Local sailing enthusiast Ewan Stirling will be putting his experience to the test later this month when he takes part in the first of a series of qualifying races in France in preparation for a renowned international race.
Ewan, 33, is hoping to take part in the Transat 650, a 4,300-mile solo trans-Atlantic race from La Rochelle on the west coast of France to Salvadore la Bahia in Brazil in September 2011.
The Transat 650, or Mini-Transat as it was originally known, was devised in 1976 by Englishman Bob Salmon in response to the increasing costs of racing at the time. In limiting competing boats to 6.5 metres in length, as well as imposing technical restrictions, it was hoped the race would be more affordable and encourage more people to take part.
Since then it has taken place every two years and has become a staple of the sailing calendar, with some of the best sailors in the world taking part. Dame Ellen MacArthur raced the Transat 650 in 1997 and finished in 17th place.
Due to its rising popularity, there are now entry requirements and several qualifying races. Entrants must have sailed a certain amount of mileage in these races to compete. The first of these that Ewan will be taking part in is the 300-mile Pornichet Select, which starts in Pornichet, France, on 24th April.
Ewan, who is originally from Inverness but has lived in Lerwick for 11 years, said he had done a “fair bit of sailing” in preparation, though he said you can never really do enough.
He said: “A lot more practice would have been good, but life is such that you can only do what you can.”
However he will have almost 20 years of sailing experience behind him. Ewan has been sailing since he was 14, beginning in topper dinghies before moving on to 420 class models and joining the Scottish national team.
He has competed in many classes of dinghy and yacht sailing since, including the last two Island Games, and some of his greatest achievements include sailing a Fireball alongside Brydon Leask and ranking fifth in Europe and in the top 30 in the world.
Although he has also sailed the Bergen-Shetland race, the furthest Ewan has sailed solo is around 75 miles. The Pornichet Select will therefore be a challenge: “It’s going to be interesting, the Bay of Biscay doesn’t have a good reputation but let’s hope it’s not that bad when I’m there.
“It will be difficult to know what to expect, you can practice all you want but you never really know how it’ll be until you’re out there.”
Living conditions onboard his yacht will be “very cramped” and there will definitely be “no luxuries”.
As the boat is stripped down to the bare essentials for speed, Ewan’s cooking facilities will be restricted to a hob and kettle and freeze-dried foods.
An important issue will be coping with the lack of sleep.
Ewan said: “You balance your sleep to 20 minutes every four hours, and you have to make sure there are no other boats around, check the sails; you can’t really afford not to. Sleep management will be a key thing.”
This will not be too much of an issue during the Pornichet Select, which Ewan said he is hoping to complete in around 35-40 hours, but will be much more of a problem during the Transat 650, which will take around four weeks.
Ewan said the while he is feeling “a lot of apprehension”, he is also very much looking forward to the challenge.
“While I’m feeling apprehension, I’m also really looking forward to it, it’s been a childhood dream.”
Ewan said ever since hearing about the race as a young teenager he has dreamt of attempting it: “I first discovered it when I was about 13 or 14, and I read about it and that’s where my interest grew, then reading books like Ellen MacArthur’s made my enthusiasm for it more. Now I’m lucky enough to be in a position where I can go and try it and see how it goes.”
Ewan will be sailing the races in his 13-year-old yacht Speedy Pym.
In accordance with the race’s “box rule”, Ewan’s boat has to meet certain specifications, which include no boat being over 6.5m long or having a beam of over 3m wide, and the distance from tip of the mast to the bottom of the keel must not exceed 14m.
The boats must also not have any electronic or technical equipment, such as GPS or satellite systems, onboard bar a VHF radio and shortwave radio, through which Ewan can receive weather reports.
Ewan wanted to thank his sponsors who have “helped me out a lot” and include the Lerwick Building Centre, Thulecraft, DH Marine, LHD, Taycad and Survival One, an Aberdeen-based company which does work at Scatsta airport.
Ewan leaves Shetland for Aberdeen next week, and will be towing his boat to Dover before crossing to Calais and driving to France to join the other entrants at Pornichet on the west coast. He will be blogging his experiences on his website, www.gbr178.com, where there are also links to the race websites.