Jester Challenge – A modern experiment in old-fashioned self-reliance, self sufficiency, and personal responsibility.
The Jester Challenge was created for skippers of small boats who want to test their skill and self-reliance, is a uniquely successful experiment in single-handed ocean sailing. This site tells you everything you need to know about it: its history, philosophy, guidelines and future events, along with the views and experiences of skippers who have taken part over the years.
There is a Challenge every single year and new skippers are always welcome. If you like the idea of developing your offshore seamanship in a relaxed and supportive environment, visit the Jester Challenge website.
This is the final instalment of a 10-part post where solo sailor Bernie Branfield shares his first hand account of his single-handed, 2022 Jester Challenge, from Plymouth, UK to the Azores, in his 26′ Invicta Mk2, Louisa. You can read more about Bernie at the end of the post.
Praia da Vitoria and return passage
I wasn’t particularly looking forward to going to Praia do Vitoria for a couple of reasons: I had hoped that my visit would be part of the Jester Azores Challenge and I had had such a great visit to both Velas and Angra that I didn’t want to leave the Azores with anything but positive memories. Praia looked like a tourist destination with little of the history of Angra or rural beauty of Velas. This was unfair and when I sailed round from Velas on Sao Jorge I arrived at day break to find a great harbour, sheltered from most directions and with only a couple of anchored yachts. I motored into the marina and despite a bit of confusion with a speeding motor boat I settled into a secure berth. One of the long term berth holders came over to say hi, we had a mutual friend from a previous jester challenge, and he invited me over to the local bar for a drink. While the town was OK, it wasn’t much more than a tourist destination, the people were great. They were friendly, helpful, fun and accommodating. I met up with several other longer term berth holders including an Aussie who was getting his catamaran ready for a passage to Portugal and then the USA. He was trying to beat the deadline for all boats to be off the hard standing area so I gave him a hand with setting his boat up.
After a couple of days the couple I had met in Sao Jorge arrived after a few days in Angra and like me, they were waiting for a weather window to return to the UK. It was great to meet them again and we had a couple of meals together and continued earlier conversations. Praia is a key destination for trans-Atlantic yachties and some were staying their long term including a few who had moved their and still had their boats in the marina. It was easy to see how this could suit me but I wanted to get home. I had a look round the town and the main church was very beautiful.
A weather window was opening after a week at Praia and so I provisioned the boat with some perishable items: fruit and bread. The marina started to thin out and around 15 boats left for North Europe. A very wise sailor who had been a commercial skipper summed up my feelings very well ‘when boredom outweighs fear, you’ll be off’. He was the owner of a beautifully set up Rustler and was in the process of gaining residency status. After some minor border exit confusion I got my passport stamped and determined to set off that evening. Over a week in the marina and the bill was just over £50.
The passage home could not have been more straight forward or different to the passage to reach the Azores. 13 days of which 9 were a beam reach on port tack which is the most comfortable for sleeping and cooking. The course was an almost perfect great circle towards Ireland and then turn into the Western Approaches where the continental shelf gradient is at its least steep. This is where any sea state should be least affected by the depth changes from 4000m depth to 200m. I had to rig the spare main sail as it has a slot in it where the kicker can be rigged. The boom attachment broke again and will need a proper repair or even boom replacement when I get home.
Maximum wind speed on the way home was force 7 and it would have been nice to have had use of my newer main sail as it has a deeper third reef. At no point did the sea state become an issue and the rigging repairs held up very well and my confidence grew. By the end of the trip I was sailing under full canvas during the day and only reefed at night to avoid having to go forward in the dark. With the wind on the beam of abaft I rigged a preventer on the boom and this worked well even though I didn’t have any uncontrolled gybes. I did have to gybe when the wind moved round to the south for a couple of days but I had spotted that this was going to be necessary on the weatherfax charts.
Celestial navigation worked well and dead reckoning was much improved as the course and speed was a lot more predictable on this passage. To overcome the negative effect on morale of not closing in on a distant waypoint I set intermediate waypoints for approximately 200nm intervals. These made course setting and progress monitoring much simpler. This combined with the astonishing reliability of my Sea Feather self-steering was a delight. I set the sails for the course I wanted, with no steering compass this relied on my hand bearing compass. Then trimmed the self-steering and engaged the chain on the tiller. After this I monitored progress on the chart plotter for 10 minutes. My chart plotter is only Navionics on my iPhone but this worked really well. 9 times out of 10 I was within a few degrees of my desired course and things stayed like that for up to 48 hours. I christened my self-steering Ron, as in Ronseal, does what is says on the tin. Apart from a couple of drops of oil and brushing the salt off it worked brilliantly on both the passage out to the Azores and on the way home.
I had supplies for 40 days and did my best to consume them on the way home, I put back on the weight I had lost on the way out and still had around 20 days supplies when I got back. At about 200nm out I tried tuning in to Radio 4 LW and the first broadcast I heard was Jonny Bairstow scoring his second century and England winning their test match. If I had waited a day I would have heard the nonsense of the UK government imploding. At this point I was equidistant between Ireland and UK port of entry. I would have been tempted to head for Ireland!
Day run distances were 90nm on average and on one day I managed 105nm, the only time I had exceeded 100nm in a midday to midday run. The final day would have been longer but I arrived at Plymouth at 7AM with 90nm clocked. I hung around in Cawsand bay and then went straight into Mayflower Marina without anchoring. I completed port of entry process relatively efficiently and had a rest. A lovely chap on a Wing 25 popped over to say hi and ask about boat handling. I met a couple of youtubers and had a great evening meal and catch up with George from the Jester Helm. After filling up with diesel I left on the midday tide and motored in windless conditions to the Solent.
I anchored off Hurst Point and had a good rest before leaving to catch the end of the tide back to the needles and the fair tide heading East. Again it was windless and so with the engine on at 1400 rpm I was making 3.5 knots through the water and up to 7 knots over the ground. I held the tide until after Dungeness. It was swelteringly hot and so I gave the engine and myself a rest for a couple of hours to ensure I had the tide with me to pass Dover. After 46 hours I was back on my mooring at HNYC. A couple of boats came out to say hi. It was great to see Triassic and be given an enthusiastic welcome. After a meet up with the captain and crew on Bonny and a night’s sleep I left Louisa for the first time in 78 days. A quick a shower and lift to the station and I was on my way home to see our newest family member.
About Bernie Branfield
I have been sailing since I was 7, I started in Mirror dinghies at the local gravel pit and made my way up to VLCCs for a large oil company as Third Mate. After a break for family life I bought a MacWester Rowan 22’, Chantilly, which I sailed to Holland, Belgium, France and Ireland as well as around the UK East Coast. I still have Chantilly. For a short time I owned an Achilles 24, Mischief, that I had hoped to sail to the Azores but abandoned this plan after an eventful trip back from Ireland. My current boat is an Invicta 26’ Mk2, Louisa, which I bought just before the Covid lockdown. Due to timing, work commitments and various other factors I decided to enter the 2022 Jester Challenge to Newport Rhode Island. When I am not sailing my own boat I try and crew on a yacht delivery each year to build up experience. I have around 30,000 sea miles in yachts and various qualifications including YM Offshore under my belt. Louisa was built in the early 1970s and suits my singlehanded sailing needs to a tee, she is moored at Hoo Ness Yacht Club on the River Medway in Kent.