#1 2012-11-05 13:58:13

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FRANCESCA - Jester Challenge to the Azores (F26)

Jester Challenge to the Azores
by Jonathan Hopper


In May, Francesca took me from Gillingham down to Plymouth to join the Jester Challenge to the Azores (an event designed for sub 30ft boats wishing to experience singlehanded ocean sailing). The whole trip was single handed, including getting to Plymouth and back. It is not a race, but an event with no fees, no pre-requirements and very few rules - one of the few being that the engine is not to be used for propulsion. Because of this the trip is more about enjoying a safe passage than pushing small boats to their limits, inviting breakage. More information can be found on their website (http://www.jesterinfo.org).

Much of the planning and work for this trip goes back months if not years - such as the installation of certain critical equipment (eg. Sea Feather wind vane; AIS) and a much longer list of maintenance that had to be done which would otherwise be scheduled over the next few years, such as various rigging replacement, deck fitting removal and re-bedding; gas pipe replacement etc.etc. Winter was spent putting together a Jordon Series Drogue - the theory being if I had one it would not be needed. There were no big modifications made, just a number of smaller items to ensure seaworthiness in the harsher environment - latches over all the locker lids; latch to hold companionway closed; 2nd large bilge pump accessible down below; emergency storm boards made up for portlights and forehatch; 3rd set of reefs etc. For electricity, Francesca supports a dedicated engine battery in the bottom of the wet  locker, together with the original 2 under the step as a single house bank. Charging was by smart charger on the alternator (over 1 hour a day average) and a 40W solar panel. Water storage was by 100l in the flexible tank, and an additional 30l in tanks lashed to the base of the mast (down below). This was considerably more than was needed - the extra tanks could have been taken into a liferaft if needed, but also having extra weight in that area gave Francesca noticeably more stability. Francesca is a standard cutter rig Frances 26.

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Interior view of Francesca

May was spent sorting out food/clothing. I used vacuum bags for keeping fresh clothes dry which were excellent. It would have been useful to be able to draw the air out whilst underway, but my efforts failed. Daughter number 2 (Emily, then 12) refused to discuss the trip with me up to this moment, and then suddenly sprang into action helping with menus and bagging food up into separate weeks. The wait for a long enough break in the relentless westerly winds for the long grind to Plymouth was frustratingly long. After a few weeks of ‘shall I or shan’t I’ the perfect forecast emerged - 12hrs of west wind followed by 5 days of easterlies, and nothing particularly strong. Inevitably this was not quite what happened, and initial thoughts of stopping here and there to an anchor quickly changed into stops into Dover, Brighton, Weymouth Marinas, and a final stop in the Dart (gorgeous). After a traditionally poor South Foreland roller coaster Dover was all too tempting. The next morning I awoke to see a small craft opposite with a wind vane, who turned out to be another Jester challenger. It turned out that he had spent that night bouncing around going westwards, and finally gave up trying to beat into poor conditions at Hastings, where finding his boat full of water, he turned round and returned. His stern gland was leaking, and at that point he realised that the thought of bouncing around the Atlantic was more than he could endure, and that was where his Jester Challenge ended. They say that making it to the start line was a huge part of the challenge. Out of an original 70+ boats intending to take the challenge, only 29 started.

The stop at Brighton was similarly unintentional - conditions picked up off Beachy Head at 1am, and the forecast for the following day was poor, so I once again succumbed to the thoughts of hot showers and real food. The next leg to Weymouth was straight forward, and put Francesca into new cruising ground.

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Weymouth

With dire warnings in the pilot books for passing Portland Bill, I set off with some nervousness for the Dart early in the morning. My worries were completely unfounded as the Bill was a pussy cat, as was the long drag across Lyme Bay.

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Portland Bill

Entering the Dart in the evening was a bit like dying and going to heaven. For the first time there was some sun and a glimmer of warmth. Such a fantastic cruising ground needs a lot more exploring, but will have to wait till a different time.

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The approach to Dartmouth and the River Dart

I arrived in Plymouth a couple of days before the start, and enjoyed meeting fellow competitors and their boats. Most seemed to be at least a couple of feet longer than a Frances, with a useful amount of extra space down below. The day before the start it blew a real hoolie, and pre-race nerves were not helped by the incessant screaming in the rigging.

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Jester

The start day was much calmer, and the Jesters started the race to Ewan’s shotgun fired from his bows. Boat speeds were frustratingly low, and it took considerable concentration just to avoid colliding with the other yachts. The entrance to the sound was enveloped in thick fog with visibility a couple of boat lengths. Fortunately a breeze picked up, allowing navigation though numerous fog horns and AIS targets. The fog cleared, and the wind completely died for several hours. So frustrating. Then suddenly in the evening we were off! Lovely wind - S5 - reef in and humming. As those with similar boats know, these are the conditions that the Frances loves, giving over 5kn through the water all night. The darkness had its usual supply of ships and trawlers, so the odd 10 minute cat nap was the only sleep possible, and even that was awkward.

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Passing ship

Past the TSS with more ships the following day, and into the real rollers from the Atlantic, and so it continued. I had been advised not to sleep till around day 3 when we were off the continental shelf as this was the limit of the smaller fishing boats. In theory everything after that had a good chance of being detected on the AIS display (with a loud alarm!). A fellow competitor unfortunately made physical contact with a trawler on the first night and had to retire with boat damage.

After the second night of short cat naps I awoke from one short sleep at daybreak in murky visibility, only to see the shape of a ship in the gloom heading straight towards me. I was very surprised at the time that AIS had not picked it up, and it was so close that I made immediate collision avoiding heading alterations. With heart racing, even with a swift movement of the helm it was still directly in front. Checking the compass to work out what was going on, it then it dawned on me as this had happened once before - the mind was playing tricks through lack of sleep. Frightening to know how the brain cannot cope for very long, but at least I was still able to realise what had happened. The following night I was on to 1 ½ hour sleeps which helped considerably. When visibility improved I could still see 3 of my fellow competitors. Had a chat on the VHF, and this was the last conversation I had with anyone till returning to Plymouth.

For the next few days the wind was breezy to windy. A fair amount of headwind, but becoming favourable as the lows came past. No rain - pity as the salt built up everywhere. Chilly enough to need plenty of layers and hats. The Eberspacher was run every evening, but even this did not stop the ever damp atmosphere. The sea had plenty of texture, with waves coming from all directions, but rarely the rollers experienced in the Western Approaches, but the waves did not slow the hull as it does in the North Sea. Sometimes reefs had to go in when the wind was forward of the beam to stop any crashing - purely to ensure the rig remained with the boat till the end of the trip. The V of the hull has to part the next wave rather than the flat of the heeling hull else everything feels the shock, and it is a considerable shock with such big waves. In spite of seemingly good hull speed, daily runs were at best just over 100 miles. Ocean currents are generally against you on the way down, and I suspect that the log over read due to the bigger waves, and the less straight course that is made in coastal sailing.

Gear held out well, although the control lines to the wind vane seemed to slacken themselves. It took a few days to realise that 2 blocks were working their way inwards along a shaft designed to keep them outboard. This had the effect of having less travel on the tiller than was intended. Initially it was slow and of no real concern, and very easy to fix. I looked forward to a flatter sea as 2 hands were needed whilst dangling over the stern. Briefly trying this and feeling rather exposed I put the work off till the weather improved. This was a mistake.

3 nights in a row, all the same. Just as I was recovering from the first few nights of no sleep, low pressure fronts hit in the small hours of the morning soon after going to ‘bed’. Bed at 0045; up at 0100 to put in reef; Perhaps another reef at 0130. Tried to sleep, and gave up a couple of hours later - the answer was to sheet the staysail in really hard and put the helm down. Not the traditional way to heave to, but it was remarkably effective in F6/7 conditions with significant waves. I managed to grab a few hours sleep that way, but those 3 nights were tiring. The trip was predominantly on the port tack which allowed me to sleep on the starboard berth near the mast. My intention was to retire to the forepeak double if on the std tack or it was more bouncy, but found that the boat movement and noise up there stopped me sleeping. In the end if I couldn’t safely sleep on the starboard side, the floor became the only answer. The pilot berth was filled with safety gear and I never tried it for sleeping during the trip.

Out of range of radio 4 for forecasts I turned to a satellite phone, which I had hired largely to text my position home daily so that my family knew I was ok, but at this stage of the trip texted weather reports were invaluable. I received a warning - a low had turned right and significantly deepened. It must have been big as it took days to clear through. I beat for a couple of days in strengthening winds. The problem with the Sea Feather had not gone away, and to preserve what travel was left of the control lines I helmed for many hours for a couple of days before the worst of the depression hit. After 12 hours on the helm the seas all began to look as though they were uphill. Cooking and eating became difficult (will do this differently next time). I never find cooking easy when beating, not helped by food ending up on the floor before making it to my mouth. Small things make all the difference. My breakfast bowls have sloped sides so they nest, but if placed next to the fiddles whilst filling with breakfast cereal, they fall to the floor. 3 hands are needed, or different bowls. Similarly the cooker’s fiddles are too low for the Atlantic, and supper also came off when a ‘steam train wave’ hit whilst beating. Nibble food such as breakfast bars became the normal food for several days, but I had not anticipated this being a big problem there was only a limited supply on board. My waterproofs also started letting in salty water, and sets of clothes were becoming wet. Re-proofing them some months before seemingly hadn’t lasted. I was becoming fatigued and failing to look after myself.

The depression approached. 3rd reef went in. I helmed all day to try to get as far south as possible. Lots of texture now to the seas. Waves looking and sounding like steam trains reminded me why I was doing this in a sturdy built Frances rather than a light weight saucer. As night fell and the wind rose and the screaming in the rigging started. I tried lying a-hull as the ‘staysail’ method of heaving to at this wind speed was not comfortable. Lying a-hull was worse, so it was back on deck in the dark to get triple reef main up and a square inch of genoa out. Far better. Wind continued to rise until the rig was humming rather than screaming (never come across this before). At 0100 I ‘retired’ to the forepeak. If she rolled I reckoned this was the safest place to be. Sleep did not come, and for a period of maybe 20 minutes there were several of the ‘steam train’ waves that hit the top of Francesca, and these were rather more concerning. Conditions that night were very windy and rough, and although Francesca coped, it was a reminder that it wouldn’t need to be too much worse before the need to go into survival mode.

In the morning the wind was still strong from the SW - exactly where I needed to go. I was 700 miles from Plymouth - 500 miles to the Azores. The 10 day forecast was predominantly SW, so in terms of sea miles, time and comfort Plymouth was still closer. There were 3 more lows forecast over that time, of which one was looking as significant as the one I was in. Disappointing as it was, turning around seemed the only rational course of action, given lack of sleep, food and dry clothes, with the forecast set for these problems to continue. It was a difficult decision, and one that I probably would not have made if one or two of the minor issues had not occurred.

Most of the larger boats were 100 or 150 miles close to the finish when this depression hit. It took 11 days to get to 42deg 55’N, 17deg 10.6’W and 7 days to return. It was a windy but easy trip back. Apart from ship dodging once back on the continental shelf, the only other issue was a tricolour nav light which decided to go for a swim. It appears that the continual shock of the ‘steam train waves’ hitting the hull was finally too much for it. One other significant breakage was a boom bail, where the main sheet joins the boom. This is a known weakness and a spare had already been connected for the trip.

After sitting out yet another gale for a couple of days in the Sutton Marina in Plymouth (amazing showers - thanks for the tip Victoria Rose) I decided to take it easy getting back to Gillingham. However, the weather was so good initially, and I was in the groove for big passage making, so did Plymouth to Brighton in one leg (174 miles). Arriving at 2000, I looked forward to spending a couple of days there. The morning forecast was not promising, so just as I was getting ready for a day exploring, looked at the tides and wind changes and decided that the best way was to leave, immediately. Brighton to Dover (74 miles) meant I got in at 1am, and again looked forward to a couple of days there. Come the morning, the 5 day forecast was dire, with the only break that night, so at 0100 I was off again for the final leg to Gillingham, where I arrived just before the next low hit.

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Although it was disappointing to not have got to the Azores, given the weather and my promises to my family for firstly not drowning and secondly only being away for 7 weeks from the Jester start, it was probably the right decision to turn round. Perhaps if I had arranged for Francesca to remain in the Azores for a year I would have continued. It was a fascinating first foray into deep sea sailing, and the lessons learned should make it easier for the next Jester Azores in 4 years......

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#2 2012-12-05 23:30:06

Norman_Crawford
Member
Registered: 2012-05-21
Posts: 7

Re: FRANCESCA - Jester Challenge to the Azores (F26)

Jonathan -well done. What a fantastic effort. I know these waters well and to tackle them single handed has my sincere respect. Norman Crawford

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