I had high hopes of Figaro’s winning the Fastnet, which is the finest of all races from the navigator’s viewpoint. Nearly every mile of the 600-mile long course requires careful navigation, and the conditions are changing all the way along the route. This Fastnet was considered a rough weather race, and only twelve out of the forty-five starters finished the course. Afterwards I was surprised to read about the stormy weather. Figaro seemed so steady and comfortable after my 8-ton Gipsy Moth II, that I had not noticed anything out of the ordinary about the weather.
It is easy to be wise after the event, but here are some of the things which slowed us down. Firstly, I believe that Bill and his crew had been celebrating the winning of the New York Yacht Club Cup on their last night in Cowes. We were late over the starting line and when, on leaving the Needles, I asked for the starboard tack to take us out into the Channel, Bill said, ‘Can’t we sail the other tack (towards Swanage) which looks less rough?’ The navigating instinct is a very tenuous affair, and I could not give a good reason why the Swanage tack should not have been equally good. So we took it, but as it turned out it cost us many hours of racing time.
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American yachts favour ‘points’ reefing, which undoubtedly sets the sail better than roller reefing. Figaro, however, had a big pram hood over the companion way, and it was difficult to get at the main sail boom to reach the sail; the hood was not substantial enough to stand on. As a result, we were reluctant to reef, reefed too late, and later, when the wind abated, we were equally reluctant to unreef, and unreefed too late. Another drawback was that the yacht was stuffed with experts. Everyone tended to exercise his own special expertise. Bobby wanted to demonstrate his latest methods of jibbing, which cost us time unsnarling the spinnaker and repairing the damage. Ed liked to harden in the foresails, unconsciously demonstrating how strong they were. He had five men hardening in the jib sheet, using two big winches. They were marvellous sails, but often hardened in too flat for the best speed. Of course, this is only my opinion; no doubt I was doing the same sort of thing with the navigation. I do not want to give a wrong impression; on the whole, that yacht was sailed really well. We only lost one sail, a spinnaker was blown out when we were running down from the Fastnet Rock to Land’s End – only a few ribbons of it were left. Bill was eating his breakfast at the time, when someone poked his head in the hatchway and said, ‘Spinnaker’s gone.’ Bill went on eating, unmoved, and said, ‘Tell Ed that’s his bad luck; I haven’t paid for it yet.’
It was a great race, and I enjoyed it from start to finish. We ended up third in Class II. John Illingworth was first in that class, and Figaro’s sister ship White Mist second. After the race, Bill asked me to navigate Figaro from Plymouth to the Port of London for shipping back to the United States. I said, ‘Yes, if Sheila can sail with us.’ I wanted her to experience a good yacht. The crew consisted of young Buckie and Teddy Robins who was an American University student of nineteen.
Two better deckhands could not be found. We had a fast run up from Plymouth to the Isle of Wight, where I wanted to dodge into the Solent and anchor for the night. The boys did not like this idea, so I agreed to press on. As we passed St. Catherine’s Point it began to blow up. I gave a course to steer and retired for a sleep, because I could see we were in for a dirty night. The boys asked Sheila if she thought I knew where we were. Soon after dark, Buckie called me out to take the helm while they hauled down the mainsail. As they hauled up the trysail, I could see that we did not need any sail at all, but Buckie was determined to have it. We were now running dead before a gale, and the trysail periodically jibbed with a report like a gun’s being fired. It was a mistake for all of us to stay on watch getting tired, and as soon as Buckie turned in, I told Teddy to haul down the trysail. It was a thrilling ride. All night we averaged 5% knots, running dead up Channel under bare poles. It would have been most uncomfortable if the wind had been even 5 degrees different in direction, but as long as Figaro was pointing dead downwind, the cockpit was comparatively sheltered. If I let the head swing only 5 degrees either way, the din of the wind made it hard to hear anything else. The Met. reported gusts of 90mph at Brighton, which we passed in the night, but I reckoned we were not in more than 75mph. Usually I would be worried about a wind of this strength on a dark night in the Channel, with the shore close alongside; but in this case I reckoned that if the gale blew up into a storm, and it became impossible to enter Dover Harbour, or turn the Goodwins, we could safely run straight through the Dover