By Simon Byrne
I’m lying on my bunk shattered, exhausted, physically spent but no sleep will come. There’s no time for that now. It’s 20.00hrs Sunday and we have been fifty two hours on the water. We rounded The Rock an hour ago – always a special moment in any sailors CV and never, ever to be taken for granted. Always remember - 1979 and the horror. Thirty four years ago, fifteen dead, nineteen boats abandoned and it still feels like only yesterday. On the approach we overtook four competitors – Lisador, Spindrift, Conundrum and Desert Star- left them for dead. It’s our time now. Adelie is just thriving on these newer, fresher conditions. Ocean Tango and Polished Manx are further back, hugging the coastline. The overtaking feels sweet, rewarding, but too late for us, too late for any aspirations of victory now. After days of frustrating wispy zephyrs the wind is finally building. Outside Peter, Robi, Kevin and Steve are driving her hard. A2 kite and full main in 15 - 20 knots of sou’ / sou’easterly - there’s more of that wind to come. We know it. The sea is going to get up too – we know that as well.
Off watch comrades Conor and Chesse are studying forecasts, pouring over tidal charts and familiarising themselves with the final approaches to the finish line in Dingle Bay - virgin territory for most of us. It’s eerily quiet, like as if we are all too aware of what’s about to unfold. Nothing is said – no words are spoken. We know this is going to be tough – tough as anything we have done before. My mind is transported back to dressing rooms of old and once more I recognise the fear, the anxiety, the pressure before stepping out of the security of my own cocoon, my own little safety net, my comfort blanket even and performing in front of the masses. Except there are no masses here, singularly alone out in the North Atlantic Ocean in thirty four feet of GRP fibreglass– nobody to impress, nobody to try and gain respect, gain plaudits or gain adulation from except ourselves. We’ve made a few mistakes – we know that. But now? Now it’s about the now. Remember Fat Boy Slim – “right here, right now”.
I roll off my bunk. Every sinew of every muscle aching and stiff. Stiff as a bull standing proudly in anticipation, gazing down from a hill above a meadow of fresh, ripe, nubile maiden heifers grazing on the fertile plain, oblivious to their impending impregnation. I’m too old for this shit. Fast approaching fifty and sharing a First 34.7 with a gang of kids. Fit, lithe, fearless and with that wild abandon of youth that all young men possess. Unknowingly possess because at that age nothing is impossible. No limits with kids. Youth is wasted on the young. If only I could do now what they take for granted.
Despite having just finished a three hour watch, and without any consultation we know we are going straight back out to work. It’s that time now. The last big push - the homeward stretch. All hands on deck now until we guide her home. Races are neither won nor lost at the start line (although we did give it our best shot at throwing it away back in Scotsmans Bay). No, races are decided, titles are won, the cream rises to the top in the last few miles, the last few minutes. Championship minutes as Matt Williams calls them. People are tired. Tired people make mistakes. Tired people throw it all away at the end – coming up the home stretch. In the home stretch champions are born and pretenders fade away, victims of their tiredness and inadequacies. We have reached, nay exceeded, our quota of mistakes. No more what ifs. No more coulda, shoulda, woulda. It’s time to show that we have it – time to piss or get off the pot as my late Dad used to say. A team is only as strong as its weakest member. Don’t leave yourself down now. Don’t leave your team down now. Don’t leave your boat down now. Not now. Don’t be the weakest link.
Christ that last watch. Three hours standing over a winch grinding the kite. Three hours! At my age? Trimming and grinding like lunatics, Cheese and me. Peter advising us that we’re not racing around the cans and to cop on to ourselves. It’s a marathon not a sprint, he said. Perhaps – perhaps not. But Conor also did three hours driving her on. Right hand on the wheel whilst pumping the main sheet with his left to gain every last ounce of momentum out of each and every wave we surfed down. Cheese did three hours trimming the kite. Wore his glove out. Wore it through to his palm – tough bastard is Cheese. So while I feel sorry for myself I know we are all feeling the pain. We’re all in this together. Cheese’s voice is still ringing in my ears:
- Grind – hold
- Big grind, big grind – hold
- Big grind, BIG GRIND, JESUS WE’RE LOSING THE KITE!
- Ok, ok, got it back. Well done.
Every ten seconds, ad nauseum.
I start to kit up. Darkness will fall soon so I put on multi layers, foulies, lifejacket, harness and headlamp. No time to add gear later – we’ll be too busy, flat to the mat. Check my pockets for cheroots – a must have. Final bit of kit – Berocca Boost. Only three left now in the tube. Conor will be on the helm shortly, all the way home. He’ll need one. I definitely need one – down it in one go. Selfish perhaps but the lads can fight over the last one. How the Irish Medicines Board haven’t copped on to this stuff is beyond me. Liquid cocaine (allegedly). Cian Healy my arse – Ladyboy! Bayer Healthcare should come offshore for their next ad campaign and experience real endurance athletes in extreme conditions. Gin and Tonic sailing? I don’t think so. Ice and slice? No thanks mate, I’ll have a Berocca Boost!
Step out into the cockpit. Robi is driving, Kevin trimming the kite and Steve grinding. Peter steps down below to take over the nav – all the way home. A sudden gust and a broach. Robi gets her back skilfully. A broach – nice one – been a while for me. We relieve the lads. Tell them to go down and get some rest. They decline the rest – we knew they would – but go down to kit up for the night and are back on deck in no time. Resume our positions as per previous watch. Wind increasing now all the time. Night starts to fall and darkness begins to set in. The sea is getting up too. Deadly, I love the heavy stuff. You end up being too focused, too busy to get scared. It’s getting angrier too and soon we have two metre swells. Let the fun and games begin. Conor is brilliant at surfing – catching the waves at just the right moment to get the maximum out of them. We’re flying along at 10 knots. Big change from being becalmed this morning and staring at Mine Head for hour after pitiful hour.
Soon it’s a black night, a pitch black night. Not a star in the sky and no moon to aid our night vision. A night as black as Seanie Fitzs and Fingers Fingletons reputations in Irish banking circles. We’ve now got a steady twenty seven knots of wind, gusting up to thirty and still sending her home with the A2 and full main – crazy shit. Adelie, the flying penguin, is really living up to her sobriquet now. Verging on the out of control. The kite is whipping from side to side threatening to violently and catastrophically rip the pole from the bow. Kevin the young and very capable bowman is crawling up the deck on his hands and knees to check things are still ok, still there, still working. Cheese still trimming and first Steve, then Robi doing the grind. Me? I’m spent after a further two hours and only good for adding ballast until I get my second wind. It’s so black that if the GPS gives out now we are doomed – no question. Fast approaching the Skelligs and roaring along, the boat shuddering under the strength of the wind. Twelve knots, thirteen knots, fourteen knots – each new speed record met with a whoop and a holler from the crew. I catch a glimpse of Peters face as he stands on the companionway, glancing down below to check the GPS and then bobbing his head back up to watch this roller coaster ride. Not a flinch from him and he the guy writing the cheques. All very well the kids and myself having the ride of our lives but get this wrong and we’re going to be making him write some huge cheques. Ginormous ones!
Conor loses her but gets her back just a millisecond before disaster. And it would be disaster. Our field of vision is down to a radius of at most ten metres. Any mishap, any MOB and it’s all over folks – no way to slow down never mind stop and go back to attempt a retrieval. Lights out, go home. Elvis has left the building. Good luck and thanks for the dance. He calls for us to take the kite down and peel to the A2. Just as we rouse ourselves we get another wave, another surge, another adrenaline rush and that plan is shelved. This happens three times and three times we shelve that plan. Peter now sticks his head up from the GPS and roars that we only have another eight miles to the Washerwoman and to “Jaysus leave the kite up”. And this from the owner / senior member on board / cheque writer supremo? Ah here, leave it out! All the sailing clichés are coursing through my brain. If you’re not breaking things you’re not pushing hard enough. Drive her like you stole her. Peter’s bravado pays off. Another violent gust. Much stronger than any previous. No wave to surf. No wave synchronising with this gust. No matter, we don’t need it. She shudders violently once more as she surges forward. Faster, further, freer than she has ever been. All eyes on the log. Thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen. Holy shit it keeps rising. We scream and roar like schoolkids in the playground. Screams of excitement, terror, awe even as she tops out at an incredible sixteen point seven knots. Incredible but true. Robi shakes his head in disbelief muttering “it’s not possible, in a boat this size, it’s not built for this”. Magic moment – never to be forgotten.
Finally we cave. It’s too much, too dangerous, too irresponsible. She’s given us the ride of our lives but we can’t push her any more. Everybody in position, everybody knows what to do. We drop the kite in text book fashion while peeling to the No.2. Very shortly afterwards we round the Washerwoman and harden up for the final push to the line. We subconsciously think the madness is all over, that we’re safe now, past the worst. Not a bit of it. The real thing is just beginning. After trimming the jib I move back to the transom and stare out over the stern. The sea behind us is not the biggest I’ve seen but certainly the angriest. And I mean angry. It’s covered in white horses and the wake flowing behind her is like something from the HSS – I kid you not. So when you’re nearly fifty, when you are hanging on for dear life on a pitch black roller coaster ride in the North Atlantic, surrounded by amazingly talented young kids, adrenaline surging through your veins like molten hot lava, you do what all middle aged has beens do. You sit back, hold on tight, light a Hamlet cigar and burst out laughing at the absurdity of this manic, surreal situation. And then it happens.
A sudden violent gust, she rounds up automatically and before we know it we’ve been knocked down. Yep, a knockdown. Good old boom in the water, main getting a wash, knockdown. Spectacular. Bloody good fun too. I should be scared, freaked out, afraid of the consequences too. I’m not though. I’m exhilarated. I feel more alive than I have ever felt. I feel humbled to have been here on this mad, crazy, exhilarating experience. My first big boat knockdown and I don’t lose my cheroot – class.
We settle in for the last hours run to the line. All on the rail. The wind is still howling. Shortly after 04.00hrs and we are approaching the finish line. It’s still pitch black. West coast so sun rises later here. As we cross the line we have a visitor – Fungii has come out to play. Get off the stage you mad dolphin – you’re some showman. Drop sails and head in to the marina. Shattered now as the adrenaline and Berocca have both slammed to a halt. Raft up beside Lula Belle. Liam and Brian supping warm beers and we are met by Anthony Doyle’s shout of “Up Mayo”. It’s over, we’re in, we finished. In offshore finishing is winning! And we are all winners – all twenty that finished. Respect to all. Real Boats Race Offshore.
Fogra – 6 ISORA boats in the fleet. Lula Belle 7th on water, 3rd overall, 1st in two handed. Mojito 6th on water and 4th overall. Polished Manx 20th on water yet 8th overall. Ruth 9th on water and 9th overall. Jedi 8th on water and 10th overall. Adelie 14th on water and 17th overall. Well done the ISORA fleet and our race within a race.
Fogra elie – Can anyone name the ISORA commodore on a J boat screaming up the west coast with the kite up and roaring to anyone on board who would listen to him “take that effin thing down before we die!” Answers on a postcard please to............