Dominic Bulfin, Associate

Hello everyone and welcome to the first of a series of articles chronicling my journey to the 2019 Fastnet Race.

For those unfamiliar, the Fastnet Race is a 600nm race from Cowes, in the Isle of Wight, around Fastnet Rock, off the southern tip of Ireland and into Plymouth. The race marks the climax of the Royal Offshore Race Club’s (RORC) offshore racing season and is the pinnacle of many British coastal sailors’ season.

As a sailor of some 21 years, having started as an 8-year-old sailing dinghies on a lake in west London and moving onto bigger boats about 10 years ago, this will be my first Fastnet Race so I wanted to share my experience with you.

For this campaign, we will be sailing the Jeanneau Sunfast 3200 known as “Hair of the Dog”, owned by Will and Guy Prest of KBIS. The crew, which is made up of an insurance profession, a builder, a project manager, a quantity surveyor and, of course, a lawyer, have been sailing together for a year or so now, although many of our friendships stretch back over a decade.

In order to enter the Fastnet Race, all crew members must have completed a minimum of 300nm of eligible racing in the current season, with a proportion of the group having also completed additional training in sea survival and offshore sailing, which brings us on nicely to this week’s blog…

With our first competitive race of the season this weekend, the season started in earnest last week for those of us completing the additional training courses necessary to race in the Fastnet Race.

This meant a return to the classroom for the weekend where I took part in the RYA/ISAF World Sailing Offshore Safety and RYA Sea Survival courses.

It is insisted upon, following the 1979 Fastnet and 1998 Sydney to Hobart races in which multiple vessels and lives were lost, that boats now approach offshore racing with a much more safety conscious and professional mind-set – starting with these courses which combine classroom learning with practical experience. That said, having now completed both courses I would strongly recommend both to anyone interested in sailing out of sight of land.

The first thing that struck me was the diversity of my classmates for the weekend. There was a real blend from racers (with designs on entering offshore competitions in the UK, US and further afield), solo coastal sailors with ambitions of single handed offshore racing, retirees embarking on their first ARC crossing (a transatlantic “rally” of over 200 vessels every year), to the envy of us all – a young family “selling up and sailing” to spend a year (or more) cruising the world.

With such a diverse class, I thought that our tutors, Roger Seymour and Steve Nottingham, managed excellently to ensure the content was relevant for all, and their vast knowledge of all things “blue water sailing” shone through as every question they faced received an answer based on personal experience from decades ocean cruising.

The Offshore Sailing course aims to equip the participants with the knowledge and skills required to both prevent and deal with emergencies when beyond the reach of immediate assistance.

During the one-day course we covered a number of classroom topics such as care and maintenance of safety equipment, crew routines, man overboard prevention and recovery and search and rescue organisation.

We even ventured outside the classroom to gain hands on experience rigging storm sails, practicing (dry) man overboard recovery with various techniques of getting the individual back on the boat, having a go at cutting standing rigging with different bolt croppers as well as having the opportunity to set off distress flares and fire extinguishers in a controlled environment.

Roger also shared his significant experience of ocean sailing on a walkabout of the marina pointing out some easily overlooked, but potentially significant safety shortcomings on a number of boats moored up in the marina – food for thought for next time I hop on Hair of the Dog!

Day two we moved onto sea survival – what to do when the preparation you learned on the offshore safety course isn’t enough and you are faced with the genuine possibility of abandoning ship.

We started the day in the classroom again, and were hit with some very sobering footage of offshore rescues and first-hand accounts from survivors of the 1979 Fastnet Race and other yachting incidents.

This is something I found particularly hard hitting. As someone who sails purely for pleasure, it is all too easy to look forward to a day on the water and even hope for some “fun” conditions to get the blood pumping, but we all to often forget how vulnerable to the environment we are even on the most well-built and well-maintained vessels. Lesson number one, therefore, was to remember how quickly a fun day on the water can turn into a survival situation.

After this we took a closer look into some of the standard safety equipment available today for both vessel and crew. This served as another eye opener at the sheer amount of personal safety equipment there is available on the market and how, firstly, affordable and secondly, practical it now is. I for one will be heading out to buy a personal AIS beacon to be fitted to my life jacket just in case I should take an accidental swim in the middle of the night. Whilst these items are still not “cheap” in many respects, as our instructor put it, when you are already prepared to part with a significant amount of money to have good quality wet weather gear and life jacket, why wouldn’t you spend that bit extra on some equipment that could be the difference between being found and perishing at sea in a man-overboard situation.

After the classroom session we headed to the local pool for the highlight of the day – the practical session.

Here we donned wet weather gear and lifejackets (which looked somewhat out of place in the local leisure centre) and put the knowledge we had acquired in the classroom to practical use.

In this session we saw how a life raft is launched and experienced how uncomfortable it can be just climbing in and sitting even on the calm, heated waters of a swimming pool. We also experienced how awkward it is to manoeuvre oneself and assist others whilst wearing an inflated life jacket – something many of us had never experienced first hand. We undertook drills in the pool to familiarise ourselves with the techniques required to get together and stay together when forced to enter the water, as well as how to right an upturned life raft from the water.

I took the opportunity to set off my own life jacket as, despite over 20 years of sailing experience, I had yet to use a life jacket in anger. For me this was a really useful exercise, not least because the life jacket worked, and it gave me a chance to familiarise myself fully with my own kit in a safe environment – the last thing you want is to be in a survival situation and not trust your safety gear to work, or not know, for example, where your spray hood when you are drifting around in the middle of a storm.

These courses were a welcome eye opener and crucial reminder of how important it is to be prepared and take precaution against the dangers presented by offshore sailing.

I have taken a number of valuable lessons away with me, but none more so than remembering that you are responsible for yourself at sea. It can be all too easy as a crew member to rely on your skipper to take care of crew safety, but at the end of the day we all have a responsibility and if we all assume that responsibility, we stand a significantly better chance of surviving at sea than if we leave matters to chance.

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 and videos from the weekend for starters.

Next time – Hair of the Dog takes to the water for the first race of the season. Find out how we get on, and just how many boats finish ahead of us, when I report on the Junior Offshore Group (JOG) Nab Tower race.