Red Ruby wrapping up the UKDHOS under A1.5, approaching the finish at Cowes. Photo by John Green Cowes.

There is current and then there is CURRENT!

In September 2022, my wife Chris and I were back in England for the final two races of the UK Doublehanded Offshore Series (UKDHOS; see a recap of the first two races in the April 2023 issue of 48° North). The first race was the RORC Cherbourg Race. It was on the shorter side — 75 miles out the Solent from Cowes and then straight south across the English Channel to Cherbourg, France, which is also the finish point for the famous Fastnet Race.

This race turned out to be all about the current. At the start, the current was so strong, pushing us across the line, that we could not make progress sailing against it. If we were over early, it would be the end of the race, because there was no way to get back across the start line under sail. The strategy, then, was to motor away from the line, turn off the engine at the 5 minute gun, and hope you timed it right. We managed to get this more right than most and led all of IRC 1 and IRC 2 down the Solent under A1.5 spinnaker, chasing the IRC 3 and 4 boats. We exited the Solent leading IRC 2, and that’s when things started to go sideways, literally.

The race had started at 6 p.m., so it was now dark, the winds were light and on the nose, and we had to make a big decision regarding the current. The current in the English Channel was ripping from west to east — perpendicular to our course. Sure, we sail in current constantly in the Salish Sea, and are experts at hugging the shore when the current is foul and looking for deep water when the current is favorable. But wow, what is this crazy cross-current? Do we sail with the current, very fast, on a course that is only slightly better than 90 degrees to the finish, or do we sail slowly against the current, but on a course that is almost directly towards the finish?

It turns out the VMG difference was pretty small, meaning that it wasn’t at all obvious to us which strategy was best. As it happened, sailing fast with the current was the better option. But we didn’t go that way, instead hedging on getting to the new stronger breeze approaching from the west. Fortunately, we did get the new breeze first, but we were quite deep in the fleet by that time. We found ourselves playing catch-up with some sweet Code Zero reaching to the finish. We ended up in eighth place out of 34 boats in the doublehanded fleet, just 10 minutes out of third after 17 hours. The racing was so close and there were some good lessons learned, at least.

One week later was the final race in the UKDHOS. This was the UK DH IRC Nationals Race #2 (Race #1 was the Cherbourg Race), so it only featured doublehanded boats. We were focused on the entire series, though, not the UK Nationals. The best four results from the season counted for the series and we’d only raced three so far. All the boats at the top of the standings already had four races to count. Our four races would eventually count, but we appeared sneakily out of contention at the time because — despite scores of 2, 2, 8 — our fourth race was currently scored as a “Did Not Start” until we had completed it. Accordingly, we started the final 125 mile race a bit under the radar.

Somehow, we got another good start and led the fleet of 17 doublehanded teams westward from Cowes down the Solent. The course would take us west to near Portland Bill in the English Channel, south of the Isle of Wight, east to a buoy near the coast and back into the Solent via the east entrance. All four of our races in the UK started in the same location, off the Royal Yacht Squadron in Cowes, not coincidentally the same start line used for the Fastnet.

Not long after the start, we learned another good lesson on sail selection. Thinking the breeze would stay forward, we opted for our fractional Code Zero to ensure we didn’t get headed into the Isle of Wight. Another SF3300, Chilli Pepper, was hot on our heels and went for the masthead Code Zero and promptly sailed through our lee and into the lead. We scrambled to add our genoa staysail, which kept us in touch until we exited the Solent and started a nice upwind leg in 12-15 knots out of the west. The most interesting part of the beat was a strong ebb over Saint Alban’s Ledge that created ripping currents and standing waves. Surprisingly, our trepidation to avoid the standing waves proved a benefit as we tacked early and received a nice push along the ledge, while Chilli Pepper and Bellino (SF3600) tacked later and were pushed over the ledge, into the standing waves, and then out of the beneficial current. We will be keeping our eyes out for that feature when we sail the Fastnet later this year.

Blasting back to the UK after the Cherbourg Race under A2 and spinnaker staysail. 75nm in just over 6 hours!

Fast forward to sunset, and we were sailing eastward under the Isle of Wight in a 10 knot westerly under the big A2 kite and spinnaker staysail. It seems we fly the staysail more often than others, but we keep getting positive feedback on boat speed, so we keep looking for the lower and upper limit. Red Ruby was making 12 knots over the ground (thank you current), leading the SF3300s, but trailing three SF3600s that proved quite quick downwind in these conditions. Soon, we started sailing very defensively, since everyone was catching us from behind. It wasn’t until sunrise back in the Solent, just 3 miles from the finish, that we discovered we’d been dragging weed on both rudders, likely for most of the night. Lesson learned.

Now seventh on the water, we sailed towards the finish against the current in light breeze. Hey, we know how to do this — this is Salish Sea Racing 101! Half-a-mile from the finish, we were clustered with the fleet as close to shore as any of us dared, with the lightest of breezes pushing from behind. In the most opposite extreme of the “Whomper” scene from the movie Wind and while our competitions’ kites hung limp, we started sailing wing-on-wing with our A1.5 in less than 10 feet of water straight along the shore, avoiding the jibe out into the stronger current. To say that worked marvelously would be a massive understatement.

We crossed the line in second place behind a SF3600 and 20 minutes ahead of a J/109 that we passed within a half mile of the finish. That netted us a third on corrected time for the final race in the series, and gave us a satisfactory 2-2-8-3 for the season. This turned out to be good enough for second overall for the series behind a SF3200, after a tie-breaker with the J/109, and just two points ahead of fifth place. We also ended the season as the first place Mixed team, first Masters team, first Corinthian team, and first SF3300. There is no way we could have hoped for a better outcome for the season, which started just full of wonder, as we embarked on racing a new boat in a foreign country against a large field of similar boats.

Departing Cherbourg for the delivery back to Hamble. Justin and Chris hope to be back here soon for the finish of Fastnet in July.

Our first year racing on the Solent and English Channel had its share of surprises. It never rained on us during any of the four races. We never saw more than 20 knots of wind in over 500 miles of racing. We only saw 20-30 knots on the delivery back from Cherbourg, which turned out to be an absolutely rad 75 mile sleigh-ride, averaging 11 knots. The water is very warm compared to the Salish Sea, thanks to the Gulf Stream, which meant the nights were warmer than back home. Like the Salish Sea, when the winds are light there is little to no swell. We basically sailed in flat water the entire time. We understand it was an abnormally light year and, as luck would have it, our home waters might have prepared us for the wind, sea state, and current better than the locals from the UK!

Red Ruby’s 2023 race season has already kicked off at Spi Ouest in France, so stay tuned next month for an update from Jonathan and Alyosha on what’s happening so far this year.