The Opportunity

Most of the ocean races I compete in, particularly the transatlantic grand-slam events, are in short-handed configuration, either sailing double or single-handed on a boat. Whilst this offers enormous personal challenge and satisfaction, the crewed racing we do with four or five people on board can be highly stimulating and really emphasises additional challenges and opportunities from leading and working with a team.

The 1,800 mile Sevenstar Round Britain and Ireland Race that I skipped last year really highlighted a few key important factors that can really aid performance when dealing with setbacks in a fast-changing, competitive environment. Equipment failure halfway around the race course, whilst in the lead, reminded me that nothing goes according to plan and that constant communication and realignment is essential to get the team’s energy and resources focused in the right place.

There was an amazing opportunity at stake for us entering the race. As the fastest fleet the winner of our class had the chance to take Line Honours, to win the overall race. In addition to this the weather window also showed that it could be possible to also break the official World Record for a 40 foot monohull. So if you were to win the Class 40, you could come away with three Titles but if you were to come second, you would go home with nothing.

We raced with a team of four – a small but efficient number for crewed offshore configuration. Two of the crew I had raced with before with great success, Julien Pulvé and Pablo Santurdé, from France and Spain respectively, and then a driven, young, but experienced Brit, Sam Matson, also joined us. When putting the team together it was important that the competencies and experience of the crew would complement each other, whilst ensuring that they were also very adaptable and versatile sailors. Importantly for me it was crucial that they possessed the hunger to win, as it is this competitive drive which makes for the most lethal of ingredients.

2018 start of Sevenstar Round Britain and Ireland Race off the Royal Yacht Squadron, Cowes, Isle of Wight.
Credit RORC

Open Decision Making

The first part of the race was close and exciting, but somewhat stressful with the lead boats all huddled together, so every tactical call we made was important and had to be well-founded.

In crossing the Celtic Sea we had quite a tricky call to make as there was a depression coming in from the west which would provide a better wind angle and more wind, meaning faster sailing. However, this meant sailing further distance to catch the shift. In offshore sailing investing in such favourable wind angles often prove to pay off with time saved, rather than sailing the shortest route.

Although I was acting officially as boat navigator and tactician, when amongst a solid team the most powerful way to make sound decisions is through bouncing ideas off each other. Having more heads in the game can often lead to valuable strategy creation and thinking outside of the box.

A good way I find of doing this is to almost reverse the hierarchy by asking someone else to go and look at the weather data and come up with a plan, which can either agree or disagree with your own. If it agrees, great, but if it challenges your own, then it forces you to go into greater depth, discuss, and come up with a middle ground you agree on, that usually provides a better balance between risk and reward.

Taking the Lead

By the time we reached Ireland, our investment had worked well and we gained on nearly all the competitors, but unfortunately Corum still held a slender advantage just in front of us, having chosen very similar tactics and racing a newer, faster model.

We were now in for some fast sailing. After rounding SW Ireland the wind shifted and we were soon able to hoist our small, heavy weather spinnaker, and the boat just took off – jumping up onto the plane and surfing down waves at over 20 knots. The boat was sailing in its sweet spot so we agreed it was the best opportunity to make gains on Corum under the cover of night. The team worked seriously hard through the night, pushing themselves to squeeze out as much speed as possible.

The next morning we were hugely spurred on to see that we had not only taken the lead but pulled out a 25 mile advantage – a fantastic reward for what was an exhausting night’s sailing with very little sleep. I realised though it was important to avoid complacency, and to keep pushing the boat to build the cushion as the breeze continued to pick up.

Later on we were hit by a very big rogue gust which took everyone by surprise. The boat lurched as the gust hit and we took off down a wave at an alarming pace, in excess of 25 knots. Then followed a violent impact as the boat crashed into the trough of the wave, hitting a solid wall of water. To my horror I heard a flapping sound and looked up to see what I had feared most at this point – the spinnaker had completely ripped in two.

Like gears on a car, loss of a sail is a crucial hit to performance. The tear couldn’t have been placed worse – right down the centreline, there it was flapping uselessly in front of the boat like a tattered flag. Our winning determination to maximise on speed had suddenly been shattered by overstepping a fine line of risk. We were all gutted.

Repairing the spinnaker

Focus on the solution

Without this spinnaker our speed had dropped significantly against the competitors and they were starting to catch us at a rate of knots. It would be just a matter of time before we’d lose our hard earned lead.

Dwelling on the problem wasn’t going to help so it was crucial we focused on finding a solution as quickly as possible and approach the issue positively.

Although it was a mammoth task, it was time to act and attempt to repair the sail. We first hung it to dry down below before Julien and Sam got to the laborious task of stitching, gluing and taping it back together whilst Pablo and I focused on keeping the boat sailing fast and minimising our speed deficit as much as possible. No one slept for 24 hours.

Despite raging fatigue levels it was incredible just how much the morale and mood lifted dramatically as soon as we jumped into a positive problem solving mode to fix the sail. It was then that I realised just how important my role was to focus everyone’s energy on something constructive, after such a setback, and just how significant my disappointment and negative emotions can be at casting a shadow over the whole team.

Some eight hours later, our lead had reduced by 15 miles, and we were now just 10 miles in front of the leader, but at last Julien and Sam dragged the sail on deck having finished the repair. We hoisted it and everyone held their breath, praying for the sail to hold together, but moments later we were dealt an even bigger blow. In the space of just a few seconds the sail ripped itself apart catastrophically again.

Adapting quickly to disruption and setbacks

Taking down this destroyed sail was immensely disappointing for all and it was this emerging negative emotional state that we needed to bypass quickly. I had to find a way of refocusing the team to keep hope alive. Concise 2 was now in second place and closing in fast. It would be just a matter of hours before they took the lead.

At this point we still needed this damaged hard weather spinnaker for another 150 miles until we could round the Shetland Islands, before turning south and sailing upwind. If we could somehow hold out and keep our lead until the Shetlands we could stand a good chance of winning.

Gusting 30 knots the wind was still far too strong to consider flying our very big spinnaker instead, so it was time for a change of strategy. The forecast showed an opportunity to head off north enabling us to find lighter more stable winds earlier, which would allow us to hoist the big spinnaker, without a risk of destroying that also. Everyone agreed this investment in the north was our best shot, and sure enough a few hours later the wind dropped enough for us to set our large spinnaker. It was great to feel the boat moving properly again, and although our speed was slower, our angle to the Shetlands was better. Separating away to the North from Concise, we wouldn’t know until we converged at the Shetland Islands whether we would be able to hold our lead.

Later that evening we rounded the wild, windswept point of Muckle Flugga at 61 degrees North, with the incredible sight of gannets diving around the boat, this part of the world bursting with marine life. There was no visual sign of Concise and some great news awaited us as I downloaded the positions to see that we had not only held our lead but had also extended to a 15 miles advantage.

I’m pleased to say that we didn’t look back and three days later we crossed the finishing line in Cowes to take first place after eight days and four hours, but also to set a new Guinness World Record in the process.

The victory felt particularly special after the setbacks we had overcome, and highlighted the importance of relentless communication when adapting to setbacks in order to keep everyone aligned. In any crisis your ability to stick together as a team and look forward positively has a huge bearing on your success.

2018 finish of Sevenstar Round Britain and Ireland Race off the Royal Yacht Squadron, Cowes, Isle of Wight.
Credit RORC