The Jester Challenge?


From Plymouth to Newport

From Plymouth to Newport

Fun is a strange thing. When I read about the Jester Challenge it seemed like fun. When I told others about it, they thought it was crazy. For those who don’t know, the Jester is a single-handed crossing of the Atlantic in a small boat sailing against the prevailing winds. In other words, the Jester is a return to simple sailing adventure. The boats are small, between 20 and 30 feet, but they don’t even seem to like their own rules and happily make exceptions if your boat does not fit. The upper size limit of 30 feet reflects the minimum size for boats that can meet the OSTAR (Observer Single Handed Transatlantic Race) regulations. The OSTAR originated with Blondie Hasler and his boat Jester.

Jester was sailed by Blondie in the first OSTAR transatlantic race. Blondie modified a folkboat by removing the cockpit, fitting a Chinese junk rig, and a self-steering system of his own design. The end result, while immensely seaworthy, looked so ridiculous at the time he just had to name it Jester. However, over time the OSTAR organizers changed the rules effectively excluding small boats such as Blondie’s original 25 foot Jester! To be fair this is an overstatement but most Jester Challenge boats would not qualify.

The influence of money, technology, and regulations were established as the OSTAR became more popular. Rules on boat stability and design characteristics were introduced for the “safety” of the boats and competitors. A boat must comply, or get special dispensation if it is an unusual design. Such processes are common with our elf-and-safety society. Nevertheless, one of the reasons for the original transatlantic race seems to have been Blondie’s desire to test some of his design innovations in Jester. Typically, the Jester Challenge boats are modified from decades old cruisers normally found sailing river estuaries in fine summer weather. Importantly, some Jester Challenge boats seem far more seaworthy than many deemed fit for the open ocean (RCD Category A).

The Jester Challenge is a return to the philosophy of the original transatlantic race. Ewen Southby-Tailyour the founder of the Challenge explained how he wanted the skippers to take full responsibility for their actions and their vessels. There was to be no nannying rules and no entry fees.  It should be FUN and not taken too seriously as a “race”. The aim is to arrive safely. He set minimal rules. He described the challengers as Corinthian yachtsmen who should behave like gentlemen who play the game with a straight bat. The Jester Challenge should be simple, unpretentious, and without hype.

The Jester Challenge appeals to my sense of the absurd: anarchic single-handed sailors crossing an ocean in tiny old boats for fun, and with little or no concern about who “wins” the race. Even the name Jester Challenge seems to reflect the inherent silliness of the idea. I was interested in the idea of having fun – whatever that is.

Blondie Hasler aboard Jester - note the absence of a normal cockpit

Blondie Hasler aboard Jester – note the absence of a normal cockpit

Getting More details

I emailed Ewen just to ask about details for the 2014 event. Ewen’s reply was perfect including the sentence, “The list of those interested in the Jester Challenge 2014 (JC 2014) is beginning to grow and I have added your name to it.” So that was it; I must do the Jester in 2014. It was official! Thank you Ewen for making the decision for me.

One initial problem was I needed a boat. The fact that I’d never sailed before and didn’t know how seasick I might become were hardly of interest. Such things are mere trifles. The distance from Plymouth to Newport, Rhode Island would be about 5,000 miles of actual sailing. I could take the namby-pamby southern route and call in at the Azores if needed. Of course, I would also need to come back home, so make that a nominal distance of 10,000 miles. Ten thousand miles doesn’t seem far if you say it quickly.

I started thinking about suitable boats in a sensible (very low) price range. The boat needed to be small, less than about 25 feet to keep the harbour fees within reasonable limits. Three boats seemed to stand out. The Achilles 24 is a sleek, fast seaworthy boat well capable of sailing the Atlantic.  I liked the triple keel version. The Hurley 22 was also a possibility, a solid boat that has crossed the Atlantic.  Then there was the Corribee a neat boat just short of 21 feet long. Finding a boat and place to keep it was taking time. Just as time was running out for preparations, a 21 foot Newbridge Coromandel became available in Falmouth.

Coromandel awaiting refit to be relaunched as Newlyn Maid

Coromandel awaiting refit to be relaunched as Newlyn Maid

The Coromandel is basically a junk rigged Corribee. A junk rig would be ideal as it is particularly easy to sail and can be controlled from the safety of the cockpit. The sail was made popular by Blondie who developed it for blue water single-handed sailing. The boat is similar to Roger Taylor’s well-known Ming-Ming a junk rigged Corribee in which he undertook an impressive set of single-handed ocean voyages.  Roger has moved up to Ming-Ming 2 a highly modified Achilles 24. He found the Corribee a little slow for his long passage making. Throughout this little adventure I have been making numerous assessments of feasibility and risk; reassuringly I found my choices simply followed those made earlier by Roger Taylor.

Buying the boat

Ben the boats previous owner offered to give me a test drive in the Coromandel. This was very welcome – a free training session. The day before Ben instructed me to wrap up well as there was a cold wind. I turned up for the sailing on the river Fal in thermals on what became the hottest day of the year so far. Rather than frostbite I ended the day with sunburn – my face bright red from the intense sun!

Ben suggested I take the tiller and steer while he demonstrated the sails and characteristics of the boat. He also took the time to explain the basic rules of inshore passage making. The boat used the right hand side of the channel. There were some confusing concepts. A boat on a starboard tack usually has right of way. But this description is a little misleading. Starboard is the right side of the boat when looking forward to the bow. However, on a starboard tack the wind comes from the right side of the boat which would thus be leaning towards the left or port side. A starboard tack was named from the direction of the wind rather than that of the boat. There was a new name for everything – sailing jargon abounds.

Ben’s ability to communicate his practical knowledge was impressive. He demonstrated anchoring the boat when we stopped for a snack. We went forward into position slowly using the motor. Then he cut the engine and went forward to work the anchor. He started lowering the anchor as the boat stopped moving forward, the momentum from the engine decayed, and the tide took over moving the boat backwards. Gradually the chain was let out along the riverbed halting occasionally to make sure the chain played out in a straight line and did not fall in a heap. The positioning of the boat was done relative to three other nearby boats that were also at anchor. Ben explained how he was checking the likely position of the other boats anchor chains and how the boats would swing around as the tide or wind changed. It was important to leave a good distance and make sure our anchor did not interfere with the anchor lines from the current boats. In addition he was taking into account the other boats might need space to turn, possibly under sail alone making sure we would not be in their way. This was all second nature to Ben. Nevertheless, the skill level was surprising, particularly to someone who was on their first sailing trip. I listened intently and realized my luck in finding such a great instructor.

Ben kindly spent about five hours sailing the Fal with me.  However, he was concerned as he came to realize that I needed to get the boat back to Newlyn. Newlyn was the other side of the Lizard and a demanding passage for even a reasonably competent sailor. He suggested I should take an experienced sailor who knew the local area and waters. When Ben realized that the ultimate destination was Hayle which involved sailing around both the Lizard and Lands End he seemed even more concerned. I decided not to tell him I wanted the boat for the Jester Challenge and that sailing round the Lizard was a good baby step to get started.

Taking proper care

The sea around Cornwall can be formidable and the coastline is cluttered with historic wrecks. In the 18th century a British Navy fleet ran into rocks off the Isles of Scilly and over 1,000 lives were lost. More recently the 1979 Fastnet Race in the Celtic Sea was perhaps the most dramatic recent boating tragedy. A little over 300 yachts were caught in a storm, 15 sailors died as five boats sank and about 75 boats were rolled over.

A few weeks earlier in Falmouth newly-wed Mary Unwin had been given a 31 foot boat Seagair as a present from her husband. They had been divorced for three years but had reconciled and remarried. Sixty five year-old Mary claimed to have substantial sailing experience from years before and, like me, had taken a trial run up the Fal to reacquaint herself. Her sailing instructor reported that she thought her intended trip to Bideford in North Devon was about 60 miles rather than the 150 nautical miles or so of reality. Perhaps she had misunderstood that she would be zigzagging around the coast of Cornwall rather than the more direct overland distance. The instructor told her to do the trip with an experienced crew and that he could arrange suitable support. Despite being asked not to go off sailing on her own she left Falmouth the following morning. Reportedly she told two fishermen, who also advised her not to attempt the trip, that sailing was just like driving a car.

The poor instructor was disturbed when at 7am he realized that Seagair had sailed. He thought it a silly and dangerous thing to do, risking her life like that and perhaps he would be one of the last people to see her alive.

What they were worried about - the Longships lighthouse off Lands End is somewhere in that lot.

What they were worried about – the Longships lighthouse off Lands End is somewhere in that lot.

The night before Mary appeared agitated that people were saying she should not make the trip alone: it was far too dangerous. So go she did, apparently lacking suitable maps, safety gear, or other preparations. About 40 miles into her journey Mary stopped at Mousehole Harbour seemingly to get some cigarettes. Here there were indications she could not control the boat fully while mooring up and twice hit another boat. Finbar Jones a local fisherman helped her tie the boat along the harbour wall. When he realized she intended sailing around Lands End in poor weather he thought she must be joking. Once again Mary was told it was far too dangerous and she should delay. Poor Finbar Jones was unable to persuade her. Mary had a nap and set off at about 6.30 pm. She was never seen again. Fragments of Seagair were later washed up ashore and it is thought the boat ran into the rocks off Lands End. An alarm was raised by her new husband  but the tragedy was over.

Ben thus had good reason to be concerned about a beginner setting off from Falmouth to round Lands End. Gradually we discussed the situation and slowly my explanations of my risk aversion, the safety gear I was using, and the several backup methods of navigation began to reassure him. I explained that as a physicist the navigation was not a concern, I understood about the tides, basically the situation was completely different from that of the ill-fated Mary Unwin and Seagair. Ben gradually increased in confidence and realized that I was not embarking on a suicide mission.

For the next three weeks while I prepared for the first leg of the trip, around the Lizard to Newlyn, like Mary I was told by many knowledgeable people of the difficulties and dangers of the journey. Unlike Mary, I considered carefully every comment and point that was made and minimized the risk. The plan was to stay on the boat on the Fal river gaining in sailing experience until the weather and tide window was near perfect for the first leg of my journey around the Lizard to Newlyn. Yes, this really could be fun.

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