Blink’s RNI campaign, by Tony Wells

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Tony Wells (left) and Craig Shearer prepare to depart for leg 1

The Finish

Leg 4, Napier to Auckland, dawn of Day 2. In the early light we can see East Island off our port bow.  We’ve ended up a little high in the SE wind, using our FR0 along the east coast has given us a decent lead on the other 40s, but has also ended up high, heading NNE, away from the Mercury Islands, our next mark, and therefore the finish. We know we must head north-ish, hopefully NNW, to get offshore and stay in better pressure before gybing west. It’s supposed to be mid-to-upper 20s for most of the day so the A4 is our obvious choice. The longer we delay putting it up the more ground we lose on anyone who might duck inside us and shorten their course. So Craig volunteers for a salty firehosing on the pointy end as he plugs it in, we hoist and we’re off.

The combination of the good pressure and the big rolling swell lights Blink up. We rarely drop below 17 knots of boat speed and spend minutes at a time in the low 20s, surfing down and across the swell, sometimes long rides on the crest of a big wave, seeming to rip along many metres above the whole ocean.  About half of the time we can leapfrog to the next swell in front, and we only slow down when we hit a steep back of a big wave. It’s fast, brilliant, exhilarating, and we know that few boats in the fleet can do this quite like Blink can. But there’s a problem.

It’s full-on. We’re both completely committed to steering and trimming, but can’t leave what we’re doing or we’ll end up broaching. Well actually we did have a few round-ups, so it’s probably more accurate to say we’d be broaching much more often if we relaxed. We’re okay with this because the speed is brilliant, and the broaches are happening only if we slow down, when the waves can spin us, so we know the faster the better. The problem is neither of us have slept at all.  Nor have we had a drink, peed, eaten, adapted what we are wearing to the rapidly warming day, put on sunburn cream or anything else apart from constantly manning the wheel or a winch.

We do this for several hours and get well north of East Cape before facing a gybe, which we carefully time for a combination of a lull and high speed down a wave, and we get very close to avoiding a round-up. Now we’re off on a westerly course; just as fast and intense as before. We see a boat on our windward beam, a couple of miles north, but we can’t identify it, firstly because our boat computer has a problem (we can’t get instrument data including AIS to show, and we also can’t get the Yellowbrick tracking data), and secondly because we can’t leave what we’re doing. Given that over the next hour we’re leaving them behind and they falling down below our line, we assume they’re not one of our competitors. We later find out it was a TP52 in our fleet. We ended up second on line in this leg, beating several boats over 50 feet. The only boat in front of us was Wired, a canting keel 52.

Up to that leg, in the mostly upwind and light air of the 2020 race, Blink didn’t really get a chance to shine.  Upwind we’re pretty good for a 12m boat; cracked off a few degrees we’re fast, but she’s extraordinary with the wind near or behind the beam. There hadn’t been much of that so far.  Added to that our (very logical at the time but in retrospect a move of blatant idiocy) long tack in towards Raglan in leg 1 that cost us at least 5 hours, we weren’t likely to do that well overall. At least we got to drop and repair our MH0 while we were drifting in circles. With a couple of small time penalties from protests added to our elapsed time, in my totally unbiased opinion we did brilliantly to come 6th out of 38 boats on PHRF overall.  But for that Raglan move …

Blink shows off her keel at the start of Leg 1

Leg 2: The race to Wellington

Thirty-six hours after our ill-fated Raglan venture, still in leg 2 past Taranaki, we’re in catch-up mode.  Mr Kite, who we probably should have been leading into Wellington, was long gone, no chance of catching her. Clockwork were with us, and Anarchy well ahead.  There’s still some self-respect to be recovered though, if we could beat these two into Wellington. We’re playing our strong suit for the first time in the race, the previously light NW was building to the upper teens, we had an A2, J2, and full main up, and starting to hustle. A quick look at the forecast and we knew how just it would play out in the strait.  Nowcasting had 30 knots at the Brothers weather station.  So, at least 2 hours before we needed it, Craig and I made a plan – based on local knowledge, forecasts, nowcasting, and knowing Blink and her sail wardrobe well.  Reef the J2 soon while it’s easy, drop the A2 just north of the Brothers, change to A6 for crossing the strait, drop for the FR0 for Terawhiti to Karori or maybe Thom’s. Looking back on it now, this was a perfect plan, it would have worked brilliantly. So we were uncommonly well prepared, well in advance, and knew exactly what to do. I think our undoing came from the “well-in-advance” part.

What actually happened, despite that careful plan, went like this: We were mowing Anarchy down, and nearly past them by the Brothers.  This was in low 20s wind, still full main, J2.5, A2. So we kept going to the Brothers, because the strong NW-SE tide would help, where it was still reading 30 from the Brothers weather station. Perhaps several knots of tide would lessen the apparent wind to the mid-20s too? As we approached, it didn’t look windy on our line between Koamaru and the Brothers, so we kept going.

We were slammed over in the fastest broach I can remember, keel way up in the air and all the stuff that should have been up in the air now getting wet. After getting upright again, waaaay overpowered, dropping an A2 in 30+ knots 2-handed with a full main up.  What could go wrong?  Oh yes, that’s right: Awash rock. IT’s downwind and down current. Not very far away at all with the speed we’re doing while sailing deep to drop the kite.

Default positions: me steering, Craig forward for the drop. Craig was again sensational at handling the sail and drop, and despite a bit of a struggle, the A2 ended up all inside the boat. We gybed asap to clear the rocky lump, now we’re heading towards Wellington again, slightly flustered and a lot sweaty and a bit tired. Anarchy has been sailing the rhumb line and made a gain while we were struggling.

To my surprise Craig looked back at me and despite the rough water and 30 knots, said that if we wanted to catch them, which we did, the best option was the A6. To my astonishment, I agreed.  So up it went, as fast as two tired people can get lines cleared and ready, and heavy sails brought on deck and hoisted in rough water and lots of wind.

The angle was a little tight, but that ride will sit happily in my memory alongside the first half of 2015’s Wellington-Akaroa leg, a great antidote to Covid-related house arrest. The front half of the boat is consistently out of the water; like a giant child was pulling us through the water as a toy by the end of our bowsprit. Once or twice serious amounts of green water over us as we ran into waves at boat speeds somewhere in the 20s. Asking Craig if he could get one of the other crew to please put a reef in (we hadn’t quite got around to that). Craig asking me if I had any idea how we were going to get it down. Noting that we’d again passed Anarchy, but now we were quite low and had better get the A6 down if we wanted to get back up. Down it came, and 2-sail reaching with the long overdue reef, from there. We crossed the line before them.

After all of that, the most frightening moment of the whole race for me was when we thought Anarchy were about to sail straight over Thom’s rock, they didn’t hear our radio calls on Ch16 over the wind-factory noise.  We both thought they were going to hit it, but apparently they were watching it closely on their plotter. They must have been much closer to it than we’ve ever been.

Bling starts Leg 3: Wellington to Napier

Apart from some small issues, the months we put into personal and boat prep paid off.  We didn’t have a J4 because it was accidentally left in the loft and we couldn’t put it on during the race, we missed that dearly at Cape Reinga and after Cape Palliser. We couldn’t get the Yellowbrick data downloads to work on Expedition so we were unable to track the fleet for the entire race, a significant tactical disadvantage that might have prevented the Raglan episode. The previously immutable dictum that you can’t anchor a race boat at Mangonui without getting damaged was again true – the strong currents and variable wind wrapped anchor chain around the bulb and tore some fairing off the fin (of minor hydrodynamic importance only). Slopping around in little wind and the MH0 up resulted in spreader holes in the sail.  Otherwise Blink could handle everything we threw at her, with no damage or failures.

Thanks to the best road crew ever, Vesna (happiness, provisioning, dispute resolution) and Gordie (technical, rigging, boat cleanup, fuel, anchoring and more) who travelled the country in our car and met us at every stopover. Sorry about the sleep deprivation from the 30-minute updates, but deepest apologies would be reserved for the times you needed to yell at the YellowBrick tracker screen because we were going somewhere daft.

Thankyou Craig for your huge commitment of time and effort, and joining me on this adventure. You’re a great salior, excellent company, and I think we made a team with Blink that could so easily have taken a slice of podium or even the top spot.

There’ll be more stories from Blink‘s 2020 RNI, but I think these are probably best shared over a glass of something once the eerie isolation month is over. Stay well in your bubbles, all.

Channel Island

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