon us, your servants who have been put to sore trial on your heaving bosom. We know that it is the way of Olympians to put to the greatest trial those whom they love best, a kind of chosen people syndrome that you godhead folks swap around. But, as your omnipotences must know, we are in a race and time is running short; it is time for you to make your move.
We ask that you stop crapping around and provide us and us alone with one of your finest breezes to take us all the way to the finish. We ask this in view of our long and loving acknowledgement of your existence when other people thrash around in Zen Buddhism and other apostasies of faith.
If you do as we ask, oh great earth shakers, we will raise our children to recognize your names, and on coming in victoriously we will make proper celebrations. We will pour champagne into you until you are as drunk as we are.
But mind you, our patience wears thin. We are fed up with the way we are being treated. All day we have been putting up with your shit and we are tired of it. It is now 2200 hours. Now hear this, you meatheads. We give you until 2300 hours to come up with a favorable wind. If you deliver, we in turn will do what we can to preserve your everlasting glory. But if you don’t, we will join in the calumny on your names.
After reading this aloud, Don, over the objections of Bruce, who (as always) wanted us to concentrate very hard on sailing very slowly in almost no wind, declared that it was time to have a Heineken. He disappeared below, returned with beers for all those on deck, then poured a good dose of his overboard before taking a swig.
Ironically, it was not long after this that the first seeds of mutiny were sown.
IT BEGAN AS AN IDLE JOKE that Bruce bandied about the deck that afternoon–he thought perhaps we should put into Glandore, where Don has a home, and have a pint in the pub there. That night was our most intense by far. Over the course of 12 hours the wind varied wildly from Force 0 to Force 6 and back again, thus leading us on a very complete and exhausting tour of the sail inventory.
In the middle of all this, an Irish Naval Patrol boat chased us down, caught us in their spotlight like criminals, and demanded particulars as to our identity and intentions. By the time Bruce, Barney, and I came back on watch at 0400, we were ripe for conspiracy.
At 0800, when Don came back on deck, we put our plan into action. First me with my sob story over breakfast: “At the rate we’re going, I’ll miss my flight back to the States, as will my wife and 3-month-old baby daughter, who wait patiently for me in County Kerry. But if we put into Glandore, I can get off now and make the plane.”
Then came Bruce, in his broad Aussie brogue: “Just check the GPS, mate. We’re much closer to Glandore than we are to Fastnet Rock.”
And on doing so, Don saw that I had already entered Glandore as our destination waypoint. Finally, Barney, in his capacity as first mate and old friend, cornered the skipper below and mentioned that there had been talk in the wee hours of putting him adrift in the dinghy.
“He’ll go for it,” announced Barney with a smile as he re-emerged on deck, and there was general jubilation on board. Even those fickle wind gods, whom Don so assiduously courted the day before, seemed to approve the decision, as the breeze continually shifted, lifting us into Glandore Bay and away from Fastnet Rock.
But then the Irish Navy reappeared on the horizon and headed straight for us. Soon they hailed us on the radio. In an instant, our hard-won victory was flashing before our eyes. Surely they would not approve of us putting into Glandore without first clearing customs.
“Give me that radio,” muttered Don. And he proceeded to give the Irish Navy an earful, berating them first for the unseamanlike manner in which they had approached us during the night, then for their lack of courtesy in receiving competitors in the famous Fastnet Race.
The radio operator on the patrol boat offered abject apologies, but Don was on a roll now and could not be placated. He demanded to speak to the captain, identified himself as the famous Donald M. Street, Jr., and started listing all his accomplishments. Finally, he recited the address of his website. Whereupon the Irish Navy stopped answering their radio, turned tail, and steamed away from us as fast as possible.
By noon we were in paradise, seated outside Don’s favorite pub in Glandore with pints in our hands. In the bright sunlit bay below us, Iolaire rested on her anchor with her battle flag hanging limp from her forestay. Don, like an all-powerful Mafia boss, received effusive greetings and salutations from all members of the community who strolled by.
“Whatever are you doing here?” they asked in amazement.
“Can’t you see?” we replied, pointing proudly at our pints and at the boat in the windless bay below. “We’re in the middle of a sailboat race!”