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Donkin on Sailing

August 2009 - Fastnet race on Hugo Boss

Emerging almost ethereally out of the mist, the clay-slate rock with its apple stalk of a lighthouse is not much to look at. It used to be known as " Ireland 's teardrop" for thousands of US-bound immigrants catching a last glimpse of home. Today it is better known among sailors worldwide as Fastnet rock - the farthest reach of a 608-mile sailing race held every two years.

This year, on the 30 th anniversary of the Fastnet disaster, most who passed it would have spared some thoughts for those who did not survive the ferocious storm that ravaged the fleet in 1979, at the cost of 21 lives - 15 racing crew and six from two other yachts in the same area. 

My first rounding of the rock was a humbling experience, not least because a few boats had come out from the mainland to cheer us along. It hadn't been the toughest of runs, although upwind sailing is always harder on crews than the flatter, faster course of a spinnaker run with a good breeze.

"You won't have much to do with seven of you in a single-handed boat," said a friend when I told him I was sailing on Hugo Boss, the Open 60 yacht skippered by 33-year-old Alex Thomson, one of the UK's most promising young ocean racers. The assumption was understandable, I suppose, given that Thomson can indeed sail the boat alone. I have no idea how. "I don't know either," he says.

Crewed racing, however, is about full-on sailing, trimming sails all of the time, and for this race Thomson had recruited some of the best in the business, including helm and tactician Rob Greenhalgh and navigator Andrew Cape, both fresh from crewing second-placed Puma in the Volvo Ocean race.

It's clear, therefore, that I'm not helming or navigating, nor am I working the foredeck; that task has been handed to Thomson's younger brother, Dave, himself a round-the-world sailor. So what can it be? The answer is the pedestal grinder with its double winch handles. For company I have former UK skiing champion, Graham Bell. Making sure we know the ropes is Thomson's regular boat captain, Ross Daniel. 

By the end of our practice session ahead of the race my role is becoming clearer: deck hand, bordering on galley slave. In this respect I'm in good company. Sir Keith Mills, who should have been sailing with us, but for an injured back, knows all about the Thomson approach to skippering. Mills, multi-millionaire founder of Air Miles International, whose financial backing helped to launch Thomson's professional career, found himself a crew-member on Thomson's winning yacht in the 1998-99 round-the-world Clipper Race.

"I'd never met him before and didn't know who he was when he came aboard," recalls Thomson. "He asked me what I wanted him to do and I told him I wanted the lazarette floor clean enough to eat off. Later he told me he backed me because he wanted to see me standing in the boardroom where he had been on that boat," he adds. 

That's one of the finest features of sailing; it's a great leveller. Bell may have been one of the best skiers of his generation but here, like me, he is reduced to deck hand. Not that the professionals shirk the meaner duties of the boat. Every one of them, Thomson included, is willing to jump on the grinder when needed.

It's difficult to describe the work load on one of these boats but before every tack or gybe there's below-deck toil in "stacking", shifting four heavy sails from one side to the other. Upwind, dagger boards must be raised and lowered; there may be a sail change or a spinnaker hoist, then, when the spinnaker comes down, it has to be stowed and bagged, ready for the next hoist. 

We take a break to make some bacon sandwiches - one at a time on the tiny gas burner, the only cooking point on board. Half way through the job, a tack is called, Bread, butter, bacon, knife, scissors - all must be stowed away to undertake the move. By the time the last sandwich has been made, the whole process has taken an hour.

Then there are the toilet arrangements. For most of the 300 or so yachts in the Rolex Fastnet race, the crews can take advantage of the head - the on-board toilet. We have a bucket. The routine involves lining the bucket with a bio-degradable bag, then perching precariously in the "cuddy", an enclosed part of the cockpit. Cape , known as "Capey" to his crewmates, doesn't use the bucket. His own technique is slightly more perilous and best left to the imagination.

We're at sea for three nights so there is no avoiding these rituals. The crew soon settles in to a watch system but by the first night we realise that we are not going to be among the front runners.

In the previous week I had sailed aboard Team Pindar, whose latest skipper, Mike Sanderson had helmed in light winds to second place in the Cowes week Artemis Challenge. The Pindar team are sharing offices with Hugo Boss just now ? big friends off the water, but on-the-water rivalry is fierce as we cross the start line off Cowes on the Isle of Wight .

"Of all the Open 60s, Pindar is the one I want to beat. I wouldn't mind coming second-to-last as long as it was ahead of them," said Thomson.

The powerful Pindar is up for sale and a good performance in the Fastnet could enhance her selling price, so Sanderson has every incentive to do well. A number of Open 60 skippers are positioning themselves with sponsors just now, including Thomson himself who is hoping to extend his six-year sponsorship with Hugo Boss. 

The black-hulled, black-sailed boat has become a familiar competitor on the Open 60 circuit where its fashion-company sponsor rarely misses a branding opportunity. At the recent Open Golf championship at Turnbury on the West coast of Scotland , Hugo Boss could be seen sailing offshore, often coming in to camera shot.

BBC commentators were curious about its presence. "What's it doing now?" asked one. "Is it gybing or tacking?" 

"I think it's called advertising," said his colleague.

"We totted up the air time gained in the international coverage of that event and reckoned we secured about 1m worth of brand exposure for the company simply by taking the boat up there," said Yvonne Fletcher who handles the team's public relations. 

Hugo Boss is one of those boats that simply oozes cool. And on good days it's fast too. Coming out of the Solent we're well placed behind Seb Josse on BT. But we take a gamble on finding better winds near the shore. Almost every other boat opts to head out to sea and their choice pays off.   At Portland Bill we miss a wind shift by just three miles. As the leading Open 60s catch the wind, we find ourselves sailing backwards on the tide. The race is over, but we push on, setting some good speeds on the down-wind run back to the Plymouth finish.

Both Bell and myself agree that it's been a privilege to sail with such a professional crew. It's only when you see this kind of sailing at close hand that you begin to understand its complexity. For Capey and Greenhalgh it's one more Fastnet race, one more job. For me it's a first that brought back memories of longer races in the past.  

The race displays "the hallmarks of a true sportsman: skill, courage and endurance," said Weston Martyr, who helped established the first Fastnet race in 1925. In that respect, little has changed.

Round Britain and Ireland race

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