Every four years Falmouth hosts a classic ocean race that’s open to all; Angela Rice speaks to competitors about the demands and rewards of the AZAB

Some 38 boats from six European countries set off on 3 June 2023 to race 1,200 miles of open sea to the Azores and then race back to Falmouth a week later. This was the 13th Azores and Back (AZAB) race since the Royal Cornwall Yacht Club in 1975 devised this four-yearly, Category 1, two-leg handicap race between Falmouth and Ponta Delgada on São Miguel Island, one of the nine Azores Archipelago Islands that lie in the northeastern Atlantic.

At 2,500 miles overall and starting and finishing in the UK, the race is popular, in part because it demands less commitment in time and expense than other ocean races. The race is for all-comers, from experienced racers sailing high-performance boats to local cruisers in need of a challenge.

The competing yachts ranged from 31 to 60ft in length, with two multihulls and one IMOCA 60, Superbigou taking part as well as a mix of single- and double-handed boats. The yachts spanned five IRC classes.

At the start, the fleet crossed the east-west line between Falmouth’s Pendennis Point and Black Rock beacon in glorious sunshine. The flotilla circling the assembly area – including the Falmouth lifeboat – provided a carnival-spirit send off. With the Manacles east cardinal mark on port tack and 1,200 miles of open sea ahead, most competitors hung back, only accelerating to the line after their class signal, with just a few racing starts.

Superbigou at the start of the AZAB. Photo: Hugh Hastings

‘We knew we would be trailing others for most of the race, so we decided a great start would be a morale boost!’ noted Graham Rice, sailing aboard Chimaera of Falmouth.
The RCYC provided both excellent race organisation and Cornish warmth: buddies to support each boat, an on-call launch between the marina and clubhouse, social events, a participants’ WhatsApp group and more. It all created great camaraderie from the outset.

‘What I hadn’t anticipated was contact with the other participants before the race – they became friends within days,’ said David Faucher aboard Ventura.

Leg One of the AZAB

The first leg was straightforward for most boats due to a deep depression east of São Miguel, tracking north and filling. The fleet spread up to 75 miles west of the rhumb line to ensure following winds, though some slower boats strayed east, later encountering head winds.

‘The race was hard. And beautiful. I learned a lot about myself. There were moments of discouragement when I felt very alone amid powerful and impressive elements,’ David continued.

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For Jon Myers, sailing aboard Amigos: ‘The persistent fresh downwind breeze made for fast but demanding sailing. Big seas and dark nights. We hit a new speed record of 16.7 knots surfing down a wave.’

Amigos and Enigma, both with limited-strength autohelms, were heroically hand-steered, with the crew sleeping only for one to two hours alternately. Jon added: ‘There were times we were exhausted and honestly not enjoying the experience.’

On Chimaera, in contrast, the crew were ‘racers by day and cruisers (with no spinnaker!) by night’ so what they sacrificed in competitiveness they made up for in sleep and overall enjoyment. Alistair Cooke on Sundance saw a whale surface 10 yards astern.

Sailing along nicely aboard Chimaera

Spinnaker shredding

With over 2,500 miles of continuous downwind sailing, spinnaker challenges were inevitable.

Alistair thought his race was over on day two, as his spinnaker billowed in pockets around the top of the forestay. Finally, ingeniously, he fashioned a snuffer from supermarket ‘Bags for Life’, retrieved it and continued!

Andreas Buchheim aboard Frida added: ‘We set a strict wind limit for our mighty A2 gennaker but got over-excited – and a violent 27-knot gust shredded our beloved kite.’

Sundance experiences spinnaker issues

For Madelon Kuiper on Bliss: ‘Spinnaker sheet snap-shackles started eating into the spinnaker boom, and then the sharp edges started eating into the spinnaker sheets.’ As always, there were plenty of other issues: electrics, electronics, rudders, self-steering rods, injuries. A cracked rib on leg one cost skipper Brendan Tuer aboard Storna Hoga his crew for the return race.

Ponta Delgada

On arrival in Ponta Delgada the adrenaline was clearly pumping. Thrilled to have made it, the crews were keen to party, swapping stories (increasingly embellished…), while visiting family members added to the vibe. The camaraderie that had developed in Falmouth deepened further.

Rob Stevenson, who arrived only for leg two aboard Andrillot II, was astonished: ‘On the pontoon people were sharing tools, asking who might have a spare cable-tie, or a drill they could borrow, even offering to help. In my experience, no one would normally share so much as a spare sail patch! Also, eating together – and even when racing, calling on VHF.’

Leaving Falmouth at the start of the race

The 1800 social hour with anyone within AIS range was especially valued by single-handers. Madelon on Bliss reported feeling ignored when out of range for three days!

Whatever hour boats arrived in Ponta Delgada or Falmouth, they were greeted at the line with (long-awaited!) beers. MailASail, St Austell Brewery and Mainbrace Rum were sponsors. Clube Naval in Ponta Delgada was also immensely hospitable, with a welcoming clubhouse, coach tours and a leg-one prize-giving dinner.

Why enter?

For Madelon aboard Bliss, it came through the family. ‘In 1979, I heard a friend of my father, who had been reading about that year’s AZAB in Yachting Monthly, tell his daughter: “Once you are old enough we shall sail that race together.” I was super jealous! I finally entered with my boyfriend in 2019, retiring with a broken autohelm. After we too broke up I decided to do it alone. Nothing was going to stop me!’

For Kuba Szymanski on Polished Manx: ‘We love sailing long distance – we love the challenge.’ Mike Denton aboard Chimaera added: ‘As lifelong buddies this started as a “one day…” dream, morphed into “Do you think we could?” and ultimately evolved into “Let’s go for it!”’

Polished Manx gets under way

For Mervyn Wheatley aboard Arethusa of Yealm: ‘The first AZAB in 1975 was my first single-handed ocean race. After seven more, five OSTARs (Original Single-handed Transatlantic Races) and skippering in the Clipper RTW, I decided to end my racing days at 80, with a final AZAB!’

What is involved?

Unless you are already Category 1 compliant, the preparation for the race is a challenge in itself. There is also an obligatory 300-mile qualifying passage.

James Murray aboard Confusion noted the preparations were exhaustive and exhausting. ‘You endlessly open your wallet for kit and spares. The inspection is so robust that it’s an achievement merely getting to the start line!’

Ian Braham, aboard Haven Knox-Johnston Enigma, noted: ‘So much to do, buy, hire, arrange, replace, learn, and put normal life on hold!’ While Kuba, aboard Polished Manx repeated: ‘PPPPPP!’

The crews celebrating their efforts at the end of the race

Graham from Chimaera said: ‘Having set a waypoint between Falmouth and Ireland at Great Sole Bank, we sailed at night into a massive fishing fleet. There was a clue in the name…’ And Jon and Ed Myers, aboard Amigos, added: ‘The autopilot couldn’t cope with more than 17 knots of wind under spinnaker. Replacement wasn’t an option.’

The race back

Routing was complex throughout, with many factors to balance: distance versus fastest point of sailing; predicted wind strength versus location; sail choice; west or east?

Especially so when starting leg two, rounding Sao Miguel to head north. The fleet split – Graciosa skipper Pierre Garoche went west-about and gained a 20-mile advantage over main rival, Amigos. Jon reported: ‘The (local) crew of Graciosa, José Medeiros, afterwards mentioned a predictable wind hole off the eastern corner of the island…’

The, fairly simple, route of the AZAB

The hardest part for everybody turned out to be readjusting back to the old normal. Bruce, aboard Bare Necessities, summed up this feeling: ‘All that effort. Then it’s gone.’

None of the racers will ever forget it. Or each other.

So what is the essence of AZAB? How about: Elevating your life experience to a new level?

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