I am sitting in my comfortable cabin with a coffee the morning after my completion of the Jester 2019 Challenge, optimistically wearing a pair of shorts. Sadly, the sight of my hairy white chicken legs clearly frightened away the weak early morning sun, for a typical Baltimore overcast now presides as if chiding my obscenity.
I had arrived in darkness at 2300 the night before, 270 very slow, difficult nautical miles and 3 ½ days out from Plymouth, stirred and shaken, relieved and swearing “never again”. Although only 5 Plymouth starters were ahead of Pippin at Baltimore, as I discovered from 68 years young John Lashmore who had come in first of all Plymouth starters in his Achilles 9 metre Sancerre, it mattered not for this is a personal challenge to be done in your own way, in your own time. To finish is enough. Still ….
The Achilles boys are a close knit Jester clan rightly proud of their craft. You buy an Achilles for a Jester because they are the right size; because they are old and therefore cheap; because they are tough and achingly pretty but mostly because they are fast. Yes you buy an Achilles to win! John had told me his result with a true competitor’s glint in his eye. “Good boats” I said” but better sailors”, thinking as I said it of Pippin lugging Willis’s stores around. No the Jester Challenge isn’t a race, of course it isn’t.
Achilles Rest in Baltimore – Sancerre First Man Home
Anyway, I was left with mixed feelings, though 2 things came immediately to mind; first there are Jester types and then there are Jester types, all to be respected. The hardcore Challengers are tough sailors often racing types, of which I am not one, and the rest like me are there to have a go, but here’s the thing, they are almost all in smaller and therefore less comfortable boats than Pippin. Mind you, not all are carrying a ton of Fray Bentos, Gentleman’s Relish, Baked Beans, Branston Pickle, Angie’s marmalade and Army ration packs amongst other food stores. For my money, the epitome of the real Jester Challenger is the amazing ex Royal Marine Andy Laine in his 12 footer; indeed, I would attach the label ’bonkers’, with great respect, to many of this crowd. It didn’t matter that he didn’t finish, battered by headwinds.
Second, I have a confession never a good thing to start with; there are very few rules in this Challenge, yet I broke one; I USED MY ENGINE! But I’ll come on to that.
A couple of days before the start, I pronounced expansively to Pete and Tracey in Jolly Jacks café, perhaps rather late in my sailing life, that I had discovered weather windows and only ever wanted to enjoy my sailing from now on, with blue skies, calm seas and soldiers’ winds very much in my mind. Pete looked knowingly at me, crushed my hand in his huge paw and wished me luck for the Challenge, which was due to start 2 days later.
The morning of Sunday 16th June, start day, came with the promise of SW 18-25 knots (F5/6), pretty much from the direction we all wanted to go and I recalled those ‘weather window’ sailors who described sailing into a F6 as a “yachtsmen’s’ gale”. Anyway, I settled Pippin well away from the fleet, tucked out of trouble behind Plymouth breakwater busy taking pictures as others duelled near the start line and several minutes after the start gun had gone off, Pippin and I crossed the line in solitary splendour, the skipper with cuppa in hand and waving at the Committee boat.
John Prepares Sancerre near Cawsand Bay Just Before the Start
A Jester Competitor Prepares for the Start
Several boats had peeled off into the welcoming arms of Cawsand Bay to await – you guessed it – that weather window but I kept Pippin’s nose pointed out to sea where a cloud of white sails was fast disappearing. Then I sensed Pippin was gaining on a competitor, which filled my heart with pride in my craft, even if it was Andy Lane’s 12’ boat; it didn’t matter, an overtake was an overtake or does that sound a little like racing talk?
The Incredible Andy Laine – it was a Rough Start
The bit now well between my teeth, I tacked Pippin West unlike just about everyone else, and was soon tackling a comfortable Halcyon 27 ketch which shortly fell behind – I should add, this was a wholly uneven contest, but who cares? An overtake is an overtake and I don’t do that often so there.
The Halcyon Clipper Yawl
The wind was gusting 25 knots, the seas rough for smaller boats but Pippin was enjoying herself, feeling very comfortable though it was going to be a very long hard slog. I wasn’t quite so comfortable and I don’t know my racing lines from my tram lines for I am more of a sailing wanderer, which perhaps explained my lonely course – I couldn’t see anyone else and I was only a few hours out. Where on earth were they? What did they know I didn’t?
This next section should be called “the battle for the Lizard”, a headland 50 nautical miles West from Plymouth, pretty well directly upwind. It was very hard going indeed for me and Pippin was shipping a lot of water over her cabin top, but I couldn’t complain for all of us, most in smaller craft, were fighting this out in our own ways. I am not sure when, but Pippin ascended a particularly big daddy of a wave, like an elevator heading for the 30th floor, before descending for the basement and somewhere around the 15th floor, my breakfast porridge ejected forcibly rom the cabin across the cockpit. I am very rarely sea sick and this did not feel like that malaise for I felt fine, before and after but this continued at regular 3 hourly intervals as I fought Pippin West through the gathering darkness.
Its hard to tack and tack again into strong winds and seas, when you are vomiting everything you’ve got inside at regular intervals. I looked wistfully at the welcoming arms of lovely Falmouth in the darkness close off my starboard beam, glowing on the chart plotter, tempting me in for a breather, but I had told myself I would do this. No-one else would stop there, so why should I? Or would they? No Willis – you keep going.
At breakfast time on the 17th the Lizard finally lay 5 miles to starboard, almost conquered though I still could not eat. This headland has a fearsome reputation, but the meaning of its name is much tamer. It means in, I believe, old Cornish, a court or high court, one that has judged and condemned many a ship and its crew over the centuries. Just then I didn’t care about such things or much else frankly. Hoping to improve matters, I removed two smelly diesel jerry cans from the cabin, somehow shoving them deep into a stern locker. Now I set Pippin on course for clearing South of the Scillies and Bishop’s Rock lighthouse to its West, 50 nautical miles away, wishing it would all end.
At some point my projectile vomiting stopped, but I wasn’t in good shape, losing strength without proper food, though I munched nuts, dried fruit and chocolate and kept hydrated. Meanwhile Hercule the Hydrovane couldn’t give a toss for he had a job to do and together he and Pippin managed just fine as his skipper cursed the god of the West wind loudly.
The wind was easing by evening Day 2, which made tacking along the Scillies much easier, though it was dispiriting to lose ground on each tack South and as a light evening mizzle came in, 20 hours after the start (I think), with Pippin close in shore and Bishop’s Rock just ahead, I broke the Jester rule. My tack was achingly short of clearing the lighthouse …. unless…. So, on went the little engine, just enough to harden closer to the wind and clear that damned rock for I gained little or no speed. To starboard, two other Jester competitors, close inshore, were also struggling such that they gave up on Bishop’s Rock and slipped through a Scillies Sound for Eire instead.
Bishop’s Reef in the Evening
Infamous Bishop’s Rock Lighthouse
No excuses, but I’ll comment on my decision, for there are times when concerns for safety at sea and good seamanship dictate a sensible course of action with all means at your disposal and this for me was just such. I was very weak, unwell, knackered after 20 sleepless battling hours and I needed to get off a nasty lee shore before dark. A little later, with my back to the Bishop’s Rock and Eire 120 nautical miles North across a choppy, but quiet Celtic Sea, I gave Hercule the wind vane his instructions for the night and slept guarded by the radar alarm which goes off if anything comes within a set range. Twice it woke me and I watched a ship pass, safely distant, and twice I rejoined Gollum deep in the sleep caverns.
It took a day of light winds to get less than half way across that damned Celtic Sea. Sailing in light winds I find is harder and certainly more dispiriting than blasting along in a good breeze except perhaps for motion. Anyway, the wind now moved gradually into the NW and this is where my inexperience of course setting came in, for I spent far too long pondering which course would be better than another and my track began to resemble a curvy snake as I dithered. Indecision is not my normal characteristic though, so this didn’t last long and I decided to get West to take advantage of an anticipated westerly wind shift, which hopefully would later coincide with an easterly running tide as I set my final course for Baltimore.
I knew of the anticipated wind shift thanks to my Garmin Inreach satellite device, with which I could text anyone anywhere and my wife Angie kept me updated on weather matters. Great ocean sailor ex Royal Marine and supportive mate Pete texted his support just then and asked for updates, so there was no pressure on me there then!
I always see dolphins in the Celtic Sea, which I have now crossed alone or in company at least 6 times, but this time I was amazed to see Risso’s dolphins with their big blunt beakless white faces. Mind you I had just ditched the best Willis stew ever made, completely untouched, just before they arrived; I do hope they are all right though they didn’t come back for seconds. One of them seemed to have two fins, or perhaps was in to synchronised swimming. Gorgeous creatures and such sights always give me a lift, though I didn’t bother with the camera for it was a little bumpy and I knew all I would capture would be megabytes of grey Celtic Sea and seawater on the lens.
Meanwhile work in the galley remained limited, very rare aboard my ship, for I had no appetite but knew I had to keep my strength up. I am not a huge fan of pot noodles, but in this state, they were something I could manage and they gave me a noticeable boost along with bread and Marmite and cold baked beans – still tucked away for real emergencies of course, were my 2 Army ration packs, very yummy.
I found it quite uncomfortable in the wide-open reaches of the Celtic Sea on the last day, for there was an irritating beam sea running, stirred up by wind battling with the tide. Curling tops of breaking waves licked over the bows and ran over the cabin top and Pippin, too heavy in the stern lifted her bows for a good spanking by an occasional larger oncoming wave; she didn’t even flinch, shrugging them off with no loss of speed. So far Pippin had been leak free, but curling fingers of wind-blown sea licked around the forehatch and a few drops found their way in, just enough to irritate but not enough to seriously dampen anything.
Wind and tide are an interesting phenomenon and I find it quite remarkable what a difference tidal direction makes. As the tide gave up its fight with the wind and turned in the evening gloom to head East, so the sea calmed though rollers in from the Atlantic prevented me getting too comfortable. Talking of comfort, apart from my ailment, I must have been so much more comfortable than most other Challengers, for I could do almost everything from inside my little ship. Indeed, I arrived without that wind-blown lobster red face that so many racing yachtsmen sport on reaching land, and I read 1 1/2 good books, for trusty Hercule always stood all watches without complaint. Fortunately I had done ok with sleep and rest too in my snug little cabin, whatever was going on outside.
Well, much more by accident than design, Pippin began to ride the new East going tide to a soldier’s wind as she cork-screwed on the quartering sea, but all in the right direction with Hercule the wind vane, imperturbable as ever, in charge of operations. I passed the infamous Fastnet Rock and ran on towards Lot’s wife, the tall stone beacon dominating the eastern entrance to Baltimore, until I could see the welcoming flashing green light of the Baltimore channel marker. 2 or 3 yachts crawled West close inshore to round Fastnet, before returning, motor sailing after a long hard bash I suspect, for they were directly into the wind. Here I decided not to sail into the narrow entrance in the dark and took down the sails as Pippin rolled in the gusty darkness. To my disappointment, I was careless in my weakened tired state and allowed the sail to contact a spreader, ripping it near the upper leach of the mainsail, skipper error; otherwise, Pippin had come through everything unscathed and done everything asked of her with dignity and grace.
Well, I have no usable mainsail, the wind will turn East and harden with scattered showers to boot at the weekend, so I have made the decision to leave in the early dawn tomorrow (Friday) to run down under the yankee jib on a W/SW/S wind to Crosshaven, a lovely spot to rest and recover and get my mainsail fixed for whatever comes next. This is a great pity, as I will miss the pirate-week party, but as I don’t leave the boat in strong winds, I probably wouldn’t be ashore if I stayed at anchor here in Baltimore anyway. Instead, I’ll dress in my pirate gear and sip a glass of hair restorer in a toast of great respect to Jester Challengers everywhere. Great bunch but I suspect my Jestering days may be over …. but you never know.
The course on the chart below was hastily compiled and doesn’t show the many many tacks out of Plymouth and before the Bishop’s Rock, the blood sweat and tears – or the vomit. Good night.