The main cause for complaint about the Royal Escape Race is usually the wind. Finishing skippers draw deep on that first French beer, and muse over how the results would have looked for them if the fickle French breeze hadn't coughed just as the coast hove into sight. Race Director Steve Thomas and I had heard that conversation so many times that for 2011 we decided to do something about it.
Obviously relying on intervention from above by lighting candles in St Mary de Haura, or perhaps having the start team aboard Watchful whistle solidly for an hour before the start could not be relied upon, or could perhaps visit upon us an excess of breeze such as felt in 2000. No, the answer was simple; get everyone up early and bring the start forward. Ian O'dell and his team on FPV Watchful, skippered as always by Charlie Hubbard, exited the locks a bit later than the crack of dawn having had to wait for a fishing boat, but made up time getting the start laid with the help of our own Des Silverson who really needed his dry suit when charging in the lively swell setting marks with his RIB.
Most of the fleet had stayed in Brighton, sheltering from Thursdays' violent gale that saw one person overboard in the frightening Marina entrance - thankfully all ended well. Overnight the storm subsided as quickly as it had arrived and as the Friday morning sun climbed, the breeze awoke, replacing the homely aroma of frying bacon hanging over the moored fleet with the tempting fragrance of salty spray. The briefing at SYC the previous night had been well attended and the enthusiasm from all the skippers for a good clean start was clear as yachts peeled off from rafted moorings for the marina channel and early runs through the registration gate. Neil Prescott was again very busy with his clip board on the end of the pier, waving back as yacht after grinning yacht filed past to register before turning to join the pre-start melee.
Aboard Watchful John Mills tugged his lanyard at 07:00 and the cannon crashed smoke down the line for the single handed sailors to start, closely followed by the SCCH fleet and finally the IRC yachts. Punching east into the short chop, crews were soon puffing with exertion and after the turning mark off Hove the debate became lively as to sail plans and the best tactics to lay the Greenwich Light with 16-18knts from the NW, averaging around 150T tightening up later to 140T. It was around now that we had to hold Barda steady to take a boarder - Des' RIB roared up from astern in a cloud of spray and Race Officer Ian O'Dell made a leap of faith towards our waiting hands. Dragged unceremoniously over the safety lines, Ian was welcomed aboard as guest crew and the kettle went on.
The sun broke through and the wind retained its power, driving everyone south, yet as always within a few hours the fleet had broken up with just a handful of nearby boats to match against. Shouldering into the waves Barda climbed west, whilst others went east and so the annual cat and mouse began in earnest, with ears keenly picking positional clues from VHF chatter. With some relief the shipping lanes were cleared by all and if anything seemed quieter than usual, perhaps reflecting the state of international trade. Before long the first signs of the French coast were discerned and so began hours of crossed fingers encouraging the breeze to hold all the way across the building tide to Fécamp. Reaching under a straining spinnaker, Ian was by now on the helm, chuckling quietly as he worked the fine balance between speed and crashing broaches. Plots were very frequent now; would we over stand to the west? Would the wind cough? How strong was the tide? When should we free our angle and sprint for the line? Where was Moonlight Saunter? Who was that sail out to the west... As much as the Royal Escape is a race course with few corners, there's enough tactics and unknowns to keep everyone guessing right up to the line.
However what we didn't know was that far ahead of us there was a battle royal developing for line honours (and I have to say a big thank you to the finishing team who witnessed this whilst coping with a pier head being doused by breaking waves). Philip Gower and his crew working the bluff prowed and incredibly powerful Hammerhead 35 canting keeler 'Headstart' were thundering towards the finish, neck and neck with solo-sailor Simon Mitchell aboard his Sunfast 3200 'Roxanne'. Simon was doing all he could to stop Headstart from rolling over the top of him, but when you are all alone it takes time to douse an asymmetric spinnaker, and with the beach looming behind the finish line Simon knew he would have to reign back Roxanne with a relatively early drop. With Headstart breathing down his neck he tripped the kite and with autopilot doing its best he gathered in the massive sail. By now Headstart had inched ahead, but back on the helm Simon luffed hard, playing his last card. Headstart had to react, slowing as they came up on the heading breeze, allowing Simon to dive down for speed and pip them to the line to claim line honour glory by just 3 seconds! (see picture on the right takien from Fécamp pier head as they crossed the line).
With the wind holding steady the fleet were all safely home in plenty of time to get the party started at the SRF bar. Well almost all - sadly Peter Lewis aboard 'Tabard' lost a cap shroud which threatened his entire rig, yet he managed to nurse his yacht home to Shoreham with no further damage. It wasn't all bad though as he was later awarded the Bacon Family Trophy for good seamanship.
Scrutineering on Saturday morning delivered a few surprises, but for most the celebrations were launched at SRF with a huge tasting of local produce and a free beer at the bar. Sailors drifted away for lunch before reconvening at the Hotel Normandy where Sarah Hammerton, with help from the SYC youth team and the younger Camp's, had been rushing to get ready for the prize giving. The toasts were flowing thick and fast as we welcomed Linda Morgan to do the presenting. It was Linda who back in 1976 approached Tony Boysons, now the SYC Admiral, with the idea of a cross channel race so it was very special to have her and both Tony and Adele Boysons with us in Fecamp. Much later, as demanded by RER tradition, the sun went down on the SRF club house bursting with bonhomie at the very French disco party. Happy times indeed.
From what I have been told it seems as if 2011 was a vintage Royal Escape year, due in no small part to the weather being kind. Everybody sailed all the way and although no records were broken Fécamp was full of tired but smiling faces. My thanks have to go to our French hosts at SRF where we received a great welcome and we can I think expect even more entries from France next year. To all those that participated in the race, to our sponsors, especially SMR, the incredibly generous John Davis of BD Foods, OPAS Marine, Fitzhugh Gates and of course the small army of dedicated volunteers who make the race happen, THANKS!
Chairman, Royal Escape Race Committee
(This is the report submitted to the Sussex Yacht Club magazine 'Wavelength').