RACING SOLO ACROSS THE ATLANTIC
By Jerry Freeman
This is the time of year when sailors glance casually at a chart of the North Atlantic to check if it really is only 2810 nautical miles from Plymouth, England to Newport, Rhode Island. The motivation for this long term passage planning is the 14th edition of the Original Single-handed Trans-Atlantic Race – OSTAR – which starts on May 27th, Bank Holiday Monday, under the green and pleasant hills of Plymouth Hoe. The crowds will be massed in their thousands to bid fair winds to the thirty intrepid skippers who must battle westward along a trail first blazed in 1960 by Francis Chichester in Gypsy Moth III and Blondie Hasler in Jester for the small wager of a half-crown.Many sailors dream of the challenge when simply put, starting from Plymouth, turn the bow to the west toward the setting sun and keep going for three or four weeks to America, on your own.
The OSTAR is a race where the experienced grey beards can compete alongside the young and headstrong sailors who tend to crash and burn before they have crossed the edge of the Continental Shelf. It is here that the true scale of the voyage begins to sink in while severe sleep deprivation produces wild hallucinations and erodes the early resolve. Who said ‘youth is wasted on the young’, this is a grown-up’s game. Stretching out to the windward horizon the heaving trackless ocean shows no marks from the battles of previous years but the successful skippers will carry their scars with pride forever. It is often said that if you want to get to know a man then take him sailing, therefore it must follow that if you want to know yourself try racing across the Atlantic solo, but beware you may be not be altogether impressed with what you learn.
The race divides conveniently into three ‘fun size’ portions: The first thousand miles includes the sleepless zone that has to be crossed to clear the shipping approaching the English Channel, the Bishop Rock light is probably the last sight of land at the Isles of Scilly, then beating westward for 200 miles before dropping off Europe’s steep edge into the Atlantic Ocean proper. These first few days are the hardest because sleep is at a premium, the proximity of hard Cornish granite and solid steel ships precludes any rest and although the fishing industry has almost gone it only takes one trawler to spoil your day! Finding the sea legs after a week of carousing at the Royal Western Yacht Club is always a challenge while dehydration, sea sickness and lack of regular food conspire to bring even the most experienced sailors almost to their knees.
The middle thousand is the lonely stretch. Climbers will be familiar with the term ‘exposure’ to describe the long vertical drop on a steep but easy pitch. The mid Atlantic is like that, the sailing is not technically difficult but it does feel very remote and exposed as the point of no return approaches. However unlike a mountain climb where the location and severity of difficult pitches are well understood, the sailor never knows, because of the randomness of strong wind events, where or when the test will be, he just knows a beating will come soon.
Fortunately as the boats progress along fifty north latitude the ocean is warming up under the influence of the Gulf Stream diffusing eastward but here the waves are enormous and gale frequency tops out at 8% in June. On average seven ‘lows’ every month will form off Newfoundland to track east or north east moving at up to 25 knots so the slower boats unfairly endure more bad weather than the rocket ships. The wind changes constantly in force and direction demanding almost continuous sail area changes. But the solo skipper is now fully acclimatised and in tune with his environment, enjoying a euphoria in ocean racing that can only be experienced by the chosen few. Perhaps akin to weightlessness in space flight, this sensation is not available to those who always sail near land. The skipper and boat meld into a single entity, each knowing and recognising the others needs. Automatically and seamlessly day and night without hesitation the yacht is trimmed and steered with optimum efficiency like a silver dart unerring in its aim. Here the true enormity of the ocean and the utter insignificance of a solitary man cannot be denied.
This elevated state of being is shattered after about ten days as the ice reports start to come in with icebergs and growlers drifting south down to 44 degrees latitude. The last thousand miles begin by threading the needle between these icebergs on the Grand Banks off Newfoundland and the ‘north wall’ of the Gulf Stream with its enticing warm and blue current stealing 30 miles a day from the unwary. Continental America appears with a sudden bump in the fog at the tip of the Grand Banks, flocks of sea birds and solitary whales reappear as the echo sounder that has been dormant for two weeks now shows only thirty metres of depth and that feels dangerously shallow after the 3000 metres over the graveyard of the Titanic.
The astute navigator, racing now in seas seldom sailed, tries to stay in the chilly shelf waters for the final 800 miles, leaving Nova Scotia and Sable Island to starboard, to avoid the counter currents of the Gulf Stream. The downside of this route is the associated poor visibility, bone chilling cold and the risk of collision with the menacing trawlers that figure high in OSTAR legends. Light head winds from the southwest and frequent calms make this the slowest section of the race, although the improved radio reception from local FM stations playing Country Music is a benefit that many racers may fail to fully appreciate, Yee – Haa!
The Georges Bank, Nantucket shoals, Martha’s Vineyard, Nomans Land: these names are as familiar to the Ostar skipper as they are to the New Englander, ticking off these land marks means that the race is coming to a close and in the next thirty six hours there will be precious little sleep until Brenton Reef is on the chart and that slow winking red light at Castle Hill comes abeam.
Spare a thought for the unshaved and malodorous sailor when you see him blinking in the morning sunlight on the dock at the Newport Yacht Club, he only wants a cold beer and a very long sleep and then he may tell you all about it.
About the Author
Jerry Freeman completed the Ostar in 1984, 1992 and 2009, and races his J105, ‘Juliette’ in the Solent.