Tips for Round Ireland success
The Round Ireland Yacht Race is one of the classic middle distance offshore yacht races of the world and over the years the challenging, interesting and beautiful race course has attracted world class sailors and their boats.
It’s also a great race for the avid club sailor because if you successfully negotiate the tides, weather and get your sail changes right you will be in with a great chance of picking up some silverware. There are ways and means of ensuring that your boat and crew are not only, prepared for the race down to the last detail, but also fit and in the right place at the right time to take best advantage of every opportunity as it presents itself.
There is no substitute for practice. So try to do as many offshore races as possible in the months leading up to the race. The Irish Sea Offshore Racing Association (ISORA) and the Royal Ocean Racing Club (RORC) both run middle distance offshore races. These races typically vary from 80 to 150 miles and can normally be completed in a weekend. They also provide a valuable opportunity to size up the opposition.
Make sure to double-check all equipment and fittings. Spend time inspecting blocks, winches and load bearing fittings. Do a rig check, looking for any hairline fractures at key stress points. Take all the tension off the rig as this is when some cracks may become apparent. Very importantly, ensure that the rig is tuned. If possible sail against an identical boat to match your speed. Have the engine serviced.
On the morning of the race scrub the bottom. This is important and many crews overlook this. One tenth of a knot gained can translate into minutes over a 700 miler.
The Round Ireland Yacht Race falls under ISAF Offshore Special Regulations, Category 2. Year after year boats fall suspect of the high standards imposed by the official inspectors and, unlike the Fastnet Race, every boat is inspected without fail in the Round Ireland. The first inspections take place on the Thursday before the race and if you have studied the Special Safety Regulations and prepared your boat before arrival then, when your boat is inspected, you may have little extra preparation to ensure compliance allowing time to relax and plan the race. Do not, under any circumstances alter equipment after the inspection. All Safety Regulations are there for good reason and may well save your life.
For example, there is one stipulation that requires there to be a strop down below, anchoring the mast heel to the boat. If the mast breaks, then, in heavy seas, the bottom of the mast remaining down below can fly around, injuring the crew or damaging the craft. This has happened in offshore races before and is why this rule exists.
Remember your boat must comply with the ISAF Offshore Special Regulations to permit you to race. So spend time reading up on these and prepare your boat accordingly. Ensure your tracking device is on and working. It’s a great modern day tool that adds to the excitement of the race for all ashore as well as being a useful safety tool.
Make sure no crew members suffer from illnesses that you aren’t aware of. If they do, ensure that they can be treated at sea and that these crew members will not be a liability to themselves or the crew. When on deck at night the following should be adhered to strictly: always wear a lifejacket, be clipped on with a safety harness and carry a personal light.
A good quality waterproof head torch is essential for sail changes at night. There are long periods of inactivity during this race so safeguard against hypothermia by getting into warmer clothes sooner rather than later.
It is very important to strike a balance between feeding the crew well and not taking too much food. Options range from freeze-dried food to full on cooking. The former isn’t exactly the most palatable while the latter is simply just too much hassle. The best way we have found is to prepare one hot meal per day in a tinfoil baking tray. This simply needs to be reheated in the oven or in a pot. For other meals make sandwiches and have soup.
Bring chocolate for energy and fruit for health. It is very easy to bring too much food. Sit down and work out what the requirements will be for the expected duration of the race. Do not throw in extras for good measure or get tangled up in what if scenarios, such as getting becalmed. Many boats have retired from this race in the past but none from starvation. If you have to go without food for a day; so what? It just makes finishing the thing even better. And please, ask around to make sure that the whole crew will like the food that they are going to be eating. This is one area where democracy should be taken seriously on a boat.
Remove as much packaging as possible before the race. For example, do not bring a bag of sugar, empty it and put the sugar in a plastic container. Likewise, with items such as soup sachets, teabags etc.
Try to get your drinking water requirements right. This can be hard to gauge sometimes but one litre per person per day in these temperate latitudes is generally ample. To minimise weight, don’t bring ice – just freeze your drinking water. This will melt gradually in an icebox throughout the race, keeping the ready-made-meals fresh while satisfying the vessel’s drinking water requirements.
Here is my recommended wardrobe for the race:
• Sea Boots & thick socks
• Breathable Base and Mid layers
• Breathable foul weather gear
• Balaclava / woolly hat
The above list caters for all the varying weather conditions that will be experienced on the race. All oilskin manufacturers have offshore or ocean ranges. These are getting a lot lighter than they used to be and less restrictive. If you wear all the above clothing underneath then the outer layer needs only to be waterproof and breathable. Each crewmember requires only one set of clothes with maybe a spare pair of socks.
No member of the crew needs to have a bag for this race. There should be one bag for the whole crew where they can put a toothbrush or a camera etc. This bag could also hold spare clothes in case somebody gets wet. If you want to do well in this race do not allow ipods and mobile phones or other creature comforts, which only tend to clutter below decks and serve as a distraction. Off watch, any crewmember giving it 110% on deck will only want to bother with sleep.
Hot bunking is best. If your boat has eight crew, only take four sleeping bags to save weight and clutter. Crew must be woken and moved to windward bunks if necessary. Keep the weight to weather and amidships when beating in heavy airs and to leeward in light airs. When surfing in heavy airs keep the weight aft and to weather. Otherwise when running in light airs, try to keep the weight out of the ends. When sailing in really light conditions, keep the centre of gravity low, by sending as many of the crew as possible down below.
Minimise it and keep it low, as near to the keel as possible. Keep it away from the ends too. Do not stow sails or gear in the cockpit. Remember, you can keep one spare sail on deck. If on a long fetch or reach, this is worth doing. Stow all sails on the floor in the main living area. Stow all safety gear such as flares, bolt-croppers, etc. within easy reach in an emergency. It’s no use having to dig these out from under mounds of gear if danger is imminent.
Before the race map all way-points into the chart plotter. Make sure you map these in as close as possible to each headland. There is no sense in putting these way-points a mile off a headland if you do not need to go that far away from it. Having said that, it is worth remembering that it may well be worth giving a headland a wide berth either for safety’s sake or because its fast.
Passage plan the whole trip bearing, mind the tides over the whole course. Make sure you know the tidal vectors for any part of the race course at any time. Know the tidal gates such as Tuskar Rock or Rathlin Island and be aware of how these can benefit you or disadvantage you.
It is important to always know HW Dover as this is your starting point for all calculations. So write down HW Dover for each day of the race, then you can reference it quickly. Be aware of the effects of tide over banks. Sometimes a fair tide will be faster over a bank. Sometimes the opposite is true depending on the contours of the seabed. Look closely at the water, especially off the south coast where you will see corridors or rivers within the sea where the tide is stronger. These can push your vessel along faster.
Try to establish what tides are doing at headlands. These are marks of the course and we all know that in any race mark rounding is a key skill. The tide at a headland may be stronger in close or indeed there could be a back eddy under the cliff. Indeed there may well be a counter current on the exit from the headland. So be alive to all these possibilities.
In general, stay as close to the rhumb line as possible. Never stray off looking for wind. This is a serious gamble and rarely pays off. Play wind-shifts constantly especially in light conditions to keep your apparent wind speed high. Above all, work hard and push relentlessly. Even if you have made a mistake and are beginning to feel out of the frame, continue to push as hard as ever.
Before the race get a long-range forecast and use this to estimate when you will reach key areas and at what time.
For weather forecast times type up a quick reference card which you can laminate and stick to the navigation station. Forecasts are available from RTE, BBC and Coast Radio Stations. Get every available forecast and keep a weather log to see if the trends/changes you are hearing are actually happening.
If you have a system that accepts grib files this is fast becoming the preferred option for up to the minute meteorology. Use the weather reports from the series of met buoys and coastguard stations around the course. Keep a good watch on the VHF for boats reporting in, as they will give a good indication of conditions ahead or behind. Bring a small AM/FM receiver in addition to the boat radio.
Useful weather websites are:
The Irish Meteorological Service Online
Be prepared for heavy weather. Make sure storm sails are accessible and you know how to rig them. Ensure that the crew are well fed and rested before the onset, as these basic human requirements could be difficult to fulfil in extreme conditions. Keep a good lookout and maintain a radio watch. If surfing downwind, it is very important to wear the correct canvas to keep the boat sailing at the right speed.
Too much, and the boat will broach; too little and it will become engulfed by the following sea. In these conditions it may well be necessary to temporarily alter the watch-keeping arrangements. For example, with a crew of eight it may well become necessary to run a system of six on and two off. Above all look to safety. Know your ports of refuge, wear safety harnesses and lifejackets and don’t take any unnecessary risks. Don’t forget though, that you are still racing and it’s often in these type of conditions, where if you have the nerve and the skill, you can make hay.
I can’t profess to having any great knowledge of the double handed Round Ireland but I do know that in this type of sailing your sleep patterns are essential and your ability to make measured and not too hasty decisions together with preparing for the onset of changing weather conditions are paramount to maintaining speed and consistent momentum over the race course.
Enjoy this epic race. Imagine a formula one motor racing circuit with no corners. Add the twists and bends into it and you have an exciting and varied course. Indeed, the same is true of the Round Ireland, which has so many turning points, providing for a range of diverse weather and tidal conditions that serve up a cocktail of complexity for the offshore racer. Whether you sail a 30ft cruiser/racer or an 80ft maxi you will find this race a challenge that is unrivalled amongst any middle distance offshore race the world over. If you have not contemplated doing the Round Ireland, or you are thinking about it but are undecided, I urge you to take the plunge and go for it. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.
Written by Tim Greenwood a crew member of the yacht Big Ears that won the Round Ireland Yacht Race in 1996 (and recently updated).