Fishguard Bay Ocean Race - FBOR'19 Report

13 Aching kilometers in a Force 5-6 Northerly - Well done everyone!

The Fishguard Bay Ocean RaceFBOR’19 is a major downwind Ocean Ski and SUP race along Pembrokeshire’s wild, award winning north coast. In this race, elite paddlers from the UK and beyond demonstrate their extreme fitness, boat-handling and seamanship skills to win this “black belt.” no-holds-barred ocean race.

The rugged North Pembrokeshire coast follows a general direction of west-south-west to east-north-east with the iron cliffs of Strumble and Dinas Heads jutting northward into the Irish sea. For our ocean skis racing from Goodwick to Newport, the ideal wind directions are from south-west round to north-west. With a week to go, the weather forecast for the race was a strong blow from due north – which would have subjected paddlers to 14km of miserable sidewind. So we needed an alternative course.

A few variations came to mind so, with three days to go, I paddled straight out into the Irish Sea to test my ideas where it counts – out on the water!

This was my fourth year of initiating and organising the Fishguard Bay Ocean Race. The first year saw a full gale from the SE that nearly canceled the event but twenty brave paddlers fought their way around the much shortened course and a legend was born. The next two years were almost too easy with a light wind and gentle quartering sea.

With one week to go before FBOR’19 well known local paddler and surf life saving coach, Jeff Rogers, withdrew his entry and generously took on the role of Race Officer, freeing me to race myself. So as race day dawned with a building Northerly blow, my partner Julia and I were up with the Razorbills to set up registration, the finish line, coffee and cake for finishers, and a dozen other things in time for the first entrants to register. Julia was coordinating the timing team, her friends Hazel and Yasmin arrived soon after the first paddlers signed in.

The surfski community is a nomadic entity. We travel hundreds of miles to compete in races all over the country and are always happy to meet, welcome, and catch up with good friends wherever we are and whatever the conditions. Ocean Ski paddlers are a friendly and inclusive crowd, readily to welcoming newcomers and helping in whatever way we can.

Soon the safety boats arrived, two by sea and four on trailers – needing to be met and briefed on last minute details of our alternative course – but leaving me no time to change before Jeff’s safety briefing. So, doing my dry warm up while he talked, I sprinted to the car for a cabaret quick-change act that left me less than 60 seconds before the unmistakable blast of the starting cannon.

We were off, jostling for space while quickly assessing who’s wash to ride for the only flat 500m of the entire race. Almost immediately the field sorted itself by discipline, first the sprinters, then the marathon paddlers, followed by the mature surfski specialists, settling into their powerful, energy-conserving stride. After them came the less confident people who were still courageously taking on the elements – for one, this was his first ski race ever.

As we passed the end of the inner breakwater the pressure of wind and waves was in our faces, even sheltered as we were by the outer breakwater.

Rounding that breakwater, the shock of the headwind and raw, unfettered northerly swell showed on a few faces, particularly as the next leg was to the west, parallel to the mighty 1.2km Victorian sea wall, we were catching the waves from the right and wall’s reflections from the left. Calf rock was white with foam, unmistakably the turn, marking the star of the headwind grind out to Pen Anglas.

Strumble Head is about 6km wide and juts out northwards into the Irish sea for 3.5 km. Its north eastern tip is Pen Anglas – a serrated knife edge of rock with 25-30m depth of water at its foot. Here, as expected, the back-eddy from the flood tide was pushing into the 18-25 knot wind, creating a magnificent chop which required 100% concentration. 50m later, as the waves became more manageable, we could look for our next turning point, the classic gaff cutter Ruby whose unique profile could now be seen as little more than a spec more than 2km away across the heaving water. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to gulp at the daunting prospect of that long diagonal across the wind and open water waves. It seemed much further than 2km, and as we closed on her you could see all nine tonnes of her heavy displacement hull bobbing and pitching like a ping-pong ball on the 4-5ft swell.

One brave soul cut close so under her bowsprit I though he could have been Guillotined so I elected to give her 5m clearance and be properly on balance for the 4km downwind leg. This would be our only chance to really get up speed but the complex secondary waves across the swell made linking runners a challenge. My Garmin showed 16.3kph a few times which is useful but far from spectacular.

After a couple of minutes, the boat in front of me fell in and seemed to be having difficulty remounting so I stayed with them for a minute to make sure he was on his way. Only one boat slipped passed while he got in, then we were all away again, surfing the wind-waves and the swell downwind to the base of the cliff under the Fishguard Bay Resort.

Right in the shadow of the cliff is a rock that no one seems to know the name of and today it was almost invisible against the dark 150ft cliff face. Some paddlers left it out and turned in about the right place but I continued, surfing right up to it and skidding hard right into the confused 10m of clear water before the solid rock wall. Tense moments with my ski being thrown this way and that – but all part of the fun!

Powering up again it was time to cut across the wind, waves, and 3 directions of reflecting chop from the dark cliff face. “Technical” – that’s a good word. It covers all sorts of challenges and adequately sums up FBOR’19 – but that leg to Thomas rocks in particular.

After Thomas rocks the waves began to moderate behind the relative shelter of the outer breakwater and it was up to each of us to dig deep and find enough juice for the 1.5km sprint back to Goodwick beach.

I managed to pick up a couple of places before stumbling up the sand to cross the line as first in the over 55 (veterans) category. A friend’s photo of me crossing the line bears testament to the severity of this year’s race. Only 13km yet four retirements.

Results

Huge congratulations to all of the class winners:

  • Open SUP: Mark Evans
  • Open Ski: Jim King
  • Masters Ski: Steve King (no relative!)
  • Veteran Ski: Benjamin Edom
  • Double Ski: Richard England and Willem Prinsloo

Richard and Willem put in a masterful performance over the longer doubles course to win the FBOR Dolphin-Wave Line-Honours trophy for the second year running.

See the Results Page for full information including times.

Everyone who took part deserved a prize and great respect for all who completed the course – they deserve the paddling equivalent of a campaign medal. Looking forward to seeing you all again next year.

 

For more information on FBOR see the race website at https://fishguardoceanrace.uk or contact myself: Benjamin Edom on oceanskirace@gmail.com