Making 15 knots in a horizontal waterfall


We were about 10 miles southeast of Start Point when night began to fall. Northeasterly winds had been steadily in the 20s all day, gusting in the 30s, and the broad reach, surfing under spinnaker, had been memorable with 11-13 knots the average boatspeed. Somehow the Myth of Malham race is always a bit special. A couple of broaches towards the end of the afternoon persuaded the skipper to drop the kite and hoist the No3. The main stayed full.

We were within two miles of Start Point, still surfing at 13 knots on steeper than usual waves, when one of the crew with local knowledge suggested to the helmsman that he might want to stay offshore rather than sail the course advised. ‘Best to stay out of the overfalls off Start and Prawle,’ he drawled.

Ten minutes later, the helmsman is hanging onto the wheel as the boat launches itself down the front of yet another roaring crevasse. The horizon forward is just below the first spreaders. It’s easy to see in the darkness because it’s etched with white water.

Speed builds, 12.5, 13.1, 13.5? the boat hums underfoot, 13.8, 14.1, 14.5? waves thunder around the hull, 14.8, 15.1, 15.4? spray sheets across the deck like a horizontal waterfall, making clear vision impossible.

Through his anxiety, the helmsman marvels at how responsive the boat is at this speed, like a fast car, twitching instantly to slight movements of the wheel. Suddenly the bow’s red and green lights have reflections, then they disappear as the boat’s bow buries into the wave ahead, a foot of water sluices aft and the speed slows to a sedate 11 knots as the bow emerges. The rig stays put. Phew.

‘Guys, I’m hanging on here. How much longer does this last? I need less power.’ The main is duly reefed and the difference it makes is effective, if only psychologically. Eventually we pass Start and Prawle Points, then Bolt Head and the sea state settles to 6-8ft on the starboard quarter as we surf on to Eddystone, still in double figures but it’s like a holiday after the overfalls.

From Cowes to Eddystone, via the forts, is about 160 miles. In a 38-footer, it took 15 hours, 15 minutes.