When I was asked to do a SAMSA survey on the Swan 53 “Music” in the Med and to take part in the Palermo to Monte Carlo race, it didn’t take me long to say yes. It has been a while since I have sailed anything bigger than a L26.
Judging from the very competitive rating and previous race record, the owner James Blakemore definitely found a good balance between performance and rating. Gerry Hegie and Mike Giles were both involved in the project from the beginning and clearly were able to initiate the right changes to the boat to get her unleashed for IRC racing.
Our crew was a very balanced mix with sailors from all walks of life and we had a great time together, despite the rather challenging wind conditions. With well over 20 tons this beautiful Swan does need at least 12 kn of wind to get properly going.
Race start in Palermo
After the start in Palermo we made good distance towards Sardinia during the day until we got caught in a patch without a breath of wind during the first night. As we wanted to spare out the center of a high ridge, we decided to place us more westerly to avoid it. Most boats in the fleet had a similar approach and we were well in the mix with many of the faster rated boats. Eventually we parked the first time for 4 hrs until we were able to get the boat moving again, albeit very slowly. The lighter boats in the fleet did never drop below 3 kn of boat speed and we knew that we will have a hard time to catch up with them later in the race. After the first night we were placed 24th of the 33 boat strong IRC fleet. That was not really the position we wanted to be in. A long and hard fought catching up to the boats in front of us got announced. The whole crew worked really hard throughout the race and at the gate of the northern side of Sardinia we were already able to jump into 9th place. Things were shaping up for us as the breeze did reach about 27 kn. Being on the beat, properly powered up, we reeled in the smaller boats in front of us quite quickly. “Music” did what she does best, she powered her way through the nasty chop in style. Going upwind at speeds of 9 kn is something that I am normally not able to archive on the boats I sail on, it definitely is a great feeling going upwind at that pace. Once we reached the western side of Corsica we were able to free up slightly. Now it was just a matter of keeping the boat properly powered up and we would surely be able to improve our position further. We heard that 14 boats in the fleet resigned when the breeze came up during the night.
I never saw more than 30 kn on our wind instrument, but it could well be that the wind did increase through the night and encouraged these boats to throw the race. For us Capetonians it was comparable to our Wednesday night SE conditions and it felt just right.
Black Pearl, a brand new Ker 40 powerhouse was amongst the retired boats. Mark Sadler and Marc Lagesse were the two South Africans of the fully professional crew. Apparently they had damaged their keel and went to the closest port.
The race to the finish line
Having been come to a complete standstill during the race for so many times, we were all holding our breath to get to the finish at least in a light breeze. 8 Nm to the finish and our boat speed showed the magic 0.0 again. All our hopes to possibly win the race on handicap were now officially shattered, as the smaller boats behind us would be able to gain time on us again. Nevertheless we didn’t stop changing sails to the clocking light breeze. In fact we never gave up and did at least 40 sail changes during the 4 days of racing. As soon as our target speed was slightly under reading the sails were changed. Being a full on sailing professional, Mike Giles really did a great job. During Mike’s off watches the rest of us kept the boat going as fast as possible and changed gears and sails all the time.
That was probably the most important eye opener and best lesson I have learnt. You can’t win any international regatta with the mindset of a club sailor. You have to push yourself and the rest of the crew all the time or you will fall quickly behind the more professional teams.
Most of the better sailors probably know what it takes to make a boat fast but don’t apply the highest standard all the time. The professional sailors never allow themselves to slack off during a race or it could be the end of their sailing career. You can only win a regatta if you stay motivated and focused all the time.
In the end we are the 5th boat over the line and the 3rd on handicap. Throughout the race we knew that the light wind conditions will not favor ???Music??? but we managed a podium finished against the odds nevertheless.
It was really a great feast for our team as we only had one professional on board.
James Blakemore, as the owner of the boat, spend a fair amount of time on the helm and so did the other more experienced of us. That makes this 3rd position even sweeter.
Gerry really did a splendid job to get the boat race ready. In fact he pushed himself so hard in the boat preparation and throughout the race, he fell into a coma like sleep on a lawn in front of a historic building when we went to a little stroll through the ancient part of Monte Carlo.
The fully South African crew kept the RCYC burgee flying very high once again. I am sure “Music” will feature well during the other upcoming regattas in the Med. In over 12 kn of wind I would put a lot of money on “Music” and their crew for an overall win on IRC.
James Blakemore did not only cover the costs for the entire crew and handled the boat very well on the helm, but yet also did stick it out with us on the weather rail when the boat got powered up. I have not seen many boat owners who hike longer than 1/2 hr if the going gets tuff. This man has got a true passion for sailing.
His old friend Tim Jordan is in his mid-60’s and did exactly the same with an enthusiasm of a youngster. During the 5 hr upwind leg on the northern side of Sardinia we got properly wet and lost the blood flow in our legs due to a very uncomfortable toe rail. Nevertheless, he never stopped smiling. He was the official entertainer on the boat.
Bradley Robinson, as our student foredeck has never done that position on a yacht bigger than 40 ft, but yet he handled the many sail changes without complaint. For almost every spinnaker peel he had to go up the mast to swop out the halyards. He also never complained when he did get wet in his off watches to give us a hand.
Sean Parker, our 20 year old mast man has never raced anything bigger than a 35 ft. He quickly found his groove and was around whenever we needed him. And best of all, he did it with a smile and the necessary dedication. He will find his feet quickly in the yachting world as he is already very mature for his age.
Ryan Smith, another young student in his gap year, was the only one who wasn’t so sure if yacht racing does make any sense at all. We can’t blame him, he never raced on a yacht before. Being the absolute greenhorn, he had to swallow a lot of crap from us during the race.
Mike Rob has come a long way, not only with the length of his beard. He really learnt the trade of trimming and could trim for hrs. He also races as main trimer on top boats in the UK and won many races. Despite his dedicated trimming he was fun to hang out with all the time, just as in the old days at the RCYC. He will visit Cape Town end of the year and I am sure we will see him on some local boats. With his sailing knowledge and positive personality he will fit any team.
Mike Giles, as the only pro on board was really multitasking. He was always around when needed and lifted the standard of sailing already with his sheer presence. Nobody wanted to cockup when he was around. He endlessly explained the sail changes and boat handling to us mere mortals. I am sure he was drained after we reached the finish. He definitely had a huge impact on the performance of the boat.
Gareth Morgan has raced on Music before but has a demanding job and family and can only do one longer ocean race per year. He was always willing to help out everywhere. From trimming sails to helming, he never stopped to offer his help. He was a reliable force and always asked questions to fully understand the procedures. I shared the watch with him and we had good fun together.
Gerry Hegie is probably the youngest and most dedicated boat captain that I know of. He willingly works long hours at night to prep the boat and is fully committed when the racing starts. He can be seen on any position from the foredeck to the helm and yet he is able to cook up a tasteful meal for the crew with very few ingredients. To top it off, he did also most of the navigation. He is on fire with everything sailing related and can substitute 4 crew members if needed. His saying “I live for this shit” when the going gets tuff explains it quite well. I really hope he will be able to fulfill his dream to do a Volvo race before he loses his desire to push himself hard in sailing.
For myself, I realized that teaching sailing without doing the physical work myself, has put me out of touch. Since almost one year I was only sailing on L26s with my students. I have to practice more myself what I preach and must sometimes do some trimming and foredeck work, just to keep it real. The first couple of tacks I was not able to release the jib sheet correctly to allow a smooth tacking of the jib. It’s such an easy job but I actually can’t remember when I last tacked a jib, quite embarrassing. That’s the downside when people spend most of their time on the helm or lecturing at the back of the boat, as I usually do. I will have to start again to actively do more sailing myself, to lift up my own sailing or my students will show me the ropes pretty soon.
This was really the best coordinated race I have taken part so far. From the palet service for the extra equipment to the allocated moorings for the race fleet, everything was well organized. The real time tracking website was incredible and gave the whole fleet an idea where the rest of the fleet was located and what speed each boat was doing. The sendoff in Palermo and the welcoming Monte Carlo yacht club were world class. Despite the glamour and the posh yacht club in Monte Carlo, the atmosphere was actually quite relaxed. The final price giving was a bit of a show down of the rich and famous on that side of the world. I don’t think many competitors had the South African team on the cards for a podium finish, certainly not in the prevailing light wind conditions.
It was truly a great experience to see how the rich and famous live. In a strange way I am looking forward to get back on our L26s, to lift up the sailing of our students again. The great success that our junior’s team is having at this year’s Lipton Cup is only the beginning. They will soon be able to travel the world if they carry on like that. Good sailors are in demand all over the world.