Big Winds for the 2016 Chinese New Year Hong Kong-Macau race

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With strong winds expected (force 6-7), this Chinese New Year Hong Kong to Macau race was certain to be an exciting one and at 10am on Saturday morning, Shahna Bacal, Harry Hirst’s 42 foot ketch got the race underway crossing the start line on the South Western corner of Lamma Island. Asia at Sea’s Olly Cully was aboard.

I had reached out to Harry on something else when he asked me to join the race. I like ketches and more traditionally built boats and immediately said yes. And as the day approached, I was so pleased I had, because the wind was forecast to be strong and Shahna Bacal I was reliably informed needs a good 20 knots or more to really get moving.

In the vicinity of Lamma the wind was in the late teens but this steadily built as we eased the sails and headed towards Dazhi Island to the West. In our division (HKPN Division B), were 6 other boats including the cruising catamaran Freewind, and the 47 foot Beneteau Dolphin Six, but starting immediately behind us was the 36 foot Beneteau Oceanis La Folia with a start time of 10.06am.

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Olly Cully at the helm of Shahna Bacal

On Shahna Bacal, it was our German crew member Till who took the helm to begin with. I soon found out Till was well acquainted with the boat, having helped Harry deliver her from Singapore to Hong Kong several years before. In bare feet, despite the cold air, and using his whole body to hold the huge tiller steady, Till steered us in the direction of the first way point, the Island of Zhi Zhou which we needed to leave on our starboard side.

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What surprised us as we approached, about 1.5 hours after the start, was that we had only been overtaken by two boats, Dolphin Six and Scintilla. Shahna Bacal was holding a steady 7 knots of speed, and sometimes hitting more than 8. It had become clear that the strong winds, now in the late 20 knots and gusting more, were working greatly to our advantage. None of the boats coming from behind had felt able to hoist their spinnakers given both the wind strength and angle of sail. Meanwhile, on our 42 foot ketch, with our short strong masts and heavy hull, we were driving through the sea like a steamroller.

  on our 42 foot ketch, with our short strong masts and heavy hull, we were driving through the sea like a steamroller

After the first waypoint was passed, La Folio finally overtook us after sitting on our tail for around 2 hours, but with Harry now on the helm Shahna Bacal continued to drive forward with impressive power. Another hour or so on, I took the helm for a stint and understood immediately why Till has found it necessary to use his whole body to steer. The tiller and the rudder are very chunky, and combined with the heavy steel boat require a fair amount of strength to control; that is when she is not steering herself which was surprisingly frequently. What I mean to say is that with the sails set correctly, she would sail a fairly steady course with no adjustment of the helm at all, ploughing straight through the swell with barely a flinch.

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Dolphin Six, overtaking us during the first reach

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We were feeling quite positive about our chances as we approached the final passing Island waypoint of Dalu Dao at about 4pm. Whilst those boats ahead of us had now been joined by the sports boats Freefire, Dingdong and Gambit, the majority of the fleet remained behind us. Things were about to get more difficult though as the final stretch to Macau would be a beat. We had discussed the need for a sail change but had missed our chance to make the changes on the reach which is what we should have done. Instead, upon finding ourselves overpowered, we decided to reduce sail on the beat, a much harder feat.

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Shahna Bacal beating to windward. Photo by JC Borelle

Reefing the main and the mizzen was relatively straight forward, but dropping the big jib was not. With just 4 crew we were short of hands and the swell caused the bow to leap up into the air by 2 or 3 metres every few waves adding to the challenge. We eventually got it down and tied it up with sail ties but our speed fell to a measily 2 knots. We then hoisted the stay sail, enabling us to achieve 3-4 knots and slightly better pointing, but this was going to be a long leg and we needed to change the foresail to a working jib. But before we could do that, we had to haul a big section of the jib out of the sea. A large section of it was hanging over the side and had become swamped with sea water. It took three of us a good 10 minutes to get it back safetly onto the deck. Meanwhile we were steadily overtaken by the fleet behind a the time ticked away.

We eventually hoisted the working jib and our speed finally increased to 5 knots, and after a hard slog of a beat, we recorded our time at the M2 buoy of 5.54pm as the last boat to finish. We knew our sail change had cost us dearly but we took it on the chin – besides, Macau beckoned, and our handicap position might not be too bad all considered (actual result was 5th out of 6 in the HKPN Division but a respectable 15th out of 22 overall).

For full results of race 1 click here

Some photos from our wonderful lunch at Miramar Restaurant on the Sunday, as well as from Macau’s old town celebrating the year of the Monkey:

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Monday’s race back to Hong Kong started in a light breeze which quickly fell to nothing. Along with several other boats, we opted to retire and motor, which we did until just North of the Soko Islands when a strong wind filled in, eventually reached 25 knots enabling us to enjoy a good sail back to Hong Kong Island. Photos from the start area below:

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With thanks to Harry Hirst and the COA organisers for a great few days.

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