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Sunstone's RNZ Overview

30 Mar 2012


Sunstone's RNZ Overview


The Challenges:


Physically a race like this is very demanding. Despite the stops, exhaustion is only a few hours away most of the time. It is impossible to get enough sleep if you are seriously trying to be competitive. We have a lot of experience pacing ourselves when cruising two-handed, when we have a very regular watch system, which ensures that we get enough rest except in seriously bad weather. For serious racing a watch system doesn't work for us. Mostly we were sleeping in spells of about an hour or less, with very occasional periods of one and a half hours. This isn't good for your body or your brain. Though we got enough food, we both lost weight and were just calorie stoking, quite often eating cold ravioli out of the tin. As we were by far the oldest crew at a combined age of 124, we did also have physical disadvantages to start with in terms of strength and pre-existing arthriticy aches. However, we may have had some advantages in stamina. By the end of the Race we were pretty shattered, though we were probably at our lowest in Napier after a disappointing leg. The other side of the physical challenge is that a boat like ours is actually quite heavy to work. We are well set up for two-handed sailing but the spins are big and the poles are heavy. On Leg 2 we used 10 different sails at various times. And anyway, who ever heard of a 65 year-old bow man!


Mental toughness is pretty essential for an event like this, especially when it turns out that there are not just odd spells of very difficult conditions, but long continous periods. In addition, in this Race the appearance of the weather 'bomb' was bound to cause some consternation. It did with us. When Tom saw the GRIB file predictions for that very rapidly deepening low he said to Vicky, 'this is a very dangerous system!' We seriously discussed heading to Tasman Bay, but eventually decided to go on, partly because we were unsure whether we could reach shelter before the winds turned strong easterly. Our decision to go on was partly because we were well placed and because we were possibly far enough south to avoid the worst of the weather. The decisions of the three boats to seek shelter were seaman-like, but were probably influenced, as our discussions were, by the extremely unpleasant conditions which we had already been experiencing for some time. It was tough out there.


Tactically the Race was more challenging than usual because there was so much windward work. When reaching or running it is rarely useful to stray far from the shortest route unless there are major weather factors or your rig dictates wide gybing angles. This is not the case with windard work, where working the shifts correctly is essential. Dealing with the tactical issues in heavier windward conditions is also challenging, when sail damage, handling difficulties and pure discomfort may inhibit perfect tactical thinking!



Our Race:


We knew a couple of days before the start that we would not be in the running for any overall prizes. As soon as it was clear that the first short leg would be in heavy running conditions we knew that Sunstone would be too disadvantaged to place well. Sunstone comes from an era of design which did not encourage the ability to surf and plane. You can carry as much sail as you like and only end up in a deeper hole, trailing quarter waves that are a surfer's delight. We had an exciting time with our heavy spin up for much of the leg, but still trailed far behind, despite shooting the 'gap' at the Cavallies.


The opportunities presented by the second leg were a compensation and by the middle of the leg, before the appearance of the 'bomb' we were well placed in heavy beating conditions which have always suited Sunstone. We were fortunate to be just far enough ahead to get south of Cape Foulwind (appropriately!) before the passage of the low, however, that did lead us further inshore than we would normally have preferred. Generally we avoid getting inshore unnecessarily on offshore races, believing that it pays only about one time in five and can be a disaster as often as 50% of the time. It nearly was for us when we ended up in the lee of Mt. Cook in a gradient NEly. Fortunately most other boats found the same hole at some point.


Once off Fiordland, a short-lived spin reach ended and we progressively reduced sail as the wind got up. For a while we ran with a poled No 3 alone, as this gave us the option of running significantly by the lee when necessary. When the wind got up to about 45kts+, we went to the storm jib only, still running fast in seas that were now quite large and breaking. When the wind was 55kts+ One of these seas caught the boat slightly too far off dead down wind and spun us into a broach. It was not a heavy knock-down, but far enough that water shot in the dorade vents and around the sides of the main hatch. It also broke both the air vane and parts of the connecting rod on our Monitor windvane steerer. However, damage was minor and nothing to prevent us continuing as before. Once around Puysegur, the seas began to moderate though the wind was still very strong for a time. Inevitably, by the time we got to the northern corner of Stewart Island we were struggling to keep way on in a very fickle breeze. Naturally we were delighted to finish second on line and first on both handicaps. It was our one moment of glory in the Race - not to be repeated!


The third leg was a trial for us. Despite the longer stop in Oban, we were still very tired at the start of Leg 3, while their apparently poor showing had certainly motivated the three crews who had sought shelter on Leg 2. Somehow we made bad call after bad call, from tactics to sail changes. In the latter case often doing two changes in half an hour because the first had been a mistake. To top it all, Tom had caught a cold at Oban and was not fully fit physically or mentally. Nevertheless, we were not totally out of touch until well over half-way to Napier, to the east of Cook Strait. At this point we stopped thinking altogether and went the wrong way for several hours. This not only put us on the long outside of a lift, but also cost time that proved vital at the end when the wind died in Hawke Bay and we took six hours to get from Cape Kidnappers to the finish 13 miles away. It was a very disappointing leg.


Despite the prospect of very unpleasant weather we may have been better motivated for the last leg. Tactically we made the right decisions with only one exception and that was that we didn't go quite far enough north to meet the predicted new wind. However, even at her best Sunstone was not fast enough to make the tidal gate at East Cape, which the faster boats did and we were never likely to make any distance into the Hauraki Gulf before the strong SW change came through, forcing us to beat home while the faster boats reached. That's offshore racing. We still felt satisfied with our performance on the last leg.


Damage, Repairs & Spares


One aspect of our race of which we were particularly proud was the way we dealt with damage and repairs. Despite the knock-down we actually had relatively little damage:


bent stanchion

broken snatch block

damaged monitor windvane steerer

1 lost batten and torn batten pocket on NO 3

torn tabling on No 4

smashed steaming light

broken third reef pennant

smashed up pram hood


We repaired or replaced all of these from spares on board. The only assistance we had was when Roger repaired our torn No 3 batten pocket in Napier, though we provided the replacement batten and could have repaired the pocket from spares on board. Even the stanchion was replaced by a spare on board and the Monitor was repaired entirely from on-board spares. We made temporary repairs to the No 4, but confess that we were glad not to have them tested! It is worth saying that we spent a lot of time in Oban doing some of these repairs and were glad of the extra time there for that reason if no other.




The club is a remarkable organisation, which runs some of the most ambitious and challenging racing in New Zealand on a shoe-string through the enthusiastic support of its committee, its members and supporters. We are most grateful to them all, but particularly to Steve Ashley, the Race Officer. He worked tirelessly to make the event a memorable one for the competitors. His enthusiasm was contagious and he made every crew feel that they were heroes even when they came in last at three in the morning. Brian Murray and his wife Erica were also stalwarts in their support and enthusiasm. Every member of the committee made some essential contribution and we are very grateful to them all.


Why Do It?


Sailing is the most complex and challenging sport there is- that's why we do it - and offshore racing is it's most challenging version. Charles, the skipper of Vingilot said to us after the Race, 'This was the toughest challenge of my life.' Having heard his stories of other challenges he has faced, that is saying something, but it was probably true for most of us in the race. For everyone there was a very big investment of time and money. However, those were only secondary to the personal investment. Talking to the other crews it was clear that they, as we, felt that they had learned important things about themselves, both strengths and weaknesses during the Race. Without getting too mystical about it, that's what setting and facing challenges like this race do for you and why they are worth the price you pay to do them. Of course, alternatively we could all sit around watching golf on TV.


Tom and Vicky Jackson, Sunstone