Round The Island with Bob Hewitt
A Tall Story - Chris Burke
My lasting memory of the weekend is encapsulated by the above view from on-board Challenger 4 with Challenger 3 in the foreground and The Needles lighthouse with the Western coast of the Isle of Wight behind. Our boat was heeled at some crazy angle in a turbulent sea. With only five hours to go to the finish, and the wind chill around zero our biggest enemy, so it seemed, was the cold. It had all began so gently the day before when we had assembled at Gun-wharf keys in Portsmouth for what, back in October, had been billed as a gentle sail around the Isle of Wight. The author had, of course, failed to notice that it was going to be a race between ourselves in Challenger 4 and two other identical boats three and two.
We were introduced to the full-time members of our crew. Captain Ian Buchele henceforth known as Bushy, Mate Amy Ferrier, henceforth known as Sergeant Major and crew member Sharon South, henceforth, known as Sharon. Sharon got straight down to business with the all important matter of how to operate the heads. Thorough though it was, it failed to explain the all- important position of the light switch, an absence which had serious ramifications for those of us wishing to use the device later after bedtime.
The day, Friday the 11th of February had begun with a frosty morning which had given way to one of clear, sunlit skies with light winds upon the Solent, conditions nearly ideal for learning the basis of operating the vessel before a planned overnight in Cowes.
We learnt about the snake pit, an area just ahead of the cockpit. We learnt about winching and how to keep our hands out of trouble with the capstan. The snake pit derives its name from the look of a pit full of Boa Constrictors in the form of heavy gauge coiled sheets. However, surrounded as it is by 4 angry winches, within easy constricting distance of the occupant, the potential danger was ever present not to mention 4 more of the thumb crushing hazards further aft.
Apart from the obvious safety stuff, M/WOB etc., the biggest thing we needed to get around first day was the matter of a good start for, if nothing else, competition is the DNA of Worthing Sailing Club. This involved the rapid raising of the two jib type halyards and was something we practised twice. Indeed it was the only duty for which specific roles were assigned in advance of a start due to take place from abeam Cowes at 0800 the following day.
Those expecting a nice first class cabin with all mod cons had come to the wrong place. For us, minions, there was a limited choice of bunk varying from uncomfortable to unbearable. With overnight temperatures expected to be around freezing, the options were being frozen or deafened to death by the air conditioning. The skipper elected for the latter to such extent that for the author at least, it was actually a relief in the morning at 0600, suitably exhausted, to be able to start work for our departure at 0700.
So there we all were, just after dawn, mainsail up with the advantage of having our skipper as the Race Officer. It was to be Le Mans type start. With all the crew at the rear of the vessel, when the start gun was fired, we walked briskly to our positions and began hoisting the two jib sails, known as the Yankee and and the Blue one or oops, was it the Green one? It had been agreed the previous day to use colour terminology when shouting at each other during the moments of panic which ensued as we fumbled to pull up the two additional coloured halyards faster than the opposition. Busy as the author was, he
remains unsure who was the fastest but the good news was that, by the time he was able to look, we had a bit of a head lead with the opposition, one upon which helm, Mike Coady, capitalised by keeping windward and presenting the opposition with a stern view of our boat. It was a view, to some extent, which did not change for the next 6 1/2 hours.
In contrast to our previous day's little jolly, Challenger 4 was now heeled so hard over that it seemed that the deck would touch the ocean. We all scrambled to the windward side in an attempt to balance the vessel upright as our boat took off at what seemed an extraordinary speed down the Solent heading West. It was time for a respite as we sunned ourselves on the windward side on a freezing cold morning leaving Mike and Bushey to wrestle with the helm.
Sometime just after passing North of Yarmouth we were to receive our first rude awakening as the skipper briefed us that it would be necessary to carry out a series of tacks in order to thread the Needles. Just about this point the sea changed from being relatively calm to relatively rough. "Ready for Tack" In charge of cranking the Green sail sheet connected to goodness knows what, I suppose the thing that took me most by surprise was the sheer distance to climb from the new leeward to new windward side at a deck the angle which seemed almost vertical. If having climbed the Eiger, if we thought there was to be any respite another "Tack Ho" was in soon the offing with corresponding working, winching, winding and wheezing. I did not keep count, but we must have done about eight tacks in succession. Certainly we reached the point where I was hoping we wouldn't need any more.
We were now outside the protection of the Solent with a full force of a southerly gale and its ensuing effect on the sea state no longer inhibited by the Island we were trying to
circumnavigate. The boat angle seemed ridiculous. It reminded me of trapezing a Dart 18 on a windy day, desperately trying to ease the Trapeze jam cleat to prevent me departing headfirst into Davey Jones' locker.
Apart from that, our biggest enemy seemed to be the cold. Thus it was that our Sergeant Major cheerily stated is was time to hydrate and remarked on the need for some hot teas and biscuits. Being a sucker for punishment, the Author elected to go down below to assist Sharon in boiling the kettle. Grabbing the various handrails to stabilise my upper body I gradually worked my way to the Galley where of course the kettle was sat happily horizontally on its gimbal in accordance with Newton's law of universal gravitation. In theory simple, the task in hand was complicated and slow. It was some time, therefore, before we managed to produce a set of beverages and I was able to lurch back up the companionway to relay the liquids by now sloshing in a container designed for this purpose. Upon arrival, it was a different sea, this time one of white faces which greeted me and sadly our efforts in down below proved of little interest to the gathered assembly.
We consoled ourselves with the thought that once past St Catherine's lighthouse things would be slightly easier and that, at present rate, the said structure would not be long in being visible on our Port side. In the meantime the various helmsmen were working overtime to keep the vessel on a steady heading. On the face of things the opposition, who had tacked early at the Needles, were ahead of us. We were, nevertheless, well to windward and I correctly diagnosed they had understood the Mark so to speak. Since this Mark consisted of a headland a couple of miles ahead there was no way they were going to cut inside it. As a consequence, by the time we reached Saint Catherine's, once again, we were presenting Challenger 3 with a view of our stern.
Having got round to the East side of the island we were now heading downwind with a whole new set of winching skills required in order to gybe. Enter stage right "The preventer" a device I personally had never experienced before. At Worthing Sailing Club the preventer is the unfortunate crew member's head. However, weighing best part of a ton, the problem is that the boom on our vessel would never even notice such an obstruction as destroyed anything in its path. Indeed, the momentum so gained could have serious consequences on the entire vessel. To impede its progress a series of block and tackles is designed to prevent the such momentum of an inadvertent gybe - hence the term.
The sea remained as large as before but now going downwind the boat wallowed in almost ungainly fashion in spite of the fact that were frequently exceeding 10 kn. The author had an attempt at helming, the Sun came out and with the lower apparent wind, for a short period, conditions seemed almost tropical compared with the, hitherto, position heading South. One by one the crew members returned to a degree of sanity.
Our course was based on rounding the Nab tower, that fortress looking construction familiar to those with knowledge of The Eastern Solent. A series of gybes consolidated our position at the head of the fleet especially when, Challenger 3 attempted to head East and remove her final reef. It was a tactic which failed but, given their continuous view of our stern, was probably worth a try.
Keeping the Nab tower to Port we turned to the West for the final leg which, fortuitously, turned out to be a single reach all the way back to the finish. It had originally been anticipated we might need to make several tacks and as Karla took the helm for the final leg she achieved the speed record for the day. The author was granted the privilege of taking the helm for the final 300 meters and at 1430 GMT we passed the finish line. Worthing had won.
It was not quite time to celebrate as we still had the epic job of lowering and furling the mainsail. Weighing, as it does, as much as a mini, this is an eight man job and carried out under the expert command of Sergeant Major Amy. As good sportsmen we also hung about to welcome the opposition back over the finish line before returning to Cowes not very long before dusk. Once tied up, Skipper Bushy gave a short speech summarising our performance, a performance which, at 6 hours 30 minutes, has set a pretty high target for any future challenges to this event. In spite of his fine words, I am sure that, deep down, we all recognised the role he and the permanent crew his played in this successful outcome. Thanks were for also given to Bob Hewitt who, over the past few months, has endured our various tantrums in organising an event which had more crew changes than the Railway station in Cheshire albeit spelt with an e
It had been a long and exhausting day. An evening of Bacchus was in prospect at the Island Sailing Club, Cowes. Somehow, through it all, we had managed to retain sufficient dry clothing to be well turned out for the presentation albeit, looking as elegant as ever, Tracey and partner Graham had cheated by renting a B and B in Cowes. Leader of the Bacchus group was, rebel rouser Armelle, who, almost straight off the plane from tropical Costa Rica, had been a last minute addition to our group. Much to everyones' envy she had spent much of the weekend defying the laws of somnography.
Following the presentation, Bob gave a short speech thanking the organisers and Tim Rose thanked the opposition who like all of us, were scratch crews. Our Skipper had awarded Paul the Man of the Match, an accolade we all agreed he thoroughly deserved by virtue of his enthusiasm which had never waned whatever adversity occurred.
In composing this piece I have tried to include as many names as possible. However, the fact remains it was very much team effort and it would be remiss of me not to to mention the whole team, which, for completeness consisted of:
Ian Buchele (Captain)
Amy Ferrier (Mate)
Sharon South (Full time Crew)
Bob Hewitt (Group Leader and organiser)
In alphabetical order