Going to sea with the ‘Beast from the East’

When the winds blow from the east, it can be a double-edged sword for sailing to France. The 200-mile leg from Cowes to the western corner of France is going to be downwind, fast and fun. However, the wind from the east also brings the less enjoyable, freezing cold air and snow. As a hardy offshore solo sailor, fast and fun always wins.

The main challenge is getting across the English Channel in conditions that are not too ridiculously windy. I had called upon former Figaroist Will Harris to have a closer look at the wind, while at his Race Expert desk at the Volvo Ocean Race HQ. The forecast with highs of 28 knots didn’t worry me too much and the overall delivery was estimated to take 40 hours from Cowes to Lorient. A time under two days is good going for a 360 mile trip.

When I set off it was already 20 knots in the Solent. With the kite up, I got out and into open water quickly, just before the tide turned against me. The wind kept increasing, finally, with an enormous gust the sheet clip blew open and left the spinnaker flapping in the wind, I took this as my queue to drop the sail and conserve some strength, getting the boat back under control.

 The wind was increasing as the tide strengthened, fighting each other and building huge waves. The autopilot started to struggle to control the boat. I stocked my pockets with snacks, put on some extra layers and connected the tunes. I spent the next 7 hours sailing on the edge, the wind was blowing between 35 and 40 knots, a fine line between fear and fun. The sea and music were roaring. I would be surfing regularly at 20 knots boat speed before crashing into the wave in front. After avoiding the shipping tankers, and having a discussion with one of them so we didn’t collide, the sea was completely empty of any boats but me.

As the night set in and I flew past Guernsey, the wind dropped to a more constant and manageable 30 knots. I could finally rest downstairs with the autopilot steering a straight course. I slept 25 minutes at a time checking regularly for other boats, but there was little to do until 5am when I got back within sight of land. Making the turn to go south was a relief, the wind dropped but best of all, the water became pancake flat.

    Finding a gap in the rocks at the Raz de Sein

After nipping through a gap in the infamous Raz de Sein, with its ferocious tide ripping against me, the sun started to have some effect and I could warm up from the long cold night. Now travelling east closer to the wind my 6-knot speed felt sluggish for the final 80 miles. The wind dropped so much I even had to change to a bigger jib as I tacked up towards Lorient. I didn’t feel too tired at the end but was unbelievably grateful to have former preparatuer turned Figaro competitor Joan Mulloy catch me at the dock. I was soon showered and was in bed ready for a well-earned sleep. 360 miles in 36 hours.


For more from Hugh's blog check out: www.hughbrayshaw.com