The Owers Race

4 Oct 2014

The Owers Buoy is a south cardinal mark about 10nm south of Littlehampton, past Selsey Bill into the English Channel. The Owers race is an annual event, a long distance cruiser race, and unlike most races there is no defined start time. The trick is to get to Owers and back via Pagham as quick as you can, each skipper has to look at the tide and wind conditions and decide for himself when to set off. Usually you'd want to go round Owers just as the tidal current turns so you get the tide helping you both ways.Knowing your own boat speed and taking the weather into account you decide when to set off.

I was with Tim and Debbie on their boat Johanna. I have mentioned her many times before as a race rival. She's about the same as Elsa on handicap but is 26' long and much heavier. One day I will take Elsa to the Owers but this was not the weekend to do that.

The conditions were a bit challenging with winds F4-F6 and forecast to change direction in the middle of the day. Three boats were racing - Bajau, Dedicated Dancer and us. Fully kitted in warm clothes, full waterproofs, gloves, lifejacket, I was delegated to the foredeck and took a moment to understand Johanna's reefing system as we set the main with double reefs, and once outside the harbour we unrolled about half the genoa. Gusty winds and big seas, we wanted to get to Owers at 1330 but then decided the wind would be a bigger factor than the tide, as we were ready to go we decided to go for it and started just after 0930 (noting the time in the log and starting the stopwatch).

Tim on the helm and Debbie and I on the genoa sheets during the tacks. Strong wind from the S and unpredictable seas, we started off tacking to the west but then we decided that if the wind was going to shift to the west shortly we might as well tack directly out to sea. The other two boats, starting later, seemed to continue off to the west behind us but we were confident in our plan.  It was a tiring leg, nine miles in big seas, Johanna didn't slam about too much but we took a lot of spray and she was a bit hard to control in the gusts and over the waves. I started to feel a bit weird after an hour or so,   not sure if I was a bit cold or a bit hungry or a bit seasick. Taking a turn on the helm soon fixed that though as it required a lot of physical effort and concentration to keep her sailing properly, control the tiller, and hang on to the boat with my spare hand. The target mark was on our starboard bow but the wind shifted towards the W exactly as predicted and we were able to harden up and get the mark right on the nose (using two GPS devices to show us where it was). Instead of going diagonally across the waves we were now taking them head on which actually made it a bit easier.

With my mouth full of saltwater I started to feel weird again after about 2hrs but Debbie produced a packet of ginger biscuits and with a few slugs of fresh water I was ok again. Tim and I took turns on the helm, mostly Tim actually, when not helming I was huddled with my back to the weather and hood up, and Debbie wedged herself in the companionway. Some even stronger gusts came across us about 1100, we noted over 30kts on the wind indicator. Waterproofs always leak, well mine do, and cold water gets down the neck and wet gloves don't keep the hands warm. We were almost not enjoying this but there was no point in turning back for home as we'd soon be at the mark and turning back anyway. We kept looking behind to see if the other two boats were catching up but never saw them.

We eventually saw Owers ahead of us, a big black and yellow thing, and there were a couple of sails in the distance ahead. Obviously some other boats from other clubs, we thought.  As we got closer though we realised it was our own competitors who's somehow got ahead and were already round Owers and coming back! No idea how they did that, they must have been miles west of us, and when the wind shifted it gave them a screaming fast reach out to the mark. Still, we were well early, and rounded Owers just after 1200 and turned towards Pagham. This was a northwest heading so we were beating again but we passed the East Borough Head mark about 45 mins later. This mark has a bell inside and emits a ghostly clanging sound. Debbie noticed there was a lot of water sloshing downstairs, from the spray or perhaps from a leaky window or something, she spent a while with her head in the bilges pumping out and scooping seawater in a bucket and throwing it out over our boots in the cockpit to drain away.

As we got closer to the shore near Selsey the sea became flatter and the trip became a bit more enjoyable, Debbie stopped bailing long enough to get the kettle on and make some cups of soup which were just the job. Nearing Pagham we got a radio message from the race leader in Dedicated Dancer to say that the target mark we'd all logged into our GPSs, Pagham Outfall, wasn't there! He gave fairly vague instructions on how to find an alternative mark, a fisherman's yellow pot marker, then he was off toward the finish back in Littlehampton. We could hear the second boat Bajau on the radio trying to clarify that.

The sun was out now and the wind and swell had fallen right away and it was like a different day, spirits lifted, we all warmed up, and spent a pleasant half an hour wandering off Pagham looking for that silly mark. We crossed the GPS waypoint for Pagham Outfall and carried on for a while going round various fishermans marks then we decided we must have done it by now and bore away for a broad reach back for home. It was about 3.30. I went back to the foredeck and shook out the reefs so we had the full sail up, Tim got the oven on and heated up some sausage rolls,  I had another go on the helm, we were clearly the last boat of the three but in good spirits. We crossed the finish line just before 4.30 so that was about 7 hours to get around the course.

It took Tim a few minutes to get the engine going, after much rummaging around he discovered the petrol tank had got turned upside down in the stern locker (!) so that was easy to fix. We were well away from high tide but there was enough depth to get up the river, though not enough to get into the berth so we landed on a pontoon hammerhead and tied up there. Time to lose the wet clobber, I returned to Elsa to get a dry t-shirt, then we retired to the clubhouse to have some spirited banter with the other crews who'd. done the course about an hour faster than us!

35 miles logged on the GPS. I am pleased to have done the race and enjoyed being with Tim and Debbie, we especially enjoyed the second half of the race. When I got home I was pleased to find the heating on and hot coffee waiting!


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