The 15th United Kingdom Firefighters Sailing Challenge (UKFSC) took place from 7 to 10 May 2018 in superb sailing conditions in The Solent on the UK’s south coast off the Isle of Wight.
The event started on the Monday with a practice day in and around the waters off Portsmouth. Then two days of racing took place on the Tuesday and Wednesday in The Solent off Cowes, and there was a final passage race back from Cowes to Portsmouth on the Thursday.
All of Sunsail’s identical 40ft racing yacht fleet was chartered again this year, with additional boats brought in to provide race committee facilities and support for the 270 competitors, sponsors, supporters, organisers and other attendees. Emergency services crews of between eight and ten people on each yacht from Fire, Police, Ambulance, RNLI and sponsor organisations competed over the four-day event.
The races were challenging, in mostly sunny conditions but with varying wind strengths, and most of the seven races in the main event provided the skippers and crews with lots to think about and do to get their yacht to go faster than the rest. The first couple of races were set over the same windward-leeward course and provided interesting challenges, because whilst there was enough wind on much of the course, there was a particular place where there was almost none at all. This meant that yachts were becalmed, in very close proximity and crews were talking in hushed voices, looking to spot the wind first and be able to move on before the other crews noticed. Some were more successful than others and quickly pulled away from the fleet.
The wind became more consistent for the following races on the Tuesday and Wednesday, building all the time. As the wind became stronger, some crews chose to reef their sails to make their yacht more manageable, while others chose to press on with full sails and grim determination. Needless to say, there were many places won and lost depending on sail choices but probably more so because of the skills of the crews in the challenging conditions.
It was apparent after the first few races, though, that a new contender for the event’s top trophy was emerging. Dorset and Wiltshire Fire and Rescue Service, skippered by Steve Thomson was winning lots of races in the Spinnaker Class. At the end of the seven races, they had in fact won six and were able to discard their third-place race to win the event counting only their first-place results. This was a fantastic result and we hope to see them next year so that other crews can pay more attention to them and raise their game accordingly.
The White Sails class also had a new winner this year with a crew at the top of their game. Siren Sisters, the all-woman crew, skippered by the new-to-the-event and very talented Sue Antonelli, showed the rest of the class what can be achieved with hard work and determination. They had some great results which put them in seventh place overall but more importantly clearly at the top of the White Sails results sheet. Also, if there was a prize for the loudest cheer when crossing the finish line, they would have won that too. They could be heard for miles around by the other crews at the finish of each race, clearly having a great time.
The Passage Back race from Cowes to Portsmouth took place on the Thursday. This is a pursuit race that starts boats at different times according to their results over the previous two days, with the slowest boats starting first and the fastest boats starting last. There was very close racing over the 4 or 5 hours of the race with the later-starting boats climbing up through the fleet to produce an extremely close finish between Nick Burchall’s Hampshire Phoenix and Dave Sharman’s London Pr1de. With a photo finish, Hampshire took the win by less than a minute after a well-fought but good-natured epic battle. This race, while not part of the points series, has become an event favourite for many now.
The spirit of the event was captured by Cornwall FRS who suffered damage to their yacht on the practice day, which prevented them for competing in the races. This didn’t put them off having a great time. They were able to follow the races by motoring without sails and they joined in all the onshore activities with good humour and very loud singing at every opportunity.
On shore activities included a hog roast and the fire service band Snatch Rescue, and a Gala Dinner and prize-giving evening. Competitors were very impressed by this year’s guest speaker Hannah Stodel. Born missing her right lower arm, Hannah has become an international athlete, competing at top sailing events and becoming a three times World Champion and four times Paralympian. She gave a thoroughly engaging talk about what she has achieved and what she has had to overcome to get where she is today. Her journey continues as she heads towards the toughest solo yacht race in sport, the Vendee Globe. UKFSC wishes her all the very best and will be cheering her on her way.
Also speaking this year was Ian Elliot of Elliot Brown Watches and co-founder of Animal, who donated a Firefighter watch to the value of £400 as a raffle prize.
UKFSC supports a range of charities with the help of its sponsors, supporters, crews, friends and family. This year, UKFSC passed the £100,000 mark for money donated to charitable causes over the 15 years the event has been running. This year donations were made to The Firefighters Charity, The RNLI, Julia’s House (nominated by winning crew Dorset and Wiltshire FRS) and Ditch the Label (nominated by guest speaker Hannah Stodel).
UKFSC is supported by very generous sponsors, including two new Gold Sponsors this year, W H Bence and All Signs, and new Bronze Sponsor, Coldcut. UKFSC is very grateful for their support and the support of continuing sponsors FIUK, Boddingtons Electrical, Big Choice Group and Skilltrack Marine. A whole host of other companies offer support to the event and help raise money for UKFSC’s charitable causes, including Elliot Brown, new to the event this year.
Information about our sponsors and how to become a sponsor can be found on the UKFSC website. After many years supporting the event, M J Quinn is stepping down as an event sponsor, and UKFSC would like to thank them very much for their incredible support for the event and its charities over the years. There is currently an opportunity for a new Platinum sponsor available for the 2019 event and beyond.
A great deal of effort is required to run this event annually and the organising committee is made up of a group of serving and retired emergency services personnel. All keen sailors, they work tirelessly behind the scenes to make this special event enjoyable for everyone. The UKFSC patron is Mike Golding OBE, a round-the-world yachtsman who was a firefighter in his previous career and now one of the world’s most accomplished and successful offshore sailors.
If you would like to find out more about UKFSC, or if you would like to help organising or sponsoring, or if you want to have a go at sailing next year, please make contact through any of the links below, a committee member will answer your query or put you in touch with someone who can.
For more information, go to www.ukfsc.org.uk