The French playwright, actor, poet and the finest writer of the French language Jean-Baptiste Moliere wrote about success saying: “The greater the obstacle, the more the glory in overcoming it.” And yesterday I was honoured to be a part of the most extraordinary challenge – one that on reflection, I think is the ‘Everest of sailing’ and almost impossible to achieve. That’s what makes this so fascinating and I am heartened, inspired and enthused to see that there are people willing to take the challenge on of sailing in a non-modified Waszp from Cherbourg in France to the Needles – the beautiful rocks and lighthouse guarding the entrance of the Solent.
It’s 60 miles of some of the toughest waters in the world. Tidal gates, commercial shipping lanes (with big machinery), vicious chops, rolling swells and weather patterns that seemingly can change on a whim. It’s tough. Really tough.
So with a good deal of planning I joined the Rogers family from Lymington who were attempting once again (they tried just before lockdown in 2019) to complete the challenge.
Simon Rogers is well-known on the international yachting circuit as a brilliant designer as well as being an outstanding sailor – holding both sail and power records around Britain and having penned some of the fastest yachts ever to sail. His daughter, Hattie, is doing her very best to challenge and carry on the wider Rogers family tradition of sailing excellence – there are Olympic medals, multiple Round the Island wins, Fastnet Races and many more successes all around this family – and it was Hattie who was the pilot on this daring attempt.
A 4am alarm call ahead of a 5am dock-out at the Royal Lymington Yacht Club and the sense of anticipation was building. Clear of the Solent we were power down from the Needles at 20 knots with the Waszp strapped precariously across the stern gantry of the RIB. The lighthouses of Hurst, St Catherine’s Point and the Needles beamed us off beneath grey, low cloud as the first lights of day, thunderous shards of light, lit the way ahead. It was magical. Two dolphins came to enquire mid Channel and they were a welcome sight as was the industrial port of Cherbourg and its foreboding outer wall. The conditions across were nigh on perfect – a swell but not too much chop and around 12-15 knots of breeze – killer conditions for the Waszp.
We sat in the inner harbour of Cherbourg and rigged the boat on the water – no mean feat – with Simon’s son Tom Rogers, a former slalom powerboat champion, expertly guiding us and keeping head to wind as the wings unfolded and the carbon rig was set in place. The French Navy were doing controlled explosions in the harbour – well why not? – and the largest bang you’ve ever heard would have been an apt starting gun if we could have sequenced it.
With the boat ready, the Sailmon Max Display in place and the GoPro attached to the transom, Hattie was quickly into sailing mode. I’ve been lucky in my time covering the sailing scene to meet the very best sailors at the grand prix end. I’ve also met Princes and Kings and even lived with ‘Grimsby’s Greatest Grinder’ for a while. I’ve met amazing Corinthian sailors, Olympic Champions, World Champions, Cup winners, Cup losers, millionaires, billionaires and those scratching a campaign together. I have to say that once in a while a sailor comes along, and this is very rare these days, that blows me away. Hattie Rogers is that person. A more determined, go-for-it, progressive, can-do sailor wrapped up in one of the most amenable, polite, nice personas is a rare find. The steel of Ben Ainslie, the focus of Jimmy Spithill, the will-to-win of Russell Coutts – I promise you, it’s all in Hattie Rogers.
And so, with everything set and strapped in, it was time to take on this 60 mile challenge. The Waszp flittered around the inner harbour as we set up station and drew an imaginary start line between the foreboding gun turrets and fortifications. And like an Exocet missile, Hattie wound on, rose out of the water and powered out into the English Channel. No doubts, sheer brilliance of sailing and on the back of a week where she was crowned Women’s Slalom Champion at the Waszp European Games in Lake Garda. It was electric to watch and I sat there thinking “this is history, right here, right now.” It’s always hard in the moment to stop and think about the magnitude of something but this was looking historic to me and I was witnessing a sailor at the very peak of her powers.
For the first ten miles, the average was well over 15 knots. I clocked the RIB at 23 knots trying to keep up with the flying Waszp. It was something to behold and you could see the energy and concentration being expended to keep the boat flying and power through the waves running abeam. With reaction speeds that I can only dream of and kinetic adjustment that I think you have to be born with, the challenge was on but would the weather play ball? We had found a weather window that looked promising and on the way over to Cherbourg we looked at the wave patterns and felt it was achievable but the Gods of sailing had other ideas.
With the shipping lanes looming just over 15 miles into the challenge, everything changed. A vicious chop picked up on the swells creating a weird phase of wave height – the rollers were fine but the chop on top was starting to cause problems. Hattie was deperately trying to find a ride height that could work – too high and the rudder cavitates, comes out of the water and the pitchpole is inevitable. Too low and the waves would sweep her into a capsize. And the waves just built and built. A happy medium was hard to find.
The wind was rising too but that wasn’t a problem to a sailor of this calibre. On a modern day International Moth you have the ability to adjust the wand length but on the Waszp it’s fixed and this was becoming an issue. A couple of mid-Channel capsizes – what were you doing at 21? – and on the chase boat we had to start thinking about safety – first and foremost for the athlete and secondly for ourselves. Injury is a very real prospect in the Waszp in a pitchpole but so is fatigue and it’s hard to tell a committed sailor that time’s time.
Luckily we came to a collective decision. With the waves building and showing absolutely no sign of abating even after the tide had turned, and with the incredibly busy shipping lanes just up ahead, we took the tough decision to call a halt, de-rig the boat (no mean feat in a swell) and try another day. It was the right decision.
How many people get within a few feet of the summit of Everest every year and the conditions collude to halt progress? And how many Jules Verne attempts in sailing are scuppered by all manner of unforeseen events? These challenges are there because they are hard and this Channel Challenge in an unmodified Waszp is right up there with the toughest challenges in world sport.
Having de-rigged – and my golly was that an epic in the rolling mid-Channel seas – we secured the Waszp back to the RIB and powered on up the Channel. In hindsight it was a wise decision as even 20 miles off, the seas had gained in height and it was all-on in the RIB just to get back, let alone in an 11 foot foiling dinghy. There was no sense of deflation onboard, we had tried and one of the most remarkable sailors I’ve ever been lucky enough to meet, gave her absolute all.
As sports observers we are so conditioned to talking about the success but we rarely see the struggle that it takes to get there. The near-misses, the loss, the striving, the heartbreak but it’s absolutely there. Give me any record holder, any Olympian or anyone that has ever taken on something that is so far out of their comfort zone that the word ‘impossible’ seems apt and I’ll show you determination to achieve. This challenge will fall and with the Waszp scene so lively there are multiple athletes willing to take it on. It’s a heck of an ask believe me.
With the weather closing in and the South Coast of the UK enshrouded in mist, we flew up to the Bridge Buoy only clocking the white cliffs of the Isle of Wight from half a mile off. Coming into the relative sanctuary of the Solent, through the swirling chop of Hurst narrows and onto the billiard table smooth waters down to Lymington, we reflected on a mammoth effort and determined that given the right conditions, the perfect conditions, La Manche was conquer-able.
Coming ashore was a relief. A long, long day on the water made far more bearable by the wonderful catering and hospitality of Reb Rogers – the bacon butties cooked at 3.30am, the sandwiches and the Cornish Pasty’s mid-Channel. So often over-looked and under-appreciated, these things don’t happen without fabulous support and Reb’s the doyenne of hospitality – thank you.
Waking this morning early to write this, I’m smiling. What a day. What an extraordinary thing to do. Going to the edge and way out of a comfort zone is exhilarating, life-affirming and vital. The pipe and slippers can wait. I’m proud to have been a very small part of it and I’m enthused to go again. It just has to be done. And these near-misses will make the success, when it happens – and it will – all the more sweeter. We all learned a lot. We know the scale and we know it’s do-able.
And Moliere’s line never seemed more apt. Watch this space.