Report from leg 2 of the Mini Transat, crossing the Atlantic: The stopover in Madeira was great, a good opportunity to give the boat a good check over followed by some quality R&R with Julie and Liam. However as start day got closer it became more and more obvious that the trades were all messed up and we were going to have to beat out of Madereira at least as far as the canaries!! So it was no surprise when my routing advice started coming through from Chris Tibbs.
Start day eventually dawned with a showery cloudy dull day!!! It was pretty warm and stuffy which made it hard work to try and keep dry pre start. Towing started at 11 with a scheduled race start time of 2pm, I eventually got towed around 12 which meant a couple of hours wait till the start, but this is usually no bad thing as it gives a chance to try and settle down and prepare in peace and quiet to race.
My routing advice had been to go west for 12 to 18 hours and then head south and try and cross through the canaries west of Tenerife. I started reasonably mid line and reasonably front line, there is a 24hr penalty for being OCS so it doesn’t pay to be too eager!!! The breeze was 10 or so knots so not that bad and I was able to tack onto port reasonably early to get onto Port and head west. However conditions soon started to deteriorate with increasing wind and occasional heavy rain and a somewhat confused sea!!! This was the first time I had sailed upwind with my new sanders jib and it took me quite a time to work out the best sheeting position and to work out the optimum angle to produce the best VMG in these conditions, unfortunately by the time I got on the pace I was towards the back of the fleet. It has to be said the first 36 hours were absolutely miserable, added to this during a heavy squall with thunder lightning and lots of wind on the second morning I broke my spinnaker pole whilst trying to move it from the leeward side to the windward side after a tack!!! Luckily soon after this the wind started to go light and I was able to get the tools out and get it repaired before it was needed.
I was now faced with how to negotiate the canaries, this is always a tricky area and there are big gains (and loses if you get it wrong) to be made by avoiding the wind shadows behind the islands and using the acceleration zones to best advantage. This was further complicated by the fact there was a high pressure ridge over the canaries and this was where we were going to make the transition from upwind to downwind sailing. I decided to go between Tenerife and Gomera, the general advice is not to go this way but I came to the conclusion that even if I got becalmed for 4-5 hours it would still be less than the time taken to sail round, so I was quite pleased when I heard on the VHF that those who had decided to go the long way round were also becalmed!!! I was also quite pleased when I discovered that several people I thought were well ahead were actually behind and going the same way as me, namely Geoff Duniam and Conrad Colman two good mates of mine.
The trip through was reasonably painful as the wind was very light and very patchy and quite a few boats that were close got wind and just shot off over the horizon, Chris Tutmark was the worst of these for me as I talked to him early in the morning and he was behind me, the next time I heard him he was 30 miles ahead!!!! I also heard Craig and Ollie the other side of Gomera both get into the breeze and do horizon jobs on me!!!
Eventually I got through and Geoff Duniam close by we started to sail away from the Canaries in the new breeze, Unfortunately Geoff with his new Big kite started to leave me and my 2003 kite behind!!!
Every morning at 11am (UTC) we get a forecast and also distances to the finish for each boat, so I was a bit disappointed to find I was pretty far back in the fleet with only a few behind, I always knew I was going to have a bit of a speed problem with kites several generations behind and seriously well used, they were the original kites from when the boat was new and had already done one transat and several seasons of racing around the Atlantic circuit. But I hadn’t expected to be this far back, however the wind was building, and I was heading towards the African coast where it was expected to be strongest!!!! As I got further east so the wind built and I pushed harder spending long periods on the helm and pushing wind range limits on the kites. The trade winds are tidal build and shift towards mid morning and the drop and shift back as the day goes on before again building and shifting towards mid evening. This meant considerable number of sail changes, between masthead runner, mast head reacher and small fractional kite, not to mention numerous reefs in reefs out as I approached the limits of each sail!!! However each day at the 11am report I was moving up the rankings so I was happy, soon making it into the mid 20’s I was starting to feel pretty good about the race!!!
My routing advice had been to keep progressing towards Africa till I got to approx 21 degrees north, however as I approached 22 degrees north I started to run into loads of floating debris, I had a near miss with a big floating net just catching the edge of it on the port rudder for a few seconds before it slipped off, then shortly afterwards I sailed into a sheet of polythene which wrapped itself firmly round the port rudder, I had to drop the kite and sail the boat backwards for several minutes before it unwrapped itself and came off. At this point being only 50 miles away from the coast and also having been warned at the pre-race briefing about pirate activity, I bottled out and decided to head west!!! The breeze was regularly in the mid to high twenties and at a good angle so I hopped I wasn’t going west too early and I was still pushing as hard as possible, then odd little things started breaking, the double block on the kicker exploded, and then shortly after I had repaired that the tang on the boom also for the kicker sheered off, I decided to take this as a warning and started to back off a bit, I was happy with my current place and I was more concerned with getting a finish than a good result!!!
By this time I had left the little group of boats I had been with a hundred or so miles behind and was quite close to the Americans Craig and Jessie, both were having major nightmares with there boats, Craig had a deck stepped mast and all the bolts on the mast step had sheered leaving the bottom of the mast skating around on deck, somehow he had managed to get it back under control and come up with a solution that would hold it, Jessie was worse he had been going downwind with the kite up and the sideways load from the bowsprit had smashed the stem head fitting complete with forestay and jib tack fitting right off the boat, the sudden shock loads had then broken one of his diagonal shrouds, luckily the mast had survived and the babystay had stopped it falling over the side!!! He had used the bobstay hole through the base of the stem to create a lashup for a new forestay attachment and had even come up with a way of loosely mounting the pole so that he could at least fly small kites!!! I hoped nothing like either of these events would happen to me, as I worked out I was not carrying enough spares to have been able to cope with either of these events!!
By now we were starting to approach Cape Verde and it looked as though my early venture west hadn’t done me any harm, as I had a good wind angle towards the western side of Sao Nicolau, the rules required us to pass through the islands and because they are very high, there are lots of wind shadows and acceleration zones the western side of Sao Nicolau also gave me a good angle towards my chosen entry point for the Doldrums!! The weather broadcasts did not give us sufficiently accurate info to make any form of intelligent decision concerning the way through the doldrums so all I could go on was what Chris Tibbs had suggested namely aim to be at approximately 27.5 degrees west at 8 degrees north then get due south as quickly as possible until I hit the trades the other side, not long after going through the cape verdes I had my potentially most serious drama with the kite, the wind was blowing 25-30kts I had the small kite and 2 reefs in the main and was down below with the pilot steering when the boat wiped out, the usual dumping of sheets and kickers etc, still wouldn’t allow me to get back on course so I was forced to dump the tack line as well, leaving the kite streaming from the mast hounds, there was no way I was going up the mast in 30kts to get it down so all I could do was blow the halyard and get as much sheet in as possible before the kite hit the sea, I was lucky I managed to get it within a few feet of the back of the boat before the sea got hold of it, after a 15 minute fight I managed to get it all back aboard and more to the point intact!! Another 20 minutes later and it was back up again, but this time with me steering instead of the pilot!!!
Not long after this the wind started to shift around and the the cloud activity dramatically increased, it was night time and all you see to the south were huge great clouds with virtually continual flicker of lightning!!! Not long after day break I was met by my first big doldrums squall, the wind hit 38kts and the rain was torrential!!!! My doldrums experience was not at all what I expected, I knew from the rankings that a lot of the leaders were parked up a hundred or so miles ahead with no wind, however Jessie, Craig and myself who were still close together had plenty of wind, sometimes too much, as we squall after squall giving us continual reefs in reefs out etc. before finally settling down to give a very pleasant close fetch that was just free enough for me to carry the gennaker, but we knew it wasn’t the trades yet because we still knew the leaders were becalmed ahead!! The following morning I was discussing with Jessie on the VHF the fact that we had just done a 130 mile day in the doldrums when Ollie Bond came up on the radio with a very strong signal, he was only 10 miles from me!! I was amazed yesterday he had be 85 miles away!! I was even more stunned when the 11am position report put me in 8th place!!!! By pure luck we had found a lane of wind that only a few others had tapped into, however I also knew that it had no relevance from the point of the final result until we were all out of the doldrums!!! Not long after the report the wind finally shut off, but only for an hour or so, when it did come it came from the south, was this the trades or what, the tactics from here were very confusing did I still need to get south or did I need to start working towards Brazil, I thought I was probably still under the influence of the doldrums so opted for the former and headed south est, this gave me the best VMG south, we were still getting a lot of squall activity, and each time a squall would come through there would be a shift making the other tack favourable, this was hard work, it was very hot, and every time you tack all the kit has to be shifted from one side of the boat to the other, including a 100 or so litres of water in 20litre containers, with some of the shifts only lasting a few minutes this would quite often mean going straight from one tack straight into the next, it was very exhausting work!!! It also unfortunately meant that the one thing I had really been looking forward to in the doldrums never happened and that was a fresh water shower!!! It also meant I began to suffer quite badly from sweat rashes there are two schools of thought, do you stay shorts and tee shirts and just get wet or wear oilies and stay dry but get hot and sweaty, the issue with the first is salt water sores, I had opted for the second approach, the only good news was at least I was drinking a lot which meant less water to shift!!!
Eventually the squalls all seemed to merge into one, and I had 5 or so hours of continually torrential rain and somewhat variable wind, once the rain stopped thankfully the wind swung more to the east and I could actually point right at Fernando de Noronha (the next mark of the course), I then spent the next 2 days without touching the helm at all, all I needed to do was trim, and catch up on sleep and food, it was a very welcome break!!! I was also pretty happy with my position, I had come out of the doldrums in the low teens, the next bit was going to be a drag race and I fully expected to have a few of the professional big budget boats blast through me on this part of the race, but I had a good margin on quite a few so I was ever hopeful I should be able to maintain a low twenties place at worst, I was also really pleased with the way my new Sanders jib was performing, it was very different to any jib I had sailed with before, and I had not had a chance to work out car positions etc and what sort of angles to sail at with it, so it was very satisfying to find that I wasn’t loosing out to the boats sailing close to me, I did loose a few places to boats that were further west than me, but this was a routing lose and not a boat speed lose which was great!! The only downside was that with a square top jib with lots of roach, you have to spend a huge amount of time trimming to get the best out of it, but it was worth it just to hear my position in the daily rankings, I was way ahead of even my wildest dreams of what I thought I was realistically capable of.
Then the wind started to move further aft and build and we were into gennakers followed soon after by spinnakers, luckily the wind built quick enough for me not to loose out too much with my old spinnakers also there was a very awkward and confused sea running so my dinghy experience was really coming into its own. Even so we were still getting very regular big broaches, my routing advice had said be no less than 100 miles off Recife, but as I had edged down the coast the breeze had stayed fairly stable so I had opted to cut the corner a bit and was only 50 miles off, the pilot could just about cope with the sea state on port, so it was eat/sleep whilst on port till it was time to gybe and then hand steer till the next gybe, during this time I crossed close to several other boats, amazing after 3000 or so miles of racing!!
Finally 2 nights before my expected finish the breeze just got too much, it started around midnight with the breeze blowing a good 26knots I still had my biggest kite and full main up, I was averaging some pretty high speeds, but then I had a big wipe out, in theory the max wind range for this kite is 20knots, but with only a couple of days to go I was now no longer worried if it dies so I kept it up because I could still cope with it whilst hand steering, but when I wiped out I started to think about what else might break and decided to get rid of it and just start preserving the boat and concentrate on the finish, so I went straight to small kite 2 reefs, by 4:30am even this was too much, a big gust came through and I found myself with the boat sat at 19knots on GPS and big breaking waves developing, so time to get rid of the kite. Somehow as I threw the tack line overboard it ended up between the rudder and the transom, there then followed a very tricky period while I tried to free it with one hand whilst driving with the other hand and surfing at over 19knots in the pitch black of a moonless night, but I eventually managed it, engaged the autopilot and then dived for the tackline release before the pilot lost control. Once the tack line was released, the boat slowed and the pilot was able to cope while I trailed the halyard and then dropped the kite.
I hoisted the solent and went straight below, had a quick snack and then settled to try and get some sleep. The race rules require us to monitor channel 72 on the VHF 24 hours a day, and twice a day we have to try and give our position to a support boat, with the fleet as spread as it was by now, this is usually done by relaying through other boats, what with this and the occasional chatter between boats you tend to become deaf to what’s on unless somebody calls you. I had only been asleep for a few minutes when Jessie called me, he knew I was in range of a support boat and had just been called by Luca one of the Italians who had just been run down by a ship, there then followed a weird conversation between, Luca and Jessie relayed via me to the support boat, weird because Luca only spoke Italian, Jessie only spoke English, and the support boat mainly spoke French, but eventually we managed to establish that Luca and his boat whilst very shaken weren’t seriously hurt.
By daylight the wind had eased a bit so I feeling conservative and now really keen to finish I decided to just play safe and stick with small kite and double reefed main, however it felt too slow I was soon back to big kite and full main. Unfortunately I missed the 11am position report but thought I was probably 19th/20th but as I neared Salvador I was surprised to hear Ollie and several others on the radio who I thought were well in front.
Night fell on the last night feeling very tired from the night before and having struggled with the pilot not working very well, however not long after dark I heard that one of the other Italians had fallen asleep and run up the beach, which made me feel somewhat more awake than I had, not to mention the amount of traffic on the VHF I knew there a good few boats around!!!
From a navigational point of view the only complicated part of the approach to Salvador is a big sand bar with a very narrow channel, however the wind was heading so we were slowing and I could see a nav light just in front so I decided to just follow the nav light and ignore the chart warning about inaccurate depths and positions!!! We have to radio in when 30 minutes from the finish we have to radio in to the committee and warn of our approach, this was about the exit point from the channel, so as we came out I dived below and made my call, as I came out I realised I had another mini right behind me, so after 3000 and some miles of racing there was about 10 boat lengths separating 3 of us, and we were match racing to the finish, unfortunately the boat behind me was Hugo Ramon who had done the 2007 transat and he knew exactly where the line was I had an approximate waypoint and that was all.
As we approached the line I let Hugo pass close behind me and then tacked on top of him, as I did he freed off and unfurled a gennaker and I realised he had forced me high and I had overstood and he was aiming for the favoured end of the line. I was beaten by less than a minute!!!!!!
It was still dark as we finished but started to get light as I was waiting for a tow into the marina, I still had no idea what my eventual place was. When the RIB arrived I dropped the main for the first time in 3 weeks and tried to remember where I had hidden fenders warps etc.
The welcome on the dock was incredible, there was a Brazilian lady with national costume on who presented me with drinks and fresh fruits, there were photographers, TV cameras and other competitors, it was amazing after the solitude of the race, after the fruit and drink tradition has it that you are thrown in the harbour, I have to say the swim was very welcome even if I was still fully clothed!!! Ollie the other brit in the race had only just finished a few minutes before me and he came in again as well as a few other competitors and Annabelle the class secretary as well!! At this point I discovered I had actually made 4 places overnight and then lost out to Hugo again finishing 16th on the leg, this was way better than I had ever hoped. In fact I had made up so much ground that I had even beaten Julie and Liam to the marina, they had been sat back at the hotel watching what was going on, on the internet and due to lack of updates had guessed I would be in an hour or so later than I actually was, so I was sat down having a very welcome brekky with Ollie when they arrived to greet me.
After brekky we did a quick boat tidy and then headed back to the hotel getting there while they were still serving as well, brekky number 2!!!!!!!
It was mid afternoon before my overall place was decided I was 16th overall in the series and 37th overall out of the entire fleet I am still buzzing about this, my preparation had all been about finishing and getting a good place had always been second priority so finish in touch with the leading pack amongst so many professionally prepared boats was just incredible, I had imagined that my most likely place was low to mid 30’s!! This came home even more when a week later I boarded my flight to come home and there were still boats at sea that hadn’t finished.
After finishing we have our seals checked, charts and log books and then we are allowed to dismantle the boats ready for shipping back to the UK. The next time I will see the boat hopefully will be when it comes off the ship in Lorient in December.
So what of the future?? WHO KNOWS!!!!!!