Training for the Fastnet

Offshore sailing  is an inherently dangerous pastime , but after a lifetime of mistakes , we  have learnt a few wrinkles to keep the risks to a minimum . We  learned them the hard way, and on previous Fastnet campaigns we wish we had instituted a training regime which would have highlighted and probably avoided these potentially dangerous lessons.!


Racing is inherently more dangerous still , as in order to finish higher up the fleet one pushes harder and  puts the vessel in situations ( a lee shore , a  rough headland ) where a sensible cruiser would never be. I have come to believe that fully crewed  offshore racing is even more dangerous than short handed racing  as the big crew allow you to sail harder with less margin for error , despite the fact that unless you are very fortunate , there are likely to be several members of your crew who are much  less experienced than you.(  Link to the Lion report)


Of course in a light weather race it is likely that even inexperienced crews will have a safe , enjoyable race , but rough weather brings a continued  list of injuries and tragedies , and the purpose of this article is to propose a training regime to prevent these incidents.


A daylight race in the Solent in 25 to 30 knots is a significant test to all but the most superhuman crews. The same wind, offshore and at night is orders of magnitude more difficult. Fastnet qualifying races may not lead to exposure to hard weather , and certainly do not give the leisure  to train a crew so it is my belief that 3 overnight training sessions , in addition to the races,  is a minimum requirement for the skipper to feel he can safely take his crew offshore on a longer race , where periods of heavy weather are the norm.


I propose a graduated scheme , with firstly an evening and a part of the night spent training in the Solent ( or similar sheltered waters ) in moderate conditions to work through the ships routines. The next stage is an overnight sail offshore in moderate conditions , again working through the training schemes, and the final stage is a heavy weather night time  offshore trip ( Solent sailors might do a large radius “Round the Island course”) .  By NOT racing , routines can be worked up gradually , starting with small sails in easy conditions and ending in simulated  racing situations. Between exercises , the boat can be hove to for a de-brief , before starting again , incorporating lessons learnt.


So what should be included in these training sessions? It’s a huge subject and rather than be proscriptive I will indicate the areas where a crew should develop their own routines.


Below Decks

Crew need to rest, and will do so much better when dry, warm and well fed. A system of gear stowage is crucial ( with a big crew we ban bags – each member has his/her own locker) , and stowage of wet gear where it is available, without soaking the rest of the boat, is crucial.

Some crew will be sick. Those fortunate not to suffer should look after them and stow their kit so that sufferers are able to get their heads down immediately. Severe sufferers need to be warm and dry in a windward berth, and the team re-organised until they are able to contribute again (perhaps once you turn downwind). These trips will find out those who suffer too badly to race  (a cruising crew can slow down until the crew acclimatise) as well as identify who is able to cook despite the conditions. We found that heavy airs with a kite required some of the offwatch to be laid down fully dressed so if we need to drop the kite quickly, we can have the manpower in seconds – not the 10 minutes it takes to climb into lifejackets and oilies. Waterproof cushion covers make this possible.


On Deck

Reefing and headsail changes should be automatic. Offshore in a blow, reef early – I cant remember losing out by doing this, and have lost miles if caught out when it really blows. Learn how to act as a team to bag your headsails on the rail in the middle of the windward side deck, and never lash the sail to the rail on the foredeck.

Non planing boats reach hull speed easily, and offshore in a blow  ,  unreefed sails put an unnecessary load on crew and equipment ( link to article “In praise of smaller sails”) and leave more time and energy for the strategic thinking  which is far more likely to win you the race than unintelligent macho heroism.

Spi hoists, gybes and drops should be second nature, but offshore, and at night, set your limits for these procedures lower than the wind speeds that you have nailed  inshore in the daytime. ( link to my heavy weather article) .

Non planing boats like the Sigma load up downwind in a blow and no one will be able to carry a kite downwind in 30 knots without risking a broach, let alone an inexperienced or tired helm. I never race in windy conditions , even inshore , without going through with the crew the procedure for surviving a gybe broach ( same link) before we start . Better still, drop early and pole out a genoa, which reduces the height of the rig and the risk of broaching.


Practice poling out the genoa with no one on the foredeck ( ie set it up , and bring sail across to windward with all crew off the foredeck  ( link to my heavy weather genoa poling article)


Bad weather at night is usually black as pitch , and super noisy. Develop a system of communication that is foolproof ( copy the navy and repeat any instructions back – especially as they may need to be passed forward through 2 or 3 crew) make sure every crew has a buddy who always watches him/her – and at night get all the foredeck crew to wear red head torches so you can see they are safe.


Up til now man overboard practice has been focussed on retrieving a man separated from the ship  ( link to my article)  Make sure the whole crew practice this , and do it at night ( throw a  strobe light- you will be impressed!). Unfortunately  recent events have highlighted how dangerous it can be to be still attached  and all the crew must know that the boat needs to be got to under 2 knots within 60 seconds if an attached MOB has a chance to survive ( link to Bens article – or if not available I will put a digest on my website) Our research shows that the best way is to go head to wind and drop sails , although the boat will stop within 1 boat length if rounded to with a poled out genoa.


Consider changing your lifejackets to one with a harness line at the back. The tethered MOB will last much longer wearing one of these ( link to Bens article)


The best solution to MOB is to stay on the ship – so practice safe ( ie short) harness line techniques for heavy weather.


The skipper is responsible for the safety and well being of the crew , and it is my firm belief that the above training regime is probably a minimum requirement to fulfill that heavy responsibility as well as helping the teamwork that is the basis of a good offshore crew.