Blondie Albany race report
The Fremantle to Albany race has a long history, being first run in 1968 and then as an annual event through the 70s and 80s. There was then a gap to 1995 when it was won by the UFO 34 Impulse and again to the last race in 2009 which was won by the 43’ IOR 2 tonner Farrago.
The start of the RPYC 150th Anniversary Albany race on Friday April 17th 2015 was held in a light sea breeze. The line was relatively unbiased and seeing a gap in the fleet Blondie elected to make a port tack start (always risky because of having to give way to all the other boats on starboard tack). Being the smallest boat, our priority is always to avoid getting blanketed by other boats and get out into clear air as soon as possible after the start. This was achieved and we set off well placed at the front end of the fleet.
As the fleet moved out past Rottnest Island the wind gradually strengthened and moved South. Some yachts chose to tack inshore towards Garden Island (a bad move as the wind was forecast to move further east overnight). As night fell the fleet headed SW in a moderate breeze of 1015knts, Blondie being quite well placed towards the back of the main fleet and creeping to windward. We always try to take advantage of our close pointing ability when we can. Again a number of boats tacked inshore for a while. We stuck to our game plan and as the night wore on the wind gradually moved east as predicted and Blondie curved back in towards cape Naturaliste, which was almost abeam at dawn.
Here we made our only mistake of the race. The easterly was forecast to weaken to under 10 knots later in the day, being stronger a few miles offshore. We therefore reached along the shore about 8 miles out, with the First 35 La Premier close inshore. The wind died as predicted and then came in from the south (definitely not predicted!) which meant we had to tack into it, whilst La Premier reached along slowly but steadily in a light easterly. As we were getting close to Cape Leeuwin we eventually tacked over into the easterly stream had headed off around the Cape. Apart from the wind direction, the weather was beautiful, clear, warm and sunny, with huge long swells from the SW. As we headed towards Cape Leeuwin we were beam on to the swell and rode gently up and down, at times around 7m above the troughs. The swells were so long they looked more like moving hills than waves. They translated though into huge waves at the Margaret River Pro surf championship, with many professional surfers with broken boards and injuries.
As Saturday evening drew on we rounded Cape Leeuwin, in a strengthening easterly and confused bumpy seas around the Cape. We kept well clear of the notorious reefs, but were close enough to see the huge breaking waves on various parts of the reef. By nightfall the wind was over 15knots and increasing, so we changed to our #3 jib and snugged the boat down for the night. We were concerned to hear a call from Farrago saying that they had lost their mast – as the closest boat we offered to assist, fortunately our help was not required, other than facilitating Augusta Sea Rescue to guide Farrago into the Augusta marina in the dark. The almost new mast had broken about 2m above the deck for reasons that have not yet been established. The conditions were rough but not gale force.
All night we bashed our way SW into a lumpy cross sea and a 20 knot easterly. However, morning found Blondie had kept up fairly well with the main fleet and quite well inshore. The rhumb line or shortest route is fairly close to the shore all along the south coast. We had one brief period of anxiety when a rock was sighted rather close to us – this was marked on the electronic charts as just a patch of shallow water, only when scrolled right in did the chart indicate the rock with a tiny cross. Our navigator Steve was very upset as it was the only time he hadn’t cross referenced with the Aust. hydrographic charts which showed the hazard more clearly. A similar electronic charting issue was the cause of Team Vestas being wrecked by hitting a reef in the Indian Ocean during the 2014 Volvo Around the World Race. Fortunately our crew had sharp eyes and the outcome was a lot better for Blondie, but it was a lesson learned for all on board.
We changed to our #1 genoa late in the night as the wind had dropped off, but shortly after dawn it started to blow ferociously from the northeast, which resulted in a hurried sail change to the #3 jib (our #1 is only 135% overlap so more like most masthead yachts’ #2size). This was followed quickly by a reef as the wind built to around 30 knots with the added sharp gusts or “bullets” characteristic of an offshore breeze. We reached along at full speed like this, then an hour later it died off as quickly as it came and we shook out our reef and changed sails (again!) back to the #1 genoa.
All Sunday morning we close reached along our rhumb line at good speed. In the afternoon the wind died again as predicted, although a light NE breeze remained. Blondie elected to remain along the rhumb line closer to shore, being careful not to go too close in under the wind shadow of the large cliffs along the West Australian south coast. Quite a number of boats remained well out to sea or headed further out. The larger faster boats had experienced even more difficulties as they had encountered amore easterly wind and were close hauled or even tacking into it towards Albany as opposed to a fast close reach like Blondie and the other smaller boats.
We managed to keep up a few knots of boat speed in the light conditions and in the early afternoon passed the IOR 40’ 1 tonner Prime Factor which was going in circles in a dead patch. We thought that it probably hadn’t helped that they had forgotten to shake out their reef from the previous night! A light breeze filled in from the east and for a while Blondie tacked into this. It gradually strengthened and we headed into the evening on port tack. We were angling out to sea on this last leg into Albany, but we knew the forecast was for the wind to shift north east and we would lift back in towards the shore on this. Therefore we tried to avoid tacking back in as much as possible and used the wind shift to help lift us in.
Around 9pm a tack was inevitable to avoid Eclipse Island just south of Albany, we then tacked back onto port for the last few miles to the rounding mark at Bald Head. By this time the wind was up to around 20 knots and we were beating into a confused and quite large sea, rather overpowered under our #1 genoa just hanging on waiting for the turning mark and the lighter breeze of King George Sound where we would reach in and need the power of the larger headsail.
Just before midnight and less than a mile from the turn mark we heard a call from Prime Factor, who had lost steering and were twirling in circles near Vancouver Island. The sailing master was exhausted and understandably a bit frightened by the proximity of the rocks and asked for urgent assistance. The Albany Sea Rescue were around an hour away and being the closest boat Blondie dropped sails and motored to assist. The Blondie crew all responded magnificently to the call – everyone was fatigued at the end of a long race, it was blowing quite hard, the seas were big and very confused but they all acted without question when asked to assist. It was quite a feat just to get the sails down in the dark in those conditions. We motored at top speed to assist Prime Factor, who fortunately looked like they would probably drift clear of the rocks a mile or so to leeward. It would have been extremely dangerous to get close to Prime Factor as both boats were rolling heavily and there was a real risk of masts hitting and being lost. Even attempting a tow would have been very difficult and dangerous. So Blondie stood by whilst the Prime Factor crew jury rigged the steering and then escorted them as they motored slowly towards Albany. Eventually the Albany Sea Recue came to relieve us and we motored back to where we had been, hoisted sail and resumed racing. By this time the wind had dropped and it was clear that the issue was going to be lack of wind rather than too much.
Blondie close reached across King George Sound in the early hours of Monday at about 3 knots. As we drew close to the harbour entrance the wind dropped out completely with only a few puffs directly on the nose. We knew that we were in a winning position but could see it all slipping away. After about 20 minutes a faint northerly breeze filled in. We crept along what seemed like an endless harbour (really only a mile or so) in 3-4 knots of breeze, making about 2 knots of boat speed. We knew that if we made a mistake and lost way the boat would stall and be very difficult to get going again in those conditions. This is because a lot of the wind in the sails is “apparent wind” created by the forward movement of the boat. Once this is lost it is very hard to get a heavy boat like Blondie moving again.
Fortunately the breeze held in just enough to keep us moving and at 3.48am on Monday morning Blondie crossed the finish line. We had won the Albany race! We could apply for redress for time lost in assisting Prime Factor and this would correct the line honours position but we knew we had won the race overall on IRC even without this.
As we motored in to our waiting pen and a beer on dry land, we paused to reflect on our achievement – we had taken on the best ocean racers in Western Australia, including a TP52, GP42, three Beneteau Firsts and a Farr 40 one design, many with professional crew on board. Not only had we won on IRC by a clear margin but we had also come in 5th over the line out of 10 boats in Division 2 despite being the smallest. Our S&S 34 had performed admirably, which says a lot not just for the crew but also for Olin Stephens’ genius in designing a boat that can still win races almost 50 years later. We hoped that it also sent a message to all sailors that you don’t need a large million dollar boat to successfully compete offshore and would act as an encouragement for more to join us.
These thoughts were interrupted by a great 4am welcome as we docked in Albany, where we were whisked away to the Princess Royal Sailing Club for the best tasting steaks ever. Many thanks to the chefs who had been up all night feeding tired and hungry sailors. It was a great end to a fantastic race for us and Blondie.
(The winds were not favourable to smaller boats on the race back to Fremantle and we didn’t do as well and had to be content with winning the major race down to Albany)