A Lucky Escape
Yachting World|October 2019
In the 1970s-80s, Sir Peter Johnson Wrote a column in Yachting wWorld. This was his article in the issue immediately after the race

To start, it was hardly distinguishable from any Round the Island race. Our beat down the Solent among so many Ton Cup series yachts and sailing round the buoys in IOR boats seemed to blur the distinction between inshore and offshore racing – a dangerous confusion.

The first night at Portland Bill witnessed one of the most extraordinary scenes that has been known in ocean racing. Those who decided to take the inshore passage at the Bill reached it against the first of the flood and with the help of the eddy along the east side. As we approached in Innovation, my OOD 34, there were Admiral’s Cup yachts with headsails down, jilling under mainsail. What was going on?

We soon found out as we reached close to the Bill under the flashing lighthouse, only to be pushed out into the race by the nine or ten knot stream from the west side of Portland (it was extra high spring tides that day). The barrier was impenetrable even by the largest yachts and there we sailed about, sometimes trying a rush and then waiting like others under mainsail only, back in the eddy.

Racing in thick fog

When the tide eased, the trapped fleet broke through into West Bay, but some yachts had been off the Bill for over three hours. Yet others who went offshore and plugged the stream in the Channel showed little advantage, as they had to contend with a longer period of foul tide.

On the previous Friday, Radio Solent had given what turned out to be a remarkably accurate long range forecast for the race. This included fog in the west Channel. Sunday morning saw the beginning of this. As we approached Start Point the fog could be seen thickly on its western (windward) side. We skirted the rocks in the first of the inshore favourable stream, tacking into the little bays towards Salcombe. The Eddystone was never sighted, only its fog signal used to avoid the rocks.

Later we swept past the Lizard and the Runnelstone buoy only made a brief appearance between fog banks as we tacked with other boats round in the dark of early Monday morning. It was at around 0430 that the wind became very light and the barometer had dropped 5mb in 12 hours. At daylight there was a heavy swell from the west, but it was the sky that we noticed.

Seldom had I seen such a cloud cover. There was layer upon layer of greasy, rolled-up grey stuff. Talking to those from other yachts later, it does seem that our experiences on Innovation for the rest of Monday duplicated many others. After the light airs of the forenoon, the barometer dropped four more millibars and the wind freshened from the south-west.

By 1330 it was 30-35 knots (Force 7) from the south-west and we were sailing well on a reach under a heavy genoa and one reef in the main. Earlier our light spinnaker had been completely blown out. The 1355 forecast for Fastnet was ‘south-westerly 4 or 5, increasing 6 or 7 for a time, veering westerly later’.

The evening was one of successive reduction of sail, from full size genoa to No 2, then two reefs in the main, then the No 3. When the time came to put in the third reef, we lowered the whole mainsail to do so and then decided to lash it to the coachroof. So we sped on in great style towards the Fastnet Rock under No 3 genoa alone and when that became too much, then under the OO 34 jib, which is also the storm jib.

By 0130 on we had lowered the storm jib and had no sail. The anemometer was ‘on stops’ at 60 knots in both lulls and gusts. The former I estimated at 63 knots and the latter at 75 knots, which is known as hurricane force.

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