Chichester Class winner Simon Curwen tells Katy Stickland all about his experience taking part in the 2022-23 Golden Globe Race and how he felt as the winner of the Chichester Class
A seasoned racer, Simon Curwen’s Golden Globe Race sailing tactics were remarkable. His skill at routing and his seamanship – constantly trimming sails and steering the fastest course – made it a more exciting race, and saw him come back from the brink of disaster to take line honours after 234 days at sea.
Simon Curwen had led the fleet in his Biscay 36, Clara, for two thirds of the race before a knockdown 1,200 miles from Cape Horn broke the main casting on the head of his Hydrovane self-steering gear.
The main casting translates the vane movement into an up and down movement through the piston that eventually provides the turning on the rudder. It was a part neither Hydrovane or Curwen expected to fail and, as such, he had no spare onboard.
The former Mini Transat veteran had no choice but to divert to Puerto Montt in Chile, a detour of around 1,500 miles to make repairs. The stop also meant he was in the Chichester Class for entrants who make one stop, and would not be able to win the race.
Curwen always said his objective in the 2022 Golden Globe Race was to complete the circumnavigation, and it was ultimately this which motivated him to keep going.
‘I was always going to sail as fast as I could and as tactically as I could, but it wasn’t my primary objective to win the race. But, eight days from Cape Horn, having been in the lead for two thirds of the course, I thought that if I went around the Horn first with that sort of lead, I had a good chance and I started dreaming that it would be nice to win this thing. So, I built up an expectation over a few weeks, which went beyond my original ambition. But then, of course [after the knockdown], it’s quite quick to go back to say the objective was to sail around the world, and I can still do that; I had to get up, do the repairs and finish the job.’
And finish in spectacular form he did – he was the third skipper to round Cape Horn and then stormed up the Atlantic, demolishing the 1,300 mile lead of Kirsten Neuschäfer; by the equator, he had edged ahead of both Neuschäfer and her nearest rival, Abhilash Tomy.
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‘I wasn’t really pushing to race because I was out of the race and I didn’t think I could catch up the time, but then I got a very good weather system with a high pressure below me at about 40° south and that pushed me all the way up the Brazilian coast and right up into the trade winds. So instead of getting the variables which can be very antisocial, I had fantastic wind so I thought I’d made some pretty big gains there, but I didn’t know I had made that much gain until I got to the equator.’
Curen sailed 29,819 miles in the race, including his 1,500 mile detour; far fewer miles than any other skipper. His routing was based on the Clipper routes, and the courses sailed by sailors in the last Golden Globe Race and the Vendée Globe.
‘My routing was pretty much straight lines. Unless one’s got a particularly good reason to go somewhere, and we didn’t have the weather information to do that, particularly in these boats, as if you’re going to go off course it’s going take a long time to do those extra miles; so just steering the direct route was likely to be a race winning option.’ It was a similar tactic used by the 2018 Golden Globe Race winner, Jean-Luc van den Heede.
He concedes that his racing experience meant he ‘got more out of my boat’ and ‘probably sailed more tactically’ than most of the other skippers.
Curwen was the first of the fleet to leave Biscay and took a direct route down to the Canary Islands before sailing just west of the Cape Verdes.
‘I just kept going south through the doldrums, which I’ve been through before in the Mini Transat, and certainly the winning tactic is just don’t deviate and go east and west, just keep sailing anything that takes you south as quickly as possible going down [the Atlantic], and then north coming back [up the Atlantic], so that’s the tactics there. And then after that there were just the exclusion zones that we couldn’t go below so keeping pretty close to them.’
He admits that at times he was nervous about whether he had made the right routing decisions, especially when he chose to sail further around the South Atlantic high pressure, navigating down to the latitude of Cape Town before turning left towards the port.
‘I was nervous about that because I knew that some people had tried to cut across earlier. We just kept getting southeasterly winds and we couldn’t make any progress over to Cape Town and eventually I worked out there was a high pressure system there that we just had to skirt around, so I could have got that wrong, but I felt reasonably confident.’ He didn’t always get it right though. On approach to the race’s second gate in Hobart, he became trapped for four days in a high pressure system, which resulted in the ‘frustrating’ evaporation of his 760 mile lead. He was soon to gain it back.
Curwen’s most critical gear breakage was the Hydrovane, but there were ongoing repairs throughout his voyage.
Four weeks from the start, his genoa halyard broke; attempts to fix it just ‘messed things up even worse’, so every week, he had to drop the sail to cut off sections of the halyard to move the wear point.
He lost a spinnaker pole over the side, and one of his solar panels failed; he ended up re-doing the connection, as the waterproof connectors had ‘dissolved; the copper terminals were just bleeding liquid copper, so I had to hard wire them in’. He was keen to keep his Watt and Sea hydrogenerator as a back up, partly due to his lack of confidence in the ‘cobbled together’ installation.
‘Is actually very difficult to do a good installation of the hydrogenerator with the Hydrovane, which is bang in the centre centre on sloping transoms; they are designed to go on modern boats with vertical transoms,’ he shared.
He would also regularly check the mounting bolt of the Hydrovane, which sometimes came loose, and did rigorous checks on his shackles, fitting cable ties after a number of them were lost. He also has major issues with the engine. Water came in through the breather vent, which he eventually disconnected so the engine vented into the hull. Diesel bug was also another problem, and had to clean the filter with a toothbrush because he wasn’t carrying a spare; he found the engine was unreliable in the cold, but began working in warmer waters, where the fuel was less viscose. His HF radio would also not transmit through the race, due to his ‘totally incompetent’ installation of the counterpoise.
Curwen didn’t mind the solitude but admits to ‘cabin fever’ due to boredom.
‘I thought I’d be doing more spinnaker work and more actual real sailing. But the amount of times you could use a spinnaker, because of the sea state, it just just wasn’t feasible; it wasn’t even feasible to run with any headsails. So an awful lot of the race I did with just the mainsail when the winds dead behind. I miscalculated not so much the solitude but the boredom of just not having enough to do keep me interested.’
He has still yet to make a decision about the future of Clara, which he co-owns, but has ruled out taking part in another Golden Globe Race.
The worst weather Curwen sailed through was 1,200 miles from Cape Horn, when Clara was knocked down in 50 knot gusts and 6-7 metre waves, which broke his Hydrovane.
‘It was the only heavy weather where I actually dropped all working sails. Effectively, my storm jib was a partially furled staysail and I had that sheeted in line so that if the Hydrovane was knocked off course going down the wave, there was an additional force to bring the boat back downwind. The plan was to keep the waves fractionally not going directly down wave but onto a quarter. With the Nw and SW swell, I moved the boat so there were waves coming off each quarter rather than going dead downwind. All of my heavy weather was downwind.’
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