Tributes have been paid to OSTAR and Round Britain and Ireland veteran Mary Falk, who has died

Mary Falk, who holds the record for the fastest Atlantic crossing in a 35ft boat after coming first in class in the 1996 OSTAR, has died, aged 74.

A committed amateur solo and doublehanded sailor, she competed in every major shorthanded, long-distance race in the UK, including three OSTARs, three AZABS, one Fastnet, six Round Britain and Ireland races and numerous Petit Bateau events.

This is quite a feat for someone who didn’t start sailing until her late 20s.

Born in landlocked Rugby, where her father taught at the famous independent school, her first sailing experience was when a colleague took her out in a clinker boat on the Blackwater Estuary.

By the time Mary bought her first dinghy in 1977 she had the zeal of a convert – a passion which never left her.

Speaking to Yachting Monthly, her brother Andrew said Mary was a ‘brave and focussed person’ who was ‘very competitive.’

‘She did think of herself as a trail blazer and she was very keen to show that women could sail and have a career,’ he added.

Mary Falk began sailing with Philippe Hamon on his folkboat Zeitgist, crewing for him in the 1981 Fastnet aboard his Sigma 33, Charlotte Pico – her first taste at a long-distance race.

QII, which was owned by Mary Falk until 2010

Water ballast was central to the design of QII. Credit: You Tube

The following year she skippered her first Round Britain and Ireland race with Fiona Wylie on board Wild Rival, finishing in 62 days, 19 hours and 19 minutes

By now Mary had bought her first big boat, the UFO 34, Quixote, which was a veteran of the 1979 Fastnet Race.

She kept it at Lymington, where she sailed from for most of her life.

The 1983 AZAB followed which she raced doublehanded with Penny Benvoison.

Three years later she competed in her first TWOSTAR with Kitty Hampton (now Kitty van Hagen) on the 40ft Ntombifuti (Sony Handicap).

Ntombifuti carried water ballast and her owner Ian Radford had to obtain approval to enter the yacht in the race.

At the time water ballast was prohibited in conventional racing.

They came second in class, finishing in 23 days 11 hours and 57 minutes.

Continues below…

In 1987 Mary Falk entered her first solo offshore, long-distance race – the AZAB, coming third in the singlehanded channel handicap (monohulls).

This was followed by the 1988 OSTAR, where she came 7th in class.

Mary decided she wanted to win her OSTAR class while sailing in the 1989 Round Britain and Ireland race with Jenny Bennett.

To achieve this she needed a new boat and she turned to designer Mike Pocock.

Mary’s brief was simple: she wanted a 35ft yacht that could beat the others in the next OSTAR.

Water ballast was central to the design of the boat, which had a fractional rig and roller headsail.

Inside, the yacht was designed around Mary’s 5ft 4in frame, with a central full-sized chart table, complete with a swivelling and reclining rally car style seat.

Here Mary could navigate, eat and sleep.

Construction started in March 1990 at Steve Etheridge’s Sway yard before the launch of QII in August 1990.

By 1991 the distinct red and white Pocock 35 was being tested in her first major offshore race – the AZAB.

Mary Falk with friends

Off the water, Mary Falk (middle) was a partner at the Lincoln’s Inn Field firm, Farrer and Co. Credit: Andrew Falk

The 1992 OSTAR followed, where Mary came second in class, becoming the fastest woman to cross the Atlantic singlehanded.

The Ocean Cruising Club awarded her their OCC Award for her many short-handed racing successes.

The 1993 Round Britain and Ireland race with Jenny Bennett, saw them placed first monohull in class.

QII continued her winning streak, with Mary and Jenny Bennett claiming the record in the 1995 AZAB for the fastest outward leg for a water ballasted monohull.

They sailed from Falmouth to The Azores in 6 days, 16 hours and 35 minutes.

But it was 1996 that QII showed her real pedigree and made Mary Falk a record breaker.

She came first monohull in class in the race, crossing the Atlantic in 19 days, 22 hours and 57 minutes – a record for a 35ft yacht which remains unbroken to this day.

For her achievement the Royal Cruising Club awarded her their Medal of Seamanship.

A further Round Britain and Ireland Race followed in 1997 on QII.

Between 2005-2006 Mary underwent treatment for breast cancer and shortly after completing seven months of treatment, threw herself back into competitive racing.

Her mission was to raise money for The Institute for Cancer Research (ICR) and to highlight there was life after cancer.

At the age of 60 she raced in the 2006 Petit Bateau solo race, a series of testing passage races starting at Weymouth and calling in at Bray, St Peter Port, Treguier, Fowey and Mylor.

She finished 2nd in class and raised over £40,000 for the ICR.

Mary Falk repeated the success the following year, raising a further £20,000.

During the 2008 Petit Bateau she was forced to retire after her instruments and self-steering failed in the middle of the Bay of Biscay.

A broken leg in a skiing accident thwarted her attempt in the 2009 Petit Bateau Race.

Instead she continued the fundraising challenge in the 2010 Round Britain and Ireland Race, sailing QII with Jerry Freeman.

It was her sixth Round Britain & Ireland Race – one of only three people to have raced the event six times (Jerry Freeman and Sir Robin Knox-Johnston are the other two)

It was also her last competitive race.

In total, Mary raised over £100,000 for the ICR through her racing.

As well as sailing, Mary Falk also blazed a trail in her professional life.

Having read Classics at Newnham College, University of Cambridge, she began training as a solicitor at Farrer and Co in Lincoln’s Inn Field.

She became the firm’s first full female partner eventually retiring to Lymington in 2003.

Mary was also a founder trustee of the Pioneer Sailing Trust and co-chair of Community First New Forest.

She was diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus in 2018.

Mary Falk: 8 June 1946 – 19 September 2020

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