Rogue wave has the girls teetering on the brink off Douglas

Hi all! Unbelievably, it has been a month since I last wrote. As predicted, the remaining weeks before our first race of the season flew past, and I have now had the chance to slow down and reflect upon what proved to be an extremely eventful weekend in the Isle of Man.

We left Southampton at 5am last Thursday and followed the procession of Cougar engineers who were driving the various media RIBS and Honda owned boats. The extremely flashy new race truck had been driven up the night before – the Honda circus was coming to town. Regardless of nerves about racing, it was exciting to see the first of our competitors pop up on the motorway as we headed in convoy up to Heysham?of course we tried to overtake them!

Shelley’s mind was, however, less on pre-race racing and more focused on the prospect of the ferry crossing. As someone who suffers from terrible seasickness (don’t ask – it makes no sense whatsoever), getting across to the island was perhaps her least favourite part of the whole weekend. As she chugged back the Stugeron, her foreboding was increased by storm warnings on the radio which promised a very bumpy journey. Little did we know that these were merely a harbinger of what was to come?

I love the Isle of Man – it is such a good place to race. After a lumpy crossing, it was fantastic to arrive in Douglas and see the beautiful bay lying flat as a mill pond and picturesque with its little sandcastle refuge tower in the middle. Surely we would never see bad weather in this safe haven?… For those of you who have not made it across to the island – go now. It’s gorgeous. The scenery is beautiful, the people so friendly – great restaurants and shops?you couldn’t ask for more. On top of that, there is a slightly mad petrol-headed bent to the whole place (TT to blame for that), and a real passion for boats. It looked amazing with fleet on display on the promenade. All in all, the perfect location for our first grand prix of the season.

Most people arrive for race weekends late on the Friday morning, just in time for scrutineering and the chance to practise. As we had made it earlier, Shelley and I thought we would use this opportunity to pop by at a local school, Manor Park in Douglas. We had a fantastic morning with the kids, and time around them fired me up for the racing. Their enthusiasm built up my enthusiasm, and both Shelley and I were very grateful to visit.

With scrutineering, practise and briefing complete, the rest of Friday was an opportunity to get to know the new teams who are joining us on the start line in 2006. There are some real characters joining the series this year – a fantastic asset to the racing. Amongst them, we have Marcus Bradshaw in ‘BBLB Architects’, who is using his team to raise huge amounts of money for a cancer charity. Joining him on the 150hp line, there is also the Plant brothers in ‘Quality Job’. Despite being the two youngest competitors in the championship and having never raced before, Tom and James amazed everyone by taking a podium place on the Saturday – these boys are ones to watch. On the 225hp start line (so not far from Shell and I), the ‘English Heritage’ team are old hands at racing?although in a slightly different vessel to a Honda 225. Driver Darren Hook and navigator Jason Wyatt are both Thundercat extraordinaires – Jason is the reigning World Champion. Consequently, I suspect they have a slightly higher fear threshold than the rest of us and will also be a team to keep an eye on!

Saturday dawned reasonably bright, and weather reports promised sunshine and no wind. Perfect. However, by the time we were craned in, conditions were slightly more on the grey side – not a major problem on the water, but harder for visibility.

It is amazing how everything is forgotten once the green flag goes up. All the nerves and tension are forgotten, and everyone is focused on pushing themselves into the front. It is the most fantastic feeling – the reason you go through everything to get on that start line.

The race itself was so exciting. We were stuck right on the outside of the start boat having pulled a low card in driver’s briefing, and so didn’t have the most direct line down to the first mark. However, Shelley drove fantastically and we came round the mark in fourth place. Although a clear lead right from the beginning is obviously ideal, there is something fun about having to think about tactics and play with other teams in dirty water in order to move up the fleet. This was one of those races.

Negotiator had a huge lead in first place, and then Jack and Simon in ‘Stopbox’ (formerly Warmup), and Rupert and Lee in ‘Heights of Abraham’ were sitting in second and third. Both of these teams are extremely tough competition for us and wouldn’t allow for much nonsense from Team Raymarine. Due to a well-timed pit lap and Shelley setting the lap time record, we managed to take third place from Heights of Abraham?and then disaster struck. A rogue wave had Shelley and I pitching perilously close to a barrel roll around the tricky third mark (see picture) – and losing eleven seconds while we tried to right ourselves. It is amazing that we managed to turn back up again – the safety crew poised to rescue us said that we defied the laws of gravity! Shelley and I reckon that it is a shining example of why girls shouldn’t diet too much – a bit of bulk to balance out the boat saved us a lot of aggravation! (And I got my hair jet washed ready for the evening – so all’s well that ends well!).

Following our near catastrophe, Shell and I were even more determined to get back in the running again. Rupert had overtaken us while we had been attempting some acrobatics, and had gone on to gain second position. After sneakily following Stopbox for a couple of laps, we were ecstatic to overtake them in the final stages of the race and win ourselves a third place on the podium – not bad after such an action packed hour!

After such a full-on race on the Saturday, we hoped for a quieter time on the Sunday. No such luck. Sunday’s weather took a nosedive, and we were notified in briefing of winds up to force six. Suddenly, our safe haven in Douglas Bay was presenting us with some extremely confused, choppy water; as a very short sea was blowing up into the harbour walls and coming back on itself. The water around the refuge tower was treacherous (irony?!?) and the 150s were instructed to run a short course in order to gain permission to race from Safety Control.

In Honda F4SA, we are incredibly fortunate to have such a professional, committed bunch of people behind the scenes. In conditions like Sunday, the racers rely on the knowledge and expertise of the officials, safety crews and engineers – and they are amazing with us. Such is their caution, that we 225s didn’t know whether we would be racing until moments before we were led out?its never too late to call things off if it looks too dangerous. Fortunately for both racers and the thousands of spectators gathered, by the start of our race high tide had passed and conditions were beginning to flatten out. We did, however, have extremely rough water to contend with around the tower and on the back straight.

It was never going to be our race. The more sensible option was to finish as high up the fleet as possible, and come back in with boat and crew in one piece. For Jack and Simon in Stopbox, however, this was the answer to their prayers. Jack is an exceptional driver in the rough, and powered his way to a first place. Following behind were Rupert and Lee who achieved a consistent second place, and third went to Gareth and Phil in the as-yet unnamed ex-Accucard boat.

We came in a very respectable sixth, and the overall championship table is interesting reading as a result of the weekend. Stopbox and Heights of Abraham are in joint first, with Negotiator in third and the Raymarine girls in fourth. Anything is possible – eight more races could take us in all sorts of directions! Shelley and I most certainly hope things go in our direction – we are in it to retain our title.

And so the story will unfold in Newcastle at the end of the month. I am looking forward to it already. In between the racing and the preparation, it was fantastic to catch up with the teams – it felt like the start of a new school term. Who knows what is going to happen on the championship table?but its going to be fun finding out?

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