Great article from Skipper LBdr John Johnston who led the first all soldier crew to compete in the Fastnet race this year.
With two successful entries into the 2019 Rolex Fastnet Race, it’s time to reflect on the campaign; from when it first started with numerous training events to the culmination of the race itself.
After a fantastic experience in the 2017 Race under Lt Col Webber (Nat), I asked if there was the possibility of running an all-soldier entry in the following race. Nat and the rest of the committee gave a positive response and planning began. I started recruiting for the event in December 2017 and received a great response from the Gunner community, lots and lots of soldiers registered interest, and lots of non-soldiers gave great feedback about the idea. An all-soldier entry was unprecedented, and we could possibly change the way we approach sailing forever!
Once we had a selection of people to create a squad, Capt Bob May volunteered to be the Project Officer. Dates were put in the diary for a total of 4 training events in the build up to the race to ensure that we could train and bond as a team, and also making sure that we were prepared for the race ahead.
The first training week was in the Solent area. Skippered by Sgt Pete Edwards, the crew were given a basic introduction to sailing and gained familiarity with the boat itself.
The second event was the first time we came together to start a race: the Army Offshore Regatta. In May 2019, we entered our little boat into strong competitions against other corps and regiments who had chartered race boats for the event, and so we knew it was going to be a tough week. With myself as skipper, the crew managed to fulfill the underdog story and achieved third place, beating two of the four racing boats, and giving the team a big confidence boost.
Later on in May, we had planned another training event. Bdr Andy Stanyard stepped up as Skipper with LBdr Stacey Turner fulfilling the role of Mate. This was a fantastic opportunity for both, particularly Stacey who had only just recently qualified as a Day Skipper at Joint Service Adventure Sail Training Centre (JSASTC) and so was able to put her newfound knowledge into practice.
With three training events completed, we looked forward to breaking out of the Solent on our next training week and headed to Dartmouth. The weather forecast predicted gale force winds, and so we knew it wasn’t going to be an easy ride. But it was nothing we shouldn’t expect during the Fastnet itself, and so with Bdr Jay Edwards stepping into the Mate role, supported by Sgt Pete Edwards and Sgt Adi Parry as Watch Leaders, we sailed around the Isle of Wight and headed West for Dartmouth. It was a night sail and the weather bore her teeth, meaning we were happy to see the comfort of the harbour in the morning, where we had a short stay in the marina and let the worst of the weather blow over before setting sail for home. The journey back proved adventurous, with difficult wind and sea states, the boat took a little bit of damage from the anchor as the pin failed.
Unfortunately, due to this damage, the final training event organised had to be cancelled. We were due to enter the RORC Cowes Dinard St Malo Race but were unable to get the boat fixed in time. Looking on the bright side, this gave us time to discuss with the squad who was going to be selected for the Fastnet Race itself:
- Skipper LBdr John Johnston (Me)
- Mate/WL1 Bdr Andrew Stanyard
- Watch 1 Bdr Jay Edwards
- Watch 1 LBdr Stacey Turner
- WL2 Sgt Adi Parry
- Watch 2 LBdr Jack Lyall
- Watch 2 LBdr Mark Annand
With the team selected, we met up on the Tuesday before the race knowing we wanted to do final checks and that we were happy that everything was on board, including victualling. So with all winches serviced, mast track lubed, sails prepped and lazy jack’s removed, we were ready to depart for Cowes first thing in the morning. Once in Cowes, there was a real buzz around the town, brimming with excitement, worry and happiness from not only our crew, but hundreds of other entries that had gathered.
As we woke up on the Saturday morning, the day of the big race, we were all slightly nervous but excited all at the same time. Once we got through the registration gates we were happy to watch the enormous multihulls come flying through for the start with “wows” and “awwwws” coming from every crew member on the boat. Now it’s 12:49 and we know that we were about to go in to our start sequence for our 13:00 start nerves have started kicking in as we knew it can all be won or lost on the start line.
We are off! Our position was just behind the line in the centre of the channel with a great beam reach taking us out of the Solent. As we had been sailing for around 8 hours we could feel the wind hole we had been watching develop. As it approached us we could feel the speed decreasing; knowing that it was key to keep the boat moving we set our sails early.
As the sun came up, so too did the wind. And with the wind back we could see that the fleet had not had a chance to split and we could see our closest rivals Skua IX sitting just behind us. As we headed along the South Coast our decision to stay offshore looked to have paid off. As we started to creep into Lizard Point for our last met update before entering the Celtic Sea, we had seen a perfect wind direction forming above the Scillies that would be great for us on the next part of our voyage. We decided to head along the Eastern edge of it the to make full advantage of wind and tides. This was a risky decision that could make or break our progress, as 90% of the fleet had chosen to head along the Western edge.
The Celtic Sea started to brew up strong winds and sea states were increasing. With the boat keeled over, life at 30 degrees was starting to upset some of the iron stomached crew. As we approached the Traffic Separation Scheme (a no-go zone in the race), we were in the company of three boats and quickly found ourselves in a battle of wits. As a German boat tried to overtake, some great helming from Jay meant we managed to leave him underneath us … Britain one, Germany nil!.
We could now see the lighthouse and there was a great feeling; a buzz almost around all the crew not only that we were here, but it was sunny and daylight. As we rounded the Rock we were hoping for a nice broad reach followed by a spinnaker run in to the finish in Plymouth. This wasn’t to be. We got the nice broad reach to the Scillies, but as we rounded the corner the wind dropped to 8 knots and as we were getting fresh met in we could see this was the start of a wind hole forming. So we plodded on through the night achieving 18 miles in 6 hours. As the wind started to pick up on the morning of day 5 we knew this was the wind that was to carry us on across the line. We dug deep to keep on the wind as much as possible and maintain the best course. As we approached Plymouth Sound the weatherman struck what was his parting gift for us in the race. With the rain coming in from the side, visibility being reduced and having to navigate with the whole crew up keeping an eye out for shapes and sounds, we could see that the next boat had been following us all the way in and we were keen not to lose a space so late. Once we navigated our way in and crossed the line the weather seemed to subside allowing us to be met by the RAYC Commodore on our pontoon with light refreshments.
We had done it! RORC Fastnet Race 2019 was completed by an all-soldier crew for the first time ever!
Our close rivals sailing under the RAYC burgee, Skua IX, achieved success too. Skippered by Bdr Ed Middleton, they managed to complete the demanding course shortly after us. Having no choice but to endure particularly poor weather at the end of their race, their final approach was the most notable. As their skipper was also a JNCO, the two crews are hoping that they have inspired future junior soldiers to follow in their footsteps and take on leadership roles within the sailing arena.
Sailing can be an expensive and complex endeavour and this project would not have been possible without wide support and numerous donations. The RAYC provided the yacht, financial support and excellent advice throughout. We also received donations from Team Army, who helped equip and clothe the crew in quality racing attire, and financially supported the project in many other ways. Furthermore, the financial support, facilitation and governance provided by the Adventurous Training Group (Army) was critical to the success of the project. The campaign could not have occurred without the support of all these generous contributors to whom the crew and I are exceedingly grateful, enabling my aspiration to come to fruition.
The voyage from the first training event to the finish line of the Race was long, arduous, mentally as well as physically challenging, a great bonding experience, and ultimately, hugely enjoyable and rewarding. The RAYC are now looking to build on this success. The Fastnet has proven to be the perfect vehicle for the development of junior leaders in the British Army in a challenging and rewarding environment. The Mate for this year’s race, Andy Stanyard, has already been earmarked to skipper an all-soldier entry into the 2021. Keep your eyes peeled and we look forward to seeing you on the start-line.
The Fastnet Race takes place every two years over a course of 608 nautical miles (1,126 km). The race starts off Cowes 50°45′34″N 1°18′1″W on the Isle of Wight on the south coast of England at the Royal Yacht Squadron. Leaving The Solent through The Needles Channel, the race follows the southern coastline of England westward down the English Channel, before rounding Land’s End. After crossing the Celtic Sea, the race rounds the Fastnet Rock 51°23′22″N 9°36′08″W off the southwest coast of Ireland. Returning on a largely reciprocal course, the race rounds the Isles of Scilly before finishing at Plymouth 50°22′17″N 4°8′33″W.