Mini Transat veteran and shorthanded racer Simon Curwen shares how he is getting ready for his first round the world challenge - the Golden Globe Race 2022
Simon Curwen has strong racing credentials, and holds the record for the best Mini Transat result of any British singlehanded sailor, coming second in the 2000-2001 event.
He began offshore sailing in his 40s, and learned to sail in Herons and Cadets when he was younger.
The Emsworth-based sailor was part of the University of London sailing team, winning several British Universities Sailing Association championships, before he took part in the 2000-2001 Mini Transat, in his 21 footer QDS. His success earned him a YJA Yachtsman of the Year Award nomination in 2001.
For 15 years, he campaigned the J/105 Voador, winning in class in the 2007 Rolex Fastnet Race with Paul Peggs, and finishing second in Class 2. He has also raced in the RORC series two handed and Solo Offshore Racing Club, formerly Petit Bateau.
Simon Curwen will be racing in the 2022 Golden Globe aboard the sloop rigged Biscay 36, Clara, which was built in 1976 at his homeport of Emsworth.
He has replaced Clara’s wheel with tiller steering, believing it to be safer for the race. He has also modified his Hydrovane’s tiller by attaching a stainless steel tube so it can be steered in the cockpit; a tiller extension can be added for use in storms.
Curwen believes the design of the Biscay 36’s stern section meant there is a danger of being pushed broadside to the waves in heavy weather.
He plans to hand steer to limit this and remove as much windage aft as possible, part of the reason he has gone for a cutter rather than a ketch, and a sprayhood which he can fold down.
‘The single mast rig means I don’t have extra windage aft. I have options to run drogues or warps but I am not sure I will. I am more of the mind set to just keep moving with a little bit of sail forward to try and keep the boat pointing downwind, and reduce its tendency to slew round on the waves. But every storm is different and I won’t know how the boat will perform until it happens,’ adds Simon Curwen.
Why enter the Golden Globe Race 2022?
Simon Curwen: For those of us of a certain age, we were children when Sir Robin Knox-Johnston and Suhaili went round. He was the hero, the adventurer and it has always been my aspiration to do something similar.
But as we moved into the Vendee Globe and the huge budgets involved in that race, it wasn’t a realistic prospect for a passionate amateur sailor, but then Don McIntyre came along and reinvented the Golden Globe Race, and suddenly there was this opportunity and I jumped at the chance.
The 2018 race wasn’t the right time for me, but now, a few years later, I am ready to go, and looking forward to it.
What did you learn from the 2018 Golden Globe Race?
Simon Curwen: I learned that July is not a good time to start! It is all in the preparation and being ready, and I guess that was also the same in 1968.
It was the sailors who had the experience and the boats that were well prepared that actually managed to make it round in one way or another.
The dreamers have every right to do it, but preparing at the last minute clearly didn’t work.
With that in mind, how are you preparing for the race?
Simon Curwen: Firstly, I’ve now had the boat for over two years, which is a bonus. A major refit of the boat was finished a couple of weeks ago [work by Nath Yachting at Hennebont].
Inevitably, it took longer than anticipated, and I am now fully involved in work so I won’t be doing much sailing on her until the autumn, which is a good time to get out and do some solo training.
I’m getting used to the boat, having sailed her a fair amount already.
I completed my 2,000 mile qualifying sail well in advance, ahead of the refit, so I could learn and find out what needed doing to the boat which was a good plan.
What did you learn about the boat during the 2,000 mile qualifying passage?
Simon Curwen: It told me a bit about what sort of rig I would want to set up on the boat, but it also identified a whole load of issues, not least of which was that all the port lights leaked like a sieve.
There were quite a lot of leaks everywhere too.
The boat is now 45 years old, in very good condition, and even better condition after the refit, but inevitably, there are a lot of things that are original, including the sealing around all of the portlights, and there was a lot of creaking from chainplates and a bit of movement that has all been dealt with, hopefully.
She had quite a fitted out interior.
Inevitably, the boat is designed to be a little bit flexible, but when you’ve got hardwood interiors fitted out and you’ve got a fibreglass hole and that’s moving a bit, that’s a lot of fairly disturbing creaking noises.
So, all the chainplates and bulkheads have been heavily reinforced and some of the furniture around those supports has had to come out as a result.
What other changes have you made to the boat?
Simon Curwen: There have been quite a lot of modifications.
She has got a new mast as the old one dated from 1991 which I believe was a little bit of a botched replacement, because she lost her previous mast off Spain, and basically she was refitted with what was available rather than what was best for her.
The new mast is a Sparcraft to the original specification height wise.
She has got additional support in an inner forestay and running backstays, and everything has been reinforced below decks.
I’m reasonably confident I’ve got as good a mast and rig, as I can.
The anchor well has come out and everything associated with that, because that was in the way of crash bulkhead.
The whole of the foredeck has been replaced. The forestay area was completely reinforced, and a partial bulkhead was put in to support the staysail forestay.
One of the major changes that I’ve done is to fit tiller steering, which for me is a huge bonus. I much prefer tiller steering as it allows better protection when steering in the Southern Ocean. It is also easier to rig up an autopilot on her.
The structural work and rigging is essentially now finished, I just need to focus a bit on the electrics, which are not too bad, but I still have all the power generation, to sort and communications. These two key areas will be the focus this autumn and winter.
[He also has new sails from One Sails loft in Suffolk, which has provided technical support].
The qualifying passage reassured me that she is a great sea-going boat and very comfortable to sail in a blow, in fact, deceptively so.
I was pleased with her performance. In terms of balance, she sails pretty well even without windvane steering, but I think the changes I’m making to the rig setup will make it even easier to get a good balance on her which will make it more comfortable.
Why did you decide to go for the Biscay 36?
Simon Curwen: When I was looking for boats two years ago, all the boats which were in the UK close to home were Rustlers or Biscays.
A bit of research suggested there wasn’t an awful lot of difference in overall speed between the two.
There was a price differential though, which was fairly key when I was putting together a budget; the Rustlers were at least twice as expensive as the Biscays.
I also kind of fell in love with Clara, as she is the only Biscay which was built in Emsworth Yacht Harbour, which is my homeport when I am in the UK, so that was a nice little touch. She is good and solid.
All the three previous Biscays in the 2018 event were ketch rigged but I thought, and still think, that a sloop or cutter-rigged Biscay will probably be more suited to the event, and Clara is sloop rigged.
What storm tactics do you plan to use?
Simon Curwen: I think we’ve got to be prepared for just about anything because there’ll be different types of storms.
There could be storms in Biscay which, I have got experience of.
There will be storms in the Southern Ocean which I have no experience of, and that’s definitely something I’m very conscious of.
All of the finishers in the 2018 race had Southern Ocean experience and had all sailed around the world, and that’s not a coincidence.
I hadn’t had that experience so that makes it more of a challenge for me.
I have a variety of plans which will be condition dependent.
Do you plan to test your storm tactics over the autumn and winter?
Simon Curwen: I was out in Biscay in October 2020 and actually ran into Storm Alex, which was probably the most vicious storm in Biscay last winter.
But there’s a big difference between a Biscay storm with 5-6 metre waves and prolonged storms in the Southern Ocean.
To be honest, I wasn’t tempted to put out lines or test out a drogue [while sailing through Storm Alex], despite the fact that the winds were 45 knots.
I’m not sure that testing them in Biscay or the North Atlantic is going to provide the answers.
I am not a fan of heaving-to, but I think it depends on the boat and the individual sailor.
I will be taking warps and anticipate that I will trail warps. I will take a drogue but I am not sure I will use one, but I will take it just in case.
For this race there will be no HAM radio transmissions allowed only registered, licensed maritime-approved HF Single Side Band (SSB) Radio, with discussions limited to the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) weather. Weather Fax will be allowed for the race. Some of the 2018 Golden Globe Race skippers raised concerns about picking up GMDSS in the Southern Ocean. Do you share these concerns?
Simon Curwen: I’m looking forward to getting a bit of information off the weather fax.
I am actually quite pleased that the HAM radio is gone, because I think it set up a bit of controversy in the 2018 race [2018 second placed skipper Mark Slats threatened to quit the race after being banned from using HAM when it was revealed he didn’t have a licence] and there’s little control on what people can use the HAM radio for.
I also don’t have a HAM radio licence and had no real intention of getting one.
Ultimately we’re back to the 1960s in this race. We just have to use a barometer.
Unlike the boats in the Vendee, we’re not fast enough to be able to seriously move out of the way, or to position ourselves for the weather systems coming through, so we do just have to be prepared for what comes.
Jean-Luc Van Den Heede consulted meteorologists and studied the weather to choose the best route which helped him make early gains in the 2018 race. Do you plan to do this?
Simon Curwen: No plan as yet.
Jean-Luc Van Den Heede made some fairly major gains in the 2018 event that gave him a fantastic lead which were well deserved but were also quite fortunate, particularly in terms of the size of his lead.
When he got around the Cape of Good Hope, he ended up on some systems; those following were behind them so what was a good healthy lead turned into a massive lead at one stage. I think that was good strategy but also good fortune.
In 2022 we also have course changes and we now have to nip into Cape Town for a photo drop, which will certainly add complications to our routing.
But generally, we’re following the traditional routes of the clippers and all the races afterwards.
I will be studying the weather, but I don’t think I’ll be taking too much specific routing advice in advance. I’ll certainly consultant with others but I don’t think it will be as key an issue as it was in the 2018 race.
Are you confident that you will be on the start line in 2022?
Simon Curwen: I am confident I will make the start line.
Funding of course is an issue and, like many of my fellow competitors, the state we find ourselves in on the start line will depend on what sort of support we can get in the meantime.
I think it’s always difficult [to get sponsorship] particularly being a British entry, based here in France. I am hoping this might open up some opportunities but I think it’s a little bit early to make a judgement.
I think for any sponsor, more than 12 months ahead of the event, it’s difficult to plan a budget unless you’re fully committed to this sort of event like PRB, which is sponsoring Damien Guillou.
Are you looking to win or get round?
Simon Curwen: The winning will be getting round, because I’m not going to get another opportunity to do this [round the world yacht race].
This is a one off event, and so finishing is critical, but I’m a pretty competitive sailor, so of course I will be racing, and if you’re racing, you, try to win, and that’s going to set up an interesting conflict, one that certainly the 2018 competitors had.
I suspect the one or two dismastings in the Southern Ocean might not have happened if they hadn’t been pushing so hard, so we will have to wait and see.
At this stage, my intention is to make sure I get round and, therefore, to sail relatively conservatively when necessary in the Southern Ocean.
But, sometimes things don’t work out that way and it gets a bit competitive.
What self steering set up are you planning to use?
Simon Curwen: I have a Hydrovane.
The boat actually came with a really old Aries, which would have been original to the build, but it needed a lot of work doing to it.
I quite quickly established that it’s really nice to have a rudder further aft [on Clara] than the main rudder attached to the keel as she sails a lot better, and will hopefully give good directional stability in the Southern Ocean.
What antifoul will you be using?
Simon Curwen: I am going with Nautix as they have a lot of round the world experience with the Vendee fleet.
I will be testing them out this year, but Nautix is reasonably confident they’ve got a good solution for me, and I am enjoying working with them.
Of course, most of the boats that Nautix is providing antifouling for go three times as fast and are out there for less time, so it’s a bit of a balance to try to get a semi-eroding antifouling which will work best for me.
How is your celestial navigation going?
Simon Curwen: I am never confident [with celestial navigation]. I think the best I’ve managed is about 20 miles from my actual position.
But I’m reasonably comfortable taking the sun sights. As long as I don’t need to be closer than 20 miles off, I should be okay.
I think by the time I get really into it, I will have the confidence to avoid the main issues and get to the gates.
I still have to work out if my radio direction finder works, as I’ve bought a couple of old RDFs. I also don’t know how many radio beacons there are still operating.
I’m hoping that at key places like Cape Town and Lanzarote, assuming that is the first photo gate, that there will be some sort of beacon operating.
You have a vast amount of solo experience, will isolation be an issue during the 2022 race?
Simon Curwen: I think isolation is always an issue, but I’m looking forward to it as much as I’m dreading it. I enjoy singlehanded sailing.
But, it means there’s nobody there to pick you up if you’re feeling down and of course, everyone has times when they’re not happy, and it is a bit more difficult getting over those times when you’re singlehanded sailing.
But, I’m not unduly concerned about it.
How will you keep yourself motivated during the race?
Simon Curwen: It’s a challenge which I will enjoy. The sailing will be really enjoyable.
Some of the waters we are sailing through will be new to me, particularly the Southern Ocean, so that is all waiting to be explored. The competition will also help, as well as the occasional discussions over the radio.
How will you deal with challenges afloat, such as gear breakages?
Simon Curwen: This is probably one of my least concerns, partly because I hope, with the amount of time I intend to spend on the water before the race, breakages will be relatively limited.
I am a pretty good fixer. I know the boat inside and out because I’ve done 90% of the refit myself, all except for the technical structural changes. I don’t think there will be many surprises in the boat.
I think I can troubleshoot where the problems are and hopefully find some solutions, and I’ll be taking enough tools and bits and pieces with me to solve all the issues I’m expecting, and a few unexpected ones.
What treat will you be taking?
Simon Curwen: I will definitely be taking a few better meals than the average ones and a few drinks to celebrate milestones, such as Cape Horn and crossing the Equator. I will take some little bottles of bubbly and a few drops of wine but there won’t be much alcohol on board.
I am planning to eat pre-prepared food as that is simplest, and it means you can keep the stove down to the bare minimum.
There’s no real advantage in going for dehydrated foods, so I’ll be using freeze-dried food as emergency rations and occasional meals, but most of it will be just pre-prepared food.
There is a fantastic shop in Lorient which sells some great pre-prepared food.
What one thing will you miss while racing?
Simon Curwen: I will miss lots of things. Obviously I will miss friends and family but I also love land as well as sea.
At the moment, I live in a beautiful part of Brittany which is extremely green at the moment due to the amount of rain we’ve been having so I will miss the smell of the land and getting out and walking and cycling, although I do miss the sea as soon as I am back on land.
GGR 2018 was a celebration of Sir Robin Knox-Johnston. The GGR 2022 is a celebration of Bernard Moitessier. What words of wisdom from Moitessier will you be following in the race?
Simon Curwen: I probably align more with Robin Knox-Johnston than Moitessier. I’m certainly a lousy poet.
What do I get from Moitessier? Certainly his love of the oceans, and I hope that I’m going to love the Southern Ocean, rather than hate it.
I know Tapio Lehtinen was clearly loving his time down in the Southern Ocean last time, which didn’t come through from all the 2018 competitors.
It would be really nice to strike up a relationship with an albatross like Moitessier did, and have that for company for several thousand miles.
Maybe I’ll become a poet.