The Myth of Malham

Dom Bulfin, Associate

On our last outing, the crew of “Hair of the Dog” took part in the single longest race of the year in preparation for the Fastnet Race – the Myth of Malham.

The Myth of Malham sees competitors race over 230 miles from Cowes to Eddystone Lighthouse, off the coast of Plymouth, and back.

I first took part in this race in 2011 when our Skipper, Will, was but a deckhand on Hair of the Dog’s predecessor “Tarka II”. That year we completed the race in about 33 hours, but that was a faster boat and the conditions were ideal.

We knew on Hair of the Dog we were in for a slower race, but the forecast looked positive with manageable winds and a favourable wind direction.

However, as the start drew in, it became clear that this race would be far from fast and the wind direction far from favourable.

The race got underway at 0800hrs outside Cowes with the long 120-mile upwind leg ahead of us. The wind was light, so we were depending on catching the right tides to make our passage to Eddystone Lighthouse as quick and painless as possible.

Unfortunately, with the winds being so light, it was a long and slow beat up the Solent, with almost every boat finding itself in a battle against the tide as we approached Hurst Castle. Trying our best to avoid the worst of the tide, we edged past Hurst Castle making just shy of one knot over ground as the water gushed past us in the opposite direction.

Once out of the Solent, things picked up and we made good boat speed; but the wind direction made progress in the right direction very slow.

Keeping with the top of the fleet, we hugged the south coast of England in a continued attempt to keep in shallower water and out of the worst of the tide. We made good progress and encountered a number of intense one-on-one tussles with boats far quicker than us on paper.

As we approached the Isle of Portland, we had our first major navigational decision to make – cut the corner for the shortest route across Lyme Bay, but risk getting caught in the Portland Race, or give Portland a wide berth in the hope that those taking the shortcut would be caught in the notoriously strong tides.

We opted for the latter, and it was a decision which later proved to be inspired as we learned that one of those boats we had tussled with hours earlier was now almost 13 miles behind us.

Feeling good, we now had major tactical decision number two to make – stay offshore and head straight for Eddystone Lighthouse via the somewhat confusingly named “Start Point” near Salcombe, or keep close to Lyme Bay to avoid the deepest water and strongest tide.

Buoyed by our earlier offshore success we opted for option one this time. Heading into the night from Start Point, we would only really know the next morning whether this decision would pay off.

As I came back on watch at 4am the next morning we had our answer – having sailed throughout the night averaging around seven to eight knots, as we headed back inshore and “towards” the lighthouse, we realised just how badly we had misjudged our route. With wind and tide working against us, we found ourselves approaching Start Point – somewhere we had been six hours earlier and the boat which we had left 13 miles behind us was now a couple of miles ahead – from now on we would be staying inshore until we reached the Lighthouse…

It would be another seven or so hours until we would reach Eddystone Lighthouse, which we rounded at about 11am on the second day of the race (I was off watch, but the boys “kindly” woke me up and forced me into a photograph which you can see on my Twitter page – sporting some very fetching thermals…). Now more or less at the back of the fleet we had a lot of work to do over the 110 miles home.

And so, we embarked on the long sail back to Cowes. Much like the upwind leg, the wind just wasn’t quite in the right direction for an ideal downwind sail. Hair of the Dog flies an asymmetric and so broad reaching under spinnaker is perfect for us, however with the wind now almost dead behind us we were forced into the less direct, but faster (and more comfortable) route of gybing downwind for the next 60 or so miles.

Undeterred from our earlier tactical mishap, we decided that we had to do something different if we were to stand any chance of making ground on the other boats.

With the rest of the fleet hugging the coast, we opted to head offshore once again in order to lay a strong course for the finish line. This decision proved pivotal as we made good speed over the final 50 miles of the race, overtaking several boats who had been miles ahead of us as we rounded Eddystone Lighthouse.

Having seen no boats for about a day, a number of boats converged on the finish line and we found ourselves in close quarters with two or three boats vying for position over the line as we ploughed along under spinnaker.

And so at 02:45, some 43 hours after we set off, we were back in the Solent and just an hour or so from the Skipper’s crew house where we were all looking forward to getting our heads down for a few hours before a breakfast wake-up call to shake down the boat.

This time we finished 12th out of 41 in class – a tad disappointing, but with less than two hours separating the seven boats ahead of us and taking into consideration the time we lost in the first night we were able to take plenty of positives out of the race.

If you want to keep up to date with my exploits on the water then please do follow me on Twitter at @BulfinDominic, or you can find me on LinkedIn.  The conditions on this race weren’t great for photography, but there are a couple of snaps from the half way point on my Twitter page.

Next time – The crew of Hair of the Dog put themselves through their paces with an overnight training weekend as we look to iron out the mistakes and improve on our strengths from this year’s racing to date.