CORK TO BELFAST
TALL SHIPS RACE
By Sam Coles
Onboard: Sam Coles (Skipper), Adrian Halstead, Pat North, Angle Weyers, Seb Rogers, Sally Phillips, Sarah Pedder, Steve Wilson, Tony Hinchliffe, Zoe Young
There was no trouble in finding the fleet in Cork. Almost the whole fleet had been able to sail right up to the old quays in the city centre. Ashore there was a carnival atmosphere with stalls and bars beyond the thronging multitude. It seemed that the whole of Ireland had come to Cork to see the Tall Ships, for it was the first visit to Ireland in the history of the Cutty Sark races, and as the outgoing race director said, we had been given some very good reasons why the Tall Ships should return sooner rather than later.
The crew had arrived in dribs and drabs. Sally and Sarah had hitchhiked from Brighton and had made excellent time. Adrian and Pat had flown – and Adrian had had the chance to savour life in Cork for a couple of days before joining. Sam and Seb had come the seaman’s route by racing Sea Scamp across from Milford Haven against dominant headwinds in the first race of the series and had got thoroughly soaked. Angie had had a relatively leisurely time ‘racing’ Marabu. Needless to say Sea Scamp had roundly beaten Marabu.
The Friday night we had assembled, it seemed that the whole city was going out for a party. After a quick pizza we entered a hostelry to consume what the Irish are known to be good at making. As well as the Murphy’s, Beamish and Guinness, the live music was excellent! Meanwhile, some of the crew had taken the mirror dinghy for a row with some cans of beer to explore the city’s bridges. Later on, the whole city came out on to the streets to watch the most impressive display of fireworks.
Next morning was unusually quiet for a Saturday morning, even I guess for an Irish city. The streets were littered with the debris from the night before; hardly a soul was to be seen.
After some last minute purchases the official departure time approached, and the Irish sail-training flagship Asgard II slipped her mooring to lead the fleet out. As soon as the boat outside us had slipped we prepared to spring ourselves out; preferring to occupy the crew, to entertain both our guests aboard and our hosts ashore by getting underway, rather than hanging around for our place in the queue.
The river was very still with hardly a breath of wind. We had raised our mainsail, mizzen and genoa and were proceeding very slowly down river. When most of the fleet had undocked we were called to order to go back to our allocated position in this snail-paced parade. This we dutifully did, taking down our sails to ensure that we would not be diverted by some rogue puff of wind. More practice for the crew anyway!
Eventually we came out into a less sheltered part of the river where there was enough wind to speed up to a proper pace. There we got out of place again by overtaking Royalist, our group’s lead ship, while they were recovering their dinghy, but by now we were far enough away from the organisers for it not to matter. More to the point, we were approaching a fire tug making an enormous fountain with her hoses. Though the crew scuttled for their oilskins, these proved unnecessary since the tugboatmen were kind enough to shut their hoses off when we came close.
We turned the last bend in the river before Cobh (pronounced Cove), which is the main deep-water port and faces the wide expanse of Cork harbour. We passed the two giants in the race, Dar Mlodziezy a 350ft fully rigged ship from Poland and Sedov, a 400ft four-masted barque from the Soviet Union, both still at anchor. Only these two could not come up to Cork city itself. Then we were approaching the Irish naval vessel Orla with Charles Haughey [head of government] aboard to take our salute. We paid our respects, lining the side and dipping our ensign.
We then sailed on for the yachting centre of Crosshaven, in a deep sheltered valley close to the entrance of Cork harbour, to put our guests ashore and pick up Adrian who had been skippering Sea Scamp in the parade of sail. We bade our friends farewell, for the start was fast approaching, and we slipped out of the harbour in time to see the big ships start from a line set some two to three miles offshore. Our class (the only class to be racing with spinnakers) were the last of four to start, which gave us some time to practise tacking, even though the first leg would be downwind.
We made a good start with the other boats of our class. In a 250-mile race with such a variety of boats competing on handicap the start is not quite as critical as it is when racing dinghies around the buoys. Some boats had their spinnakers up already. Wind direction and strength were ideal for us to fly our spinnaker too. Since night was approaching we decided to use the smallest of our three spinnakers. Having got it up we had an ideal evening’s run basking in the evening’s light and comparing our progress with the other boats.
By morning it was clear that we were holding our own against our immediate opponents and overtaking many of the boats in the slower classes. Out on the Eastern horizon we could just see the silhouettes of the great square-riggers. The wind, though, had dropped to a light air, so we decided that what we needed was the BIG spinnaker – with its luff of 61ft.
It was slow going around Tusker Rock. If it hadn’t been a mark on the course it would have been tempting to try going inside. It was here that two soviet yachts, Albatross and Russ appeared to have crept up upon us, and there began a match, which lasted all day.
Our gybing technique was improving. The first gybe had been done in the dark with just one pole and had involved a lot of running around. By now we were getting the two-pole gybe method well tuned. We had decided to go outside Arklow Bank, which is narrow but extends a long way parallel to the coast. Albatross and Russ were just behind us apparently waiting to see which way we would go. It was a pleasure to gybe and pull away from them as we turned offshore just after the Lanby at the southern end of the bank. It was surprising to see Grey Girl (another of our competitors who had been ahead of us) heading towards the bank after us.
Making good speed now, though not heading straight for our destination in order to stay on a broad reach, we approached Master Builder the OYC ketch, which was leading the non-spinnaker fore-and-aft rig classes. We had a leisurely dinner staying parallel to her a few hundred yards away. Then with the meal finished we decided to get sailing properly again, and pulled away. It pleased all aboard to hear that we were second in our class on this second evening of the race.
Night was soon upon us and since the wind was still light we decided to leave the big spinnaker up. We sailed superbly all night long, once seeing a lighthouse near Holyhead, and once being surprised to identify a Polaris submarine on the surface crossing our bows about a mile ahead.
By morning we were approaching the Isle of Man and we gybed to head towards Belfast, our destination. In the latter part of the night there had been a little more breeze – enough to raise a slight swell, which was now broadside on to us. With insufficient breeze to keep the sails filled, Marabu started to roll a little. As we were thinking about breakfast, Steve brought the news from forward that the spinnaker was splitting. We immediately surged forward and brought the sail down, but the damage was already done. The tear had started at a small nick, and in these rolly windless conditions had extended itself, unnoticed at first and then at frightening speed, the whole width of the sail.
Even with the full mainsail, mizzen staysail and mizzen we still sorely needed a large forward downwind sail to steady us and keep us moving. The medium-sized light spinnaker seemed the obvious choice even though it was an unknown quantity. We prepared it and hoisted it. At first it seemed to be doing its job well, even though its material was very light and the head of the sail had been repaired with misshapen patches of many different colours. We had managed to sit down in the cockpit with a well-deserved bowl of porridge when news from forward came that the spinnaker had blown its head out. This was depressing but it did not come as a great surprise.
After bringing down the pieces it didn’t take us long to decide to return to the trusted heavy spinnaker of our first night. This we did, and as we turned back to our half-eaten porridge, we noticed an old repair right across its middle. The repair had been made with sticky tape and not stitched and to our dismay, it was coming apart. Before we had managed to get it down, the sail had split along the previous tear right across its middle. Now this was really depressing. We had torn all three spinnakers in less than an hour in ideal spinnaker conditions. So we had to find some other sails.
For the rest of the day we sailed using what sails we could, gently downwind towards Belfast Lough. The sea was not so busy now. During the whole day we only spotted two of our competitors. We crossed the finishing line off Mew Island light at 17:45 that evening. The whole distance of 248 miles we had completed in just under 48 hours. Tying up for the night at Bangor we saw with some disappointment that some of our immediate competitors had got in before us. But this was a handicap race with complicated method of rating with allowances given even for the age of the vessel.
When the final results were published we were 9th out of 24 in our class. A creditable performance we thought, and better than anyone could remember a 100-square metre having done in the history of the Cutty Sark Tall Ships Races.