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12 days at sea for the Transat qualification

7th Jun, 2014

tired

On the 13th of May 2014, I set off to complete my Mini Transat qualification passage. A loop between Ile de Re and the Rochbonne Plateau in France to Conninbeg buoy in Ireland, this would prove to be one of the most challenging things I have done to date.

The trip would take me 12 days in total, starting and finishing from Lorient. Having observed the high pressure system sitting over Biscay and Ireland, I decided to head South first; to be able to sail downwind for most of the passage. However, this was not without its drawbacks, as I bobbed, drifted and despaired for three windless days.

Getting the boat prepared for over a week at sea was a breeze with the help of my Mum, aka. ‘mon preperateur’. When we weren’t making cups of tea from the back of the van, we were battling trollies laden with bags and food down a very steep slope to the pontoon. Having Mum around bought back fond memories of racing & playing about in dinghies – which I had done avidly for a number of years, with the aim that one day it would lead to my own offshore racing project.

Once ready, and with a big shove off the pontoon from Mum, I was off into 30-35 knots, for a downwind run to the first mark of the course; Ile de Re, some 120 miles away. An interesting island connected to the mainland via a large bridge, there are many Oyster beds and fishing pots to avoid during the navigation towards the bridge. The night sail there was magical; I was joined by at least twelve dolphins and a sky full of birds as dusk crawled in.

Upon reaching the Island the next morning, I was becalmed just 1nm away from the bridge- and preceded to sit there at anchor until late afternoon. Marooned on a tiny boat in the baking heat is not the most pleasant of experiences when you know you have nowhere else to go, but I made the most of the time by taking some sights with the sextant. Eventually, like a gift sent from the gods, the wind filled in and I passed under the bridge with my big kite up in 20 knots! Feeling unprepared without my Hudson Wight gear and hefty boots on (I'd taken them off to enjoy the sun), I had a bit of a shock when a tanker ship and pilot vessel appeared under by port bow – a very quick and messy drop (plus a crash tack) soon followed!

Ile de Re & the bridge

That evening, which had remained pleasantly warm with 15 knots of breeze blowing, I was on course for the Rochbonne Plateau. Lying 30 miles south west of Pointe d’Aiguille, this rocky shoal, at 7 metres long, is one of the most dangerous in France; hence there is an 8 mile ‘safety avoidance zone’ to sail around, before heading North – and on to Ireland.

Navigating with the GPS

Once passing the plateau, the next two days (Thursday and Friday) were spent making ground towards the Inner Traffic Zone of Ile de Ouessant (174 nm away) where I assumed I would be able to safely pass the heavy shipping traffic as I began the crossing of the English channel. Unfortunately, I seemed to hit rush hour on Friday morning and was caught with big ships for the entire day; with the wind blowing less than 10 knots, this was a little stressful, but made much easier once I managed to get the AIS to operate in English (rather than French). By the evening I had at least got over my fear of cargo ships and quite comfortably got a lot of sleep in during the 60 nm overnight leg to Land’s End.

BORED...

Saturday – a day I won’t forget easily. I have never spent so many hours at sea in one place. Having arrived at Cornwall at 0500, I literally spent the entire day looking at the same bit of coastline. Things brightened up a little when I got a VHF call from my sponsor, Woody (Solo Sails). Based in Newlyn, Woody the Sail maker was having a drift around the Scilly Iles! I also got to speak to Peta, PR manager from Hudson Wight, who really got me giggling- I tried to describe to her how I did not feel alone on the boat, because I always felt like there was somebody else there – she definitely thought I’d gone completely loopy by the end of the conversation.

To top of the day, I started to experience a problem with the power supply onboard, which later meant that my GPS, VHF & autopilot would cut out. At the half way point, a problem with power was a real worry – there were many days left at sea to get through! I was lucky to be able to contact David, the local electrician in Lorient who is like a godfather to the Mini fleet, for some troubleshooting advice.

Sunday came with welcome relief- I remember the night vividly. I was flying along in the Irish sea with the big spinnaker up in 20 knots of breeze, having to swerve in and out of fishing boats. Once it hit 30 knots, the kite was definitely coming down –but I was still zooming, surfing huge waves, powered only by the main and jib.

Continuing to have power problems onboard, my VHF was now starting to blink and I couldn’t pick up any signal beyond channel 16. The pilot voltage had also dropped to below 10, despite the switch from the NKE to the Raymarine tiller pilot (which has half the power consumption).

 I had to helm the remaining 60 miles to Conninbeg (Ireland) despite being dead tired; only to be met by thick fog, rain and, yet again, no wind.  It was a really horrid time – I had to stay on deck to keep the boat on course, but in pouring rain and with little progress forwards. I couldn’t even play some uplifting music due to the power concern! Once again I was left staring at my destination with no hope of making any ground towards it for hours, and hours and hours… it wasn’t until 2100 at night that I eventually rounded Conninbeg  - by drifting –to start my journey home, albeit in an Easterly wind at just force 2. That night the wind continued to be very light while it poured with rain; the most depressing thing was that my fantastic comfort seat was now too wet to use as a bed!

The comfort seat

The next night I got the sleep I desperately needed- having turned off everything bar the AIS during the day, I could have a luxurious couple of hours entirely under pilot (a bit naughty, I know), while tucked up in a sleeping bag for 10-15 minutes at a time. From my bed I could keep an eye on the AIS, wind direction & strength, and even control which direction the boat was going in!

I was back sailing with dolphins in the early morning, a moment to cherish as always – until having to drop my sails completely at midday as the wind died to zero knots. I was really furious at this point; fed up with being hit on the head, sick of the sound of flogging sails, disgusted by a SOG of less than 0.3 knots – it was a dark moment and there were times when a shed a few tears! On the evening of day 7, I was still 32 miles away from Land’s End – with another channel crossing and navigation of the Britannic coast to face.

Day 8 was much the same as the previous; more rain, no wind, but luckily some dolphins – but I didn’t get past Land’s End until the evening. That night I got a text message informing me that the Mini in May race was changing course due to heavy winds in Biscay and thundery showers. Would I get hit by the low pressure that was developing off the tip off Spain? With 270 miles left to sail until reaching Lorient, could I out run the storm? The next wind I was expecting was a force 3 /  4 increasing 5 or 6 with showers…

Day 9: trouble hits. Following another sleepless night spent helming with no instruments (apart from the AIS), the storm was approaching. By the afternoon the wind was up to 36 knots, the sea was rough and I was bombing along outside Ile de Ouessant. I averaged 12 knots SOG with just main and storm jib up! The passage outside Ile de Ouessant is known to become treacherous, and seemed to me to have become the Southern Ocean; huge waves towered and rolled under and over my little boat, forever threatening to upturn the hull. However, with a firm hand on the tiller (sometimes two), I made it into calmer waters away from Ouessant… only to be trapped in two thunderstorms!

 I started to get pretty freaked out. The wind was all over the place, changing from 0 to 20 knots in all directions, and I just couldn’t keep the boat going on my intended route (past the Chausse de Sein and in, towards the Glenan Islands). I was dead, dead tired by this point – being mocked by cackling ghouls and fierce little creatures who were slashing the sky (perhaps I was hallucinating). I couldn’t see any other boats, let alone any land, and deep dread started to set in.

There had been numerous BSM (‘bulletin special meteo) calls by CROSS CORSEN over channel 16;

the ‘OK’ signal to pull in to port to shelter from high winds. After a PAN PAN call over the VHF, I found out that there was a French Navy vessel close by who I could sail in company with to Camaret; back in the direction I had just come from, but away from the approaching weather that was setting in that evening.

So I sat out the following day’s wet, miserable and windy weather (gale force 8) in Port Du Styvel, where I recharged my own and the boat’s batteries with the simple cure of rest. With cravings I have never known before for a strong cup of builder’s tea and Mum’s fruit cake, meal times were miserable- as my onboard stocks were depleted!

Camaret, Brest

The morning of Day 11 came, and although keen to set off as soon as possible, the visibility was very poor with a gale warning still in force. Having checked the tides, I left at midday to be able to pass through the Raz de Sein – saving 25 miles and tackling my irrational fear of this rocky channel. It was really something to surf through at 10 knots with a mass of dolphins in tow- they always seem to come and join in at the most fun moments, especially if the beats of ‘Biffy Clyro’ are pulsing through the boat’s hull. That evening I was only 35 nautical miles from Lorient- and I couldn’t wait to get home.

However, what was to follow was the most frustrating and tiring hours of my life to date. I was so close to home, but yet so far… no matter how hard I wished for it, the wind would just not come, and I was becalmed from midnight until 0700 on Saturday morning. I somehow managed to get into the channel for Lorient to be scuppered by an adverse tide; at times I was anchored bang in the middle of the harbour entrance, hoping a passing fishing boat might give me a tow for the short distance to the submarine base (no luck of course, and besides, it would probably be cheating!).

After shedding some tears, probably the fourth batch of this qualification, and having been sucked onto a pontoon by the tide, I struggled along by foot with my boat until I could reach the corner of the submarine base. Eventually, I managed to get high enough up the river to drift down with the tide, catch a gust and hit the dock – at last.

Twelve days at sea and I had done it – finished by qualification miles for the 2014 Les Sables – Azores – Les Sables race, and the 2015 Mini Transat!