The Nab Tower Race

Dom Bulfin, Associate

With the crew of “Hair of the Dog” now fully trained in ocean safety and sea survival, we embarked on our first race of the season – the Junior Offshore Group’s (JOG) Nab Tower Race.

This event sees competitors race from Cowes, eastwards down the Solent, around No Man’s Land Fort and down to Nab Tower, off the eastern tip of the Isle of Wight. Upon rounding Nab Tower, the course heads back up towards the Solent, rounding Horse Sand and No Man’s Land Forts and back to Cowes.

Conditions were unassumingly calm in the safety of Hamble Point Marina where we kicked off the day. With forecast winds in the mid-teens, we set up the boat for a relatively light-wind race.

This was a decision we questioned for a moment as we approached the start line only to find the majority of our competitors heavily reefed, and jockeying for position on the start line in winds well in excess of 20 knots.

Backing our planning, we maintained a full rig and set about positioning ourselves for a good start with a long up-wind leg ahead of us.

It is never dull on the start line of a busy race with a lot of boats vying for position and skippers holding their nerve as boats avoid contact by the smallest margins.

On this occasion, however, not everyone got it quite right and we almost found ourselves in the thick of it with seconds to the start.

As we approached the line at full speed on a starboard tack, one of our competitors came screaming up on a port tack – overpowered they were unable to bear away to avoid collision with the boat immediately downwind of us, T-boning them as they tried to steer away and missing our stern as they followed through by less than a foot.

Unscathed we crossed the start line at the head of the fleet.

Tactics and course positioning can be vital when racing in the Solent, with changeable tide and wind depending on which side of the channel you are sailing, we took the decision on this occasion to stay out of the strongest wind and tide by keeping close to the island. This decision paid off as we maintained our position at the top of the fleet up towards the first mark.

Sailing with little margin for error on the approach to No Man’s Land Fort, we were somewhat scuppered by a Clipper training boat which forced an unwanted tack costing us precious ground as we prepared to bear away around the mark.

Hair of the Dog is a boat sailed best down-wind, so we were disappointed when we couldn’t use the kite on the leg towards Nab Tower, however we made fantastic speed with the wind on the beam and started overtaking a number of the “fast” fleet a class above us.

Things, as ever, got a little tight as boats congregated on Nab Tower with nobody wanting to give up ground on the mark – particularly one which is some 20m wide with the tide swirling around its concrete foundations.

We rounded the mark unscathed and headed towards Horse Sand Fort. A number of boats ahead of us experimented with A-sails of varying descriptions and we started to consider whether we could get away with using one of our own.

Wind angles were tight, and we noticed a number of boats broaching ahead of us, so we took the decision that this race (albeit one of the shorter races we would complete) is a marathon and not a sprint and played it safe. This paid dividends as we made ground on a number of the boats ahead who were evidently overpowered for the conditions.

Upon rounding Horse Sands Fort we hoisted our asymmetric and started the long downwind leg to the finish line.

Frustratingly, we were caught on the wrong side of a boat sailing under a traditional spinnaker – we wanted to head up, they wanted to bear away – and this resulted in a half hour stalemate as neither of us could out-manoeuvre the other without compromising on position.

As we approached No Man’s Land Fort for the second time, we finally had an opportunity to pass our downwind nemesis and had clear water and, more importantly, air down to the finish line.

Completing the race in 4 hours and 18 minutes, we placed fourth overall, and narrowly missed third place which may have been ours but for our long and frustrating downwind leg and the hold-up with the Clipper boat.

Nonetheless, this is a result we were very happy with and showed that we can hold our own in decent conditions and on all points of sail.

The team have subsequently taken part in the second race of the season from Cowes to Cherbourg, a race I was unfortunately unavailable for, placing fourth again.

This sets us up nicely for our third race of the season, and our first under Royal Offshore Race Club (RORC) rules, to Le Havre this weekend.

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. I have posted a few photos from the day on my Twitter page.

Next time – Hair of the Dog enters its first long-course race of the season with a 160-mile slog to Le Havre, France. Find out how we did in my next article.