On 12th August 2018, five current and former Oxford University Yacht Club sailors started the Royal Ocean Racing Club’s Sevenstar Round Britain and Ireland Race. The marathon 1800 nm race, in which yachts circumnavigate the entire UK without stopping, is one of the toughest challenges in ocean racing. In thirteen days we covered 1988 nm, encountered gale force winds on Ireland’s rugged west coast, mountainous seas near the Hebrides, mythical islands in heavy fog and flat calms among North Sea oil rigs. OUYC is proud to be the first university team to have completed the Sevenstar Round Britain and Ireland Race.
The team – Simon Harwood (skipper), Max Jamilly, Mélisande Besse, Annika Möslein, Will Gibbs and Sean Linsdall – arrived in Gosport on Friday 10th August to prepare for the race. We had already completed several qualifying races this season and Simon had been working tirelessly to bring the boat up to scratch. Max and Sean jumped off the dock at Haslar Marina to give Talisman a thorough clean below the waterline. Annika joined us from Germany and, once the whole team was reunited, we headed to Gunwharf Quays for a drink and some serious race preparation at Tiger Tiger.
Reluctantly we woke early the next morning and hurried to stow over 600 kg of food and water before crossing the Solent to Cowes. Soon disaster struck: the team satellite phone, our connection to the outside world, stopped working. A big shout out to Max and ‘sat phone’ Gary for spending hours getting it sorted! With Talisman safely berthed at Cowes Yacht Haven, the team headed to the RORC Clubhouse for a briefing and BBQ.
Sunday 12th August was the big day: time to set off on our adventure. Following a last breakfast at Tiffin’s, we spent a nervous few hours on the dock while rumours trickled in forecasting 50+ kt winds and 20m seas in the North Atlantic. We enlisted a questionable French photographer for one last team photo and said goodbye to the dock for two weeks.
The race started at 1200 from the Royal Yacht Squadron line, the fleet of 28 yachts all heading east towards No Man’s Land Fort, the first mark of the course. After rounding Bembridge Ledge, we did the first of many sail changes as the winds began to gather. The turbulent overfalls off St Catherine’s Point claimed our first seasickness casualty – but luckily Sean was fine after a few hours. As the wind shifted to the west we faced a long, uncomfortable beat to Portland Bill. Méli and Max fell ill too: unfortunately, this lasted a few days, complete with prehistoric vomiting noises and a traumatising experience for an unlucky dolphin.
As we approached Land’s End, the wind dropped to a pleasant 15 kt with flat seas, a welcome relief from the uncomfortable conditions of the last few days. We rounded Bishop’s Rock off the Scilly Isles at midday on 14th August and began our long upwind journey north-west through the Celtic Sea. Overnight the winds built to a steady 28 kt with regular gusts of 35 kt. After a few night time sail changes we woke up flying a double-reefed mainsail and storm jib. Just over twenty-four hours after leaving the Scilly Isles we passed the legendary Fastnet Rock and the jagged western outcrops of Ireland (Bull Rock and Great Skelling). Shrouded in clouds, they only briefly emerged from the fog. But our sights were firmly fixed north: towards the Hebrides and the gathering storms.
Clearing the last outcrops of the Irish coast, we turned north for the 360 nm journey to St Kilda – the last waypoint before Muckle Flugga, a lonely rock in the Shetlands that marks the most northerly point of our course. Each day we received a satellite weather forecast courtesy of Meteorologist Paul (Will’s dad, who kindly read us the shipping forecast). This time the news was extreme: we were on track to cross the tail-end of a tropical storm in the next twenty-four hours. Gale force westerlies and high seas were a certainty. We held a crew briefing: being 100+ miles away from the nearest safe harbour, our options were limited so we decided to ride out the storm but be very conservative with our sail choices to minimise the risk.
Approaching St Kilda on the evening of 17th August, the wind was 35 kt and building. We dropped the mainsail, hoisted the trysail and storm jib and braced ourselves for a very rough night. As the waves rose around us, we had a tray of Jane’s legendary brownies to celebrate Annika’s 22nd birthday. What better way to party than during a storm in the North Atlantic!
Sunrise on 18th August was hidden behind ominous clouds and the wind continued to worsen, as did the fearsome sea state. We measured a maximum gust of 45 kt before the wind instruments died, but bigger gusts continued to blow. Combined with monster waves which towered above Talisman, conditions were perfect for some amazing downwind sailing. All six crew members took the helm to surf at boat speeds over 18 kt. Simon reached 21 kt, a staggering speed with storm sails alone.
After the winds had died down to a moderate 25 kt, it was time to hoist the sails again and get back into the racing mindset. Talisman had other ideas, however: upon hoisting the mainsail we noticed that the top batten pocket had ripped. Méli led a great team effort involving sail patches and Gorilla tape to repair the sail as the wind continued to ease. Soon the conditions were glorious, and we decided it was finally time to make the most of them. Ready for a three-sail reach, we hoisted the lightweight spinnaker – but it spectacularly exploded after less than 5 minutes in the air! Replacing it with the smaller spinnaker, we began to make good progress towards Muckle Flugga.
The last eighteen hours to Muckle Flugga truly was the calm after the storm, a brief stretch of downwind sailing in 15 kt winds. Even with our larger spinnaker destroyed, we made excellent headway through the chilly waters. As dusk gave way to darkness at 2200 on 19th August, we were delighted when Muckle Flugga finally came into sight and toasted with a glass (or two) of Champagne. It was time, at last, to head south into warmer waters.
After rounding Muckle Flugga, the storms of the Northern Atlantic became a distant memory and the first 200 nm of our southwards journey were painfully slow due to weak and fickle winds. Morale was high thanks to Max’s constant stream of poor jokes and useless facts (I think we preferred him unconscious and seasick), not to mention regular sightings of dolphins, whales and seabirds and longer, warmer days. The light winds were short-lived and east of Aberdeen the winds picked up again to 35 kt again. We were reefing the mainsail at dusk when a particularly vicious gust tore a metre-long gash in the leech. We rapidly dropped the main and Simon ingeniously fixed the sail using deck sealant, sail patches and Gorilla tape. It was at moments such as this when our strength and cohesion as a team became invaluable. Special mention goes to Annika, who was almost launched skywards when a gust caught the sail as it lay on the deck. Soon the main was patched and re-hoisted just as darkness settled.
After three days’ journeying south in very light wind, dodging oil rigs and wind farms in the North Sea the breeze steadily built as we approached the Thames Estuary. For the next 12 hours, our boat speed averaged 10 kt and we were soon at the Strait of Dover. We were ready to turn the corner and begin the final short stretch along the south coast to Cowes. But the conditions did not last: the wind veered to the west and dropped below 15 kt off Dover, before building again above 30 kt off Dungeness. Whilst putting in what we hoped would be the last reef of the race, disaster struck. A two-meter stretch of the mainsail leech ripped, making it unusable and resulting in a long night of beating towards Cowes under headsail alone, in storm force winds in torrential rain.
The end was almost in sight and it was agonising to be making such slow progress. Sailing between the traffic separation scheme and the Suffolk coast for six hours against an unfavourable tide, little progress was made, and team morale was low. But eventually the tide turned, and we began to make progress. After searching Talisman from top to bottom, every available sticky patch was used to fix the mainsail leech. We hoisted our patchwork sail for the last time and turned our sights (and stomachs!) towards the finish line.
At 1200 on 25th August, we passed No Man’s Land Fort to port, finally entering the Solent exactly 13 days after we started. Just over an hour later at 13:34 on 25th August, we finished in an elapsed time of 13 days 1 hour 34 minutes and 17 seconds. We finished 11th (IRC adjusted) out of 28 boats who started. The team was warmly welcomed on Trinity Landing by friends, family and the RORC race committee with several bottles of much-needed Champagne. Thrilled but exhausted, we rushed to the RORC Clubhouse for our first showers in two weeks.
OUYC would like to thank RORC and Sevenstar for organising such an incredible race. Most importantly, we would like to thank our skipper, Simon Harwood, for leading us round and, as always, for putting his trust in us whilst sailing Talisman!