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Portland sailor set for challenge of a lifetime

PUBLISHED: 10:36 24 March 2014 | UPDATED: 10:36 24 March 2014

Rich Mason training at the Artemis Off Shore Academy

Rich Mason training at the Artemis Off Shore Academy

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Portland sailor and 470 helmsman Richard Mason has pressed pause on his Olympic training programme to take on the sailing challenge of a lifetime.

Richard MasonRichard Mason

Rich, 26, has joined the ranks of the Artemis Offshore Academy, the UK’s only centre of excellence for budding British solo offshore sailors. Swapping his agile 4.70m ‘470’ crewed by two, for a fierce 33ft French solo racing yacht called the Figaro Bénéteau II. Rich has had just five months to get to grips with the challenges of sailing offshore alone before taking on his first race of the season - racing 30 of the Figaro classes finest solo sailors 320 miles around the rocky French Atlantic coast line. The Artemis Offshore Academy is a proven training ground for ambitious solo skippers and Rich hopes this will help him achieve his dream of competing in the Vendée Globe – a non-stop around the world solo race know as the Everest of sailing. Follow Rich’s progress in the coming months via artemisoffshoreacademy.com

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Richard MasonRichard Mason

Richard on finishing his first solo offshore race

I am happy and relieved to have finished my first solo offshore race in one piece having enjoyed every second of it. Being my first attempt, I was really unsure as to how it was going to go. Would I be fast, or slow? Would I be able to cope with the lack of sleep? Would I be able to make long-term decisions and stick to my plan? Or would I revert back to my short-term dinghy sailing experiences.

Competing in the Solo Maître Coq I have realised this; solo offshore racing is the sailing equivalent to chess, except you don’t have a classic chess board - you don’t even have one of those travel chess boards with the magnets on the bottom - you have to keep control of every piece, all the time.

The amount of things you have to manage is truly monumental, there wasn’t one second during the 43 hours we were racing that I wasn’t doing something, be it boat speed, sails, navigation, tactics, other boats, sleep, eat, cold, tired, dark, breakage, unmarked fish farms, unpredicted tide turns…. Solo sailing is a constant bombardment of information and endless decision-making. What makes it even harder is that the results of these decisions might not pay off until hours later (i.e when to rest) and may mean a short-term loss in the first instance.

The combination of managing your chess pieces (Figaro) and trying to make the right decisions means you are utterly physically and mentally drained at the finish. Apparently on crossing the finish line I asked the race director if he knew the score of the England – Italy rugby game, which didn’t kick off for another six hours. It is true that I had no idea what time it was. What I did know was that it was about an hour and a half after low tide, whenever that was.

The Solo Maître Coq itself was a complex combination of very subtle high-pressure weather systems, island roundings and tidal considerations. Without doubt the best bit of the race for me was the first very light spinnaker run down to Île de Yeu, which was actually quite similar to the dingy sailing that I am so used to. I had never lined up with more than 10 Figaro before (there were 38 in the fleet) and I had no experience at all in the very light conditions that we had on this leg, so to sail through the fleet and into the top 10 by the second mark I was thrilled. This gave me a confidence boost, knowing that the decisions I was making were the smart ones and meant that could trust myself through the whole race.

The most difficult part of the race for me came just a few hours after the best. At 02:00am around the leeward side of Ile de Yeu I was completely becalmed and could do nothing but watch as boats sailed past me on both sides. With 0.00 knots of boat speed I was powerless to do anything about my predicament, I had to sit tight and be patient. I used the time to plan my attack on the fleet, I knew I was going to be spat out somewhere near the back but, buoyed by the thought of my previous downwind leg, I was sure I could make substantial time back again.

The rest of the race seemed to go very quickly, I was so pre-occupied with everything I had to do, the hours flew by and before I knew it I was on the last leg into the finish. I didn’t think I was too tired, but frustratingly on the run into the finish I was losing a lot of time and I let Sebastian, the eventual winning rookie, past me. On reflection I definitely had the wrong spinnaker up, a thought that hadn’t even crossed my mind, but after a bit of sleep it was glaringly obvious.

This Solo Maître Coq in the end was a mere 200 odd miles (shortened from 320 because of the lack of wind). The Solitaire legs are around 500 miles each and there are four of them. They do not shorten them; they just take longer if there is no wind. Although I coped pretty well with this race with only a slight break of form at the end, I can only begin to imagine what four lots of 500 miles in one month is going to do to me. It’s an adventure for sure.

My next race is the Solo Concarneau Trophée Guy Cotton, which starts on the 1st May. Lots to do between now and then!

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