We had entered a race.  But it was no ordinary race.  I wanted a boat.  But it was no ordinary boat.

Above: Spirit 50CR Io of Dartmouth

For almost two years my heart had been set on having a Spirit yacht.  I had seen them on the water and I had also met the extraordinary Karen (Underwood, Spirit MD), legendary Sean (McMillan, Spirit designer), and members of the Spirit family at last year’s boat show and at the Spirit boatyard in Ipswich.  Stephen, my husband, took more persuading. He had been hankering after a completely different boat, much to my disappointment.  But after seeing Io at her berth in Dartmouth, he was convinced that she was the boat for us.  She had been lovingly built and beautifully maintained by Stuart, her owner.  Stephen and I fell in love with her on the spot!

This was the first Spirit yacht ever to enter the Fastnet.  The conditions, as many sailors know, are unpredictable and sometimes punishing.  Less experienced yachtsmen are warned away from some of the waters in the most benign of conditions, never mind a Force 8 or 9.  I am not a natural sailor who has grown up on boats.  I love being on the water and cherish our crews, but I am also horribly sick and rely on copious pills.

2023 was a special year:  it was the 50th edition of the Fastnet.  But this year’s race was tough from beginning to end.

Saturday 22nd July

We began the race on Saturday 22nd July at 2pm.  We were a crew of eight and had organised ourselves into two shifts of four on; four off on a rota of: three, three, three, three, six, six hours.  This rota system worked well throughout the whole race.  Having six hours off during the day meant that we had good quality rest, preparing us for the three hours on and off at night.

We knew the start would not be easy.  With a south-west force of 7-9 against an ebb tide, the Solent was challenging. The funnelling effect at Hurst made for extremely lumpy seas.  Within two hours of the start a boat had sunk right next to us.  We even saw the boat’s dan buoy float past.  The two sailors, having issued several Maydays, were eventually rescued in their life raft.

Three of us, despite swallowing everything anti-nausea, were very sick.

One of our crew members, Charlie Palmer, noted  his experience:

‘36 knots of breeze. A third of our class has now retired and one sunk right next to us.  All ok.  We heard them over the radio stepping onto the life raft.  We had a surreal view of Yarmouth’s Severn Class lifeboat crashing through the waves behind us through the Needles and the coastguard helicopter off our port side.  The weather looks calmer for the remainder, so good to have put the boat through the paces close to home with no issues.  Next on to Land’s End!’

Sunday 23rd July

Io was fine.  The crew were fine, albeit a little fragile and wet.  The big problem was that we had not remembered to tighten the hatches so the bedding at the front had soaked through.  This did not dry out for the rest of the week. We are still trying to dry it out now!

Sunday was the day the dolphins appeared by our side.  And they didn’t leave us for the duration of the race.

Above: life at sea

Monday 24th July

By Monday afternoon we were doing a very respectable nine knots through the water.  The wind was a steady 24 knots and had turned to the north, which was a little chilly but manageable, even though our clothing was rather damp.  We heard the friendly Cornish fishermen over the radio as the wind pushed us towards the Isles of Scilly.

Tuesday 25th July

Two days after the start of the race, we sailed south past the Isles of Scilly and then north past the last shipping exclusion zone.

The Isles of Scilly during the day seemed at the same time magical and menacing.  This was even truer when we passed them in the moonlight two days later.   Famous for its wildlife, fortresses, shipwrecks and lighthouses – and threatened by rising sea levels –  these isles are a sober reminder of the past, present and future.

We had come through rough seas, nine dismastings, one sinking, and many retirements.  Io was still going strong.  And still the dolphins were with us.  We felt Neptune’s blessing.

But then the wind died.  We were becalmed for eight hours.

In Charlie’s words:

It’s a rather odd feeling being in the middle of the sea and not sure what the next weather front will do.’

To those watching from the land (and thank you to you all who were cheering us on and looking out for us all the way), it looked ominous.

Above: team spirit keeping them strong

A crew member, Sheila, hails from a family of keen sailors in Ireland, who were wildly speculating about us via their family WhatsApp group.

Has the boat broken? Have we lost someone overboard?  Does someone need help?  Do we have any wind?  Is everyone else around us in the same predicament?

This was a good time to dry everything out as best we could.  Sheila bravely made two trips to the top of the mast to secure a satellite antenna.  We fixed, we folded, we fried in the sun.

We were also reminded of Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’:

‘Water, water, everywhere, 

And all the boards did shrink; 

Water, water, everywhere, 

Nor any drop to drink.’ 

We had actually run out of fresh water in our tank.  Unintentionally, we had not switched the heads across to sea water, so we had merrily been flushing with all the fresh water we had filled up with. Fortunately we had brought an enormous amount of bottled water with us and decided that this was a good time to learn how to use Io’s water-maker.

Another crew member was Rachel, a dear friend who, like me, had come a) to support her husband, Simon, a great sailing enthusiast and always an uplifting presence on board, and b) to see what she was made of!  Rachel was my mainstay throughout the trip.  We laughed together, cried together, threw up together and eventually managed to eat together.  On this day, and over her lunch, she looked up at me with a wry smile and said ‘Chippy – this is just the interval!’.  Little did she realise at the time how prescient her words would be.

The wind slowly picked up.  We put up the Code Zero sail and now had just over 50 nautical miles to go to the Rock.

Above: eyes on the weather

Wednesday 26th July

We reached the Fastnet Rock early in the morning.  Very disappointingly it was shrouded in mist and fog so we managed to catch a blurred glimpse, turned left and then headed back into the Irish sea.

As my shift was ending Stephen appeared on deck, his face ashen.  I could tell straightaway that something was wrong.  All he said was: ‘The weather is building’.   When interviewed by RORC before setting off Stephen had also said: ‘It’s going to be lively’.  So I knew that weather that was ‘building’ was Stephen’s understated way of saying that it was all going to get much worse.

My heart sank.  I just hoped that the boat wouldn’t go the same way.

Then followed over 20 hours of winds gusting up to 36 knots.  With two reefs (we could have done with a third), Io was nevertheless coping valiantly and reaching speeds of up to 14.7 knots.  She surfed huge waves, often ably and masterfully helmed by Joe, a fantastic seaman and also, thankfully, our shift leader.  I must, however, confess to private moments of genuine panic.  I even started to worry whether we were putting both Io and our crew at risk. I didn’t say as much but I did ask Joe and Sheila, my human barometers, if they were worried.  Thankfully they said not.  That did calm me somewhat.

One incredible and unforgettable moment came when we most needed it.  A tall wave rose and, just before it crashed again, a dolphin emerged completely out of the water in its epicentre. Time seemed to slow down as we watched it rise and return in an elegant arc.  It was precisely what we needed to see at this time.

The dolphins were still with us.

And even in the moments when we lost sight of them the reassuring and mesmerising loom of the lighthouse from the Isles of Scilly was a veritable beacon in the darkness.

Thursday 26th July

By Thursday we were beginning to see the winds die down.  We also had to engage in some  nimble navigation around the shipping separation zones.

And then, south of Plymouth, was the start of a 90-mile spinnaker run taking us most of the way to finishing line.  Cherbourg was in our sights.

Friday 27th July

We finished at 0700, on a crest of joy, relief and exhaustion.  Because we knew the winds were building again, we made the decision not to stop in Cherbourg, much to the disappointment of the photographers who captured our moment on a RIB.  But we blasted out ‘Happy’ by Pharrell Williams on the boom box that Jess, another of our crew had brought with her, and we danced our way back to the Isle of Wight.

Above: Io arrives in Cherbourg

Io had kept us safe.  Although light to the touch, she was formidable in challenging conditions.  Her auto-helm, on which we relied a great deal, was sensitive and responsive.  Her ability to surf the huge waves we faced was astounding.  There was no slamming and banging like we had experienced in a previous boat that we had chartered for the qualifiers. Io’s sleek and elegant hull cut through the water with ease and assurance.  Before setting off we had a feeling that Io was a special boat.  Now we know this to be true.

And most importantly she brought us home safely.

Our thanks must go to: Sean, whose design combines beauty with unquestionable prowess at sea, Karen and Io’s previous owner Stuart, both of whom helped make all this possible for us; and finally our crew: Charlie, Jess, Joe, Rachel, Sheila, and Simon; and of course, to my skipper and husband, Stephen.

It was an adventure we will always remember. On a boat we will always love.

Above: a fantastic crew after an adventure they will never forget

By Chippy (Helena Boschi), owner of Spirit 50CR Io of Dartmouth