Sailing: Hard racing around the Fastnet Rock

Rob Howard meets a young crew who are attempting to make waves in one of the most difficult races in the sailing calendar
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The Independent Online
The annual Fastnet Race will start from Cowes tomorrow, and as part of the Admiral's Cup will attract multi-million pound yachts with top crews from around the world. Alongside them will be more modest boats, skippered by their owners, or chartered for an attempt to fulfil what is a lifetime ambition for many experienced off-shore sailors.

Alex Bennett, the 19-year-old skipper of ''Prorainer Fastnet Youth Challenge'' is already ambitious and experienced enough to attempt the race, leading a crew of eight with an average age of only 17 in one of the hardest, most prestigious, and potentially most dangerous, races in the yachting calendar.

From Cowes, round the Fastnet Rock, which lies off the Southern coast of Ireland, and back to Plymouth is 605 miles of continuous sailing during which the young crew will work four-hour shifts for five days, or possibly more. Their 36ft yacht, provided by Plymouth Sailing School, will be stripped of all non-essentials to save weight, has a galley the size of a broom cupboard and with some space given over to storing sails can only sleep four at a time in discomfort anyway.

The crew, ranging in age from 15-year-old David Barden to Darren Willis, 22, have been preparing the boat, training and racing together since Easter. "We have stripped and cleaned the bottom, bought new sails and tried to bring the boat up to a racing standard so we can be as competitive as possible" said Sam Clark, 16, who is still at school. "We all chipped in for the sails, paid our own travelling expenses and have done the work on the boat ourselves. It has taken all our time and money, and if anything breaks now we can't afford to repair it."

Matthew Robinson, 16, and Peter Franks, who already has 6,000 sailing miles logged at the age of 17, have both been travelling down from Whitby, but it has not always been possible for the full crew to complete all the races in preparation for the Fastnet.

"We were short handed for the Plymouth to St Malo race because most of the crew were doing their exams," explained Bennett, but for the race to St Peterport, when we experienced 40 knot winds and heavy seas, six of us were aboard. It was a bit of a nightmare with water breaking over the boat continuously and only Sam and myself were not seasick, but we were one of only 18 finishers from 35 starters." More recently, the crew have finished as high as fourth in cross Channel races.

Elle Littlejohn, 16, the only female crew member, a schoolgirl from Plymouth, explained: "We all have a lot of experience in dinghies, but for this race you need more fitness and endurance. Getting up in the middle of the night when it is cold and wet requires a lot of determination and teamwork is absolutely essential, not just to do well, but for everyone's safety."

When that teamwork brings success in races not everyone is supportive of the youth team. "Some yachts have behaved dangerously, simply because they didn't like being outsailed by a young crew" said Jeremy Rowles, a 19-year-old student studying yachting design. "One skipper shouted across 'Young kids and boats don't mix', but we beat him anyway. I think some owners have saved for years to buy their boats and resent us having the opportunity to race against them."

The crew of Prorainer Fastnet Youth Challenge are determined not to be seen as rich kids having fun, or to be there just to make up the numbers. "We want to promote off-shore youth sailing and have a good time," said Bennett, "but we are also competitive and our aim is not just to be the youngest crew to complete the race, but to try and win our class."