La Grande Huit means literally the Big Eight. It is a figure of eight course, starting from La Grande Motte inFrance, going out around some buoys on the French coast, the centre of the eight is Las Islas Medas, close to the Spanish border, then a long leg aroundMenorca, back through the centre and then straight home to La Grande Motte.
The course is 500 miles long and over that stretch the ever changing face of the Mediterranean will throw at sailors whatever ever weather it can.
Immediately after Cowes Week I was on a plane out to La Grande Motte to take part in this race, in a culmination of partnerships, as a Magic Marine sponsored sailor, taking the helm of a Magic Marine sponsored boat.
We started the course on August 19th and for the most part it was excruciatingly hot with light winds which meant the racing was close and the pack stayed together continually fighting over boat lengths and jostling for position.
For me despite the fact I am no fan of light winds this was good as being the first time in the RG650 I had no idea on settings or trim so with so many boats alongside I was able to try out various things and learn a bit about how the boat handles and where I should be looking for boat speed.
Having spent so many miles in my Pogo 2 I discovered that the feel of the RG was a complete change. The boats underwater profile is radically different to the Pogo, there is a lot more volume in the bow and this alters the feel of the boat, particularly upwind.
As well as learning how to get the boat up to speed I was getting to grips with the cockpit, using the daylight hours on the first to try and learn where each of the ropes went to so when the lights went out there would be no scrabbling around to make small changes to trim.
The cockpit on the RG650 is to my mind one of the best features of the boat, everything is very well laid out, and just where you would expect it to be when reaching a hand out in the dark. It is much bigger than a pogo cockpit and so a lot more comfortable to helm and to move around. It did not take too long to get to become familiar with my little pod of controls and anyway, Bret Perry from Katabatic Sailing, the European RG650 agents, had been down the week before the race to prepare the boat had labelled every clutch up with ‘glowfast’ which shone so brightly I am sure the boat next door could have told me the third clutch from the left was the outhaul.
So heading into the first night things were going well, I was learning the boat, keeping pace with the front of the fleet, and looking forward to a close and interesting race ahead. There was only one fly in the ointment; my autopilot.
I did not use the pilot much on the first day, for the upwind sections in lighter airs I was steering the boat, trimming the sails and trying to feel as much as possible. When I did engage the pilot to hoist the code zero or the spinnaker it really did not have much to do, the boat was well balanced sailing in a straight line in light airs so it took me a while to realise that each time I engaged the pilot there was a lot of action and noise from the ram working away below decks, but this was not translating into any movement from the tiller above decks.
I worked to get the boat ahead and clear of the others and then set it on a course, engaged the pilot and investigated the problem. After squeezing into small holes below the cockpit, and taking the system apart above decks I discovered that yes, the pilot was working well but the system to connect the ram below decks to the tiller above was slipping due to one of the parts being the wrong size and so no matter how much tightening I did to try and connect it all together the pilot was not able to steer the boat.
Over the next 24 hours I tried various ingenious and not so ingenious ways of fixing the problem, including wedging a screw driver between the pin running through the boat and the on-deck pilot arm, but no matter what I did the piece worked it’s way free and eventually I had to come to terms with the fact that every time I tried to fix the pilot I was losing places and for no ultimate repair of the pilot.
As the fleet came passed through the centre of the eight at Islas Medas we were all unbelievably close together, with there being a mix in the fleet of single and double handed boats the racing was exciting and I was still in the thick of it but I had a decision to make.
The next leg around Menorca would be a long one and really this was the point of no return, and I really had to decide if I would or could carry on for the next 400 miles without an autopilot.
I weighed everything up in my head, how would I sleep, eat, hoist and drop sails? It was fairly simple in the lighter winds but if the breeze got up what would I do?
Those who read my blog regularly will know if there is one characteristic I have above all it is stubbornness and the absolute obsession with finishing something that I have started.
I have been wanting to race in the RG650 since I first went to see it in Valencia in February this year; this race had been a long time coming. I had travelled a long way to come out and take part; Bret had delivered the boat to La Grand Motte and invested a lot of time in preparing it for me. Having not been able to race in the Azores race this year, this was the next biggest single handed race available and I needed to take part in it to feed my addiction for solo sailing and just remind myself what all the other hard slog was about.
To give up would be to let down a lot of people not least myself and anyway, I was curious. It must be possible to sail over long distances without a pilot, just a question of management; if the boat is well set up it can mostly sail itself especially in light winds and upwind but if all else fails you can just heave to or take the sails down to sleep. The big question for me was could you actually race and be competitive?
So I decided to carry on, to go and find out what I could do and what the RG650 could do on this course; but one thing was for sure the boat was going to have to look after me.
The passage to and around Menorca was fairly uneventful, the boat behaved well if I set it up properly and the wind was light and often non existent which allowed me to sleep, eat and generally get on with life.
The evening of the 22nd August saw a change in conditions which really was the start of a wild ride and an extraordinary couple of days.
The course back to the mainland was downwind and so with the big spinnaker up I started to chew up the miles. Into the night the wind built gradually to a steady 16 – 17 knots and it was then the RG came to life in my hands, turning from the sheep to the wolf.
I noticed first that we were pulling away from the boats behind me as a look over my shoulder confirmed that the spinnakers that had been haunting me all through the day had faded away to specks on the horizon.
As the night came on the pace increased and I realised this if any time was going to time to make miles. The question was how long could I stay awake?
With still 100 miles to go to Islas Medas I divided the night into 10 mile segments and set myself different tasks for each of those to keep me awake. Sometimes I was singing, sometimes talking out loud in French, Spanish and English; punching the air, moving around, playing word games out loud but all the time steering.
I must have looked like a complete freak but so long as I was moving or making a noise I knew I could not fall asleep.
At the end of the night the wind died away to nothing and I collapsed. Someone was looking after me, the boat could go nowhere in the lack of wind and so I took down the spinnaker and slept, waking after a couple of hours to a beep from my AIS.
Now time for round two.
The wind again built and so with the big spinnaker up I set off again for the centre of the eight, the last check point and the final leg home.
The ride was amazing, the RG was responsive and fast and the wind steadily built to a wonderful 22 knots, perfect conditions to ride with the big kite.
However coming into Islas Medas the conditions became a little more that perfect, the wind started gusting up to 25. Ok I thought that’s alright in the gusts, I’ll monitor things and I mentally prepared for a take down.
In the blink of an eye the wind was up to 30 knots and I was careering off downwind at over 13 knots with as much sail up as was possible for that boat and wondering where the hell it was all going to end.
‘it’s a gust’ my hopeful side told me. But the gust blew and blew and my realistic side let me know that I was in a bit of bother.
First things first how on earth was I going to stop the boat from wiping out? I decided to ease the kite sheet out to try and dump a bit of the power and this made my life a whole heap easier. As I eased the sheet the spinnaker rotated round, this made the stern squat down in the water and the bow lift clean out and just like a racing dinghy the boat lifted up and sped off even faster, but this time feeling completely in control.
I took my chance made a little prayer to I have no idea who, let go of the helm and went for a kite drop, just hoping the boat would stay on a downwind course without gybing long enough for me to get this monster in.
I was lucky, down it came and off I went through the final gate just taking time to look around me at the two boats I was between.
I nearly fell over! I could not believe where I was. I passed through the final gate of the course in third position overall in the Series fleet, placed between two double-handed boats and as I learned later 10 miles ahead of the first placed series boat.
I was delighted, excited and of course gunning to keep that position. After the gate I hoisted the code 5 small spinnaker and went gunning off into a building breeze and what was to be a horrendous night.
The wind built steadily to over 30 knots, gusting 34 but we were riding steady and fast through the waves with my new found trick of easing the spinnaker to lift the bow the boat was looking after me.
However at this point my body and my mind started to argue about what it is humanly possible to do without sleep and things started to take a very different shape, quite literally.
After four or so hours with the spinnaker I started to wipe out a bit. I really need to put a reef in the main but was not able to because of the lack of pilot. The boat was overpowered and I was starting to get too tired to handle it.
I decided to take the spinnaker down and give myself a break for a while thinking I would put it back up later.
The drop was difficult but I got the sail in eventually but then discovered that sailing downwind in 30 knots, big waves with no spinnaker the boat would not go in a straight line. Without someone steering it was impossible to carry on.
I tried what I had done the night before, singing, moving but nothing worked and then I started to hallucinate.
Staring at the screen of the NKE checking my course and the wind speed the red screen developed a series of dancing green dots, which moved around the screen and jumped around over which ever number I wanted to read. It was annoying because out the corner of my eye I could see the dots were not over the other numbers or on the other screens but every time I looked somewhere else the dots followed.
I could no longer see my course so I decided to try and look to the sky to get a fix on where I should go and then my friend the dinosaur appeared. He was an inflatable diplodocus I believe, red, smiling and just bobbing along beside the boat keeping and eye out for me.
I looked down below and could see some ones legs, lying on the bunk. Lazy so and so! Chilling out down there while I struggled on deck; I go single handed sailing to get away from people like that.
In amongst all this I managed to fall asleep at the helm and crash gybed the boat, waking up as the boom landed on the backstay right in front of my face. It was frightening and the final straw. I had to admit defeat. I had got as far as I could, there were only 50 miles left of the course to sail but I had found the limit of what was physically possible without sleep and it was time to back off before I did some serious damage.
I hove too with the boat, put a reef in and went down below taking 30 seconds to have a whimpering little cry while I imagined all those boats sailing past me before I passed out.
And so the wild ride and the glory where over; after a couple of hours I got back up; the wind had dropped and so I hoisted the big kite and made a calmer approach to the finish line, still fighting the nodding dog as my brain tried to send me back to sleep.
I eventually finished the course at lunch time on the 24th August; though officially the RG is still a prototype I would have been classed as the 3rd place Series solo boat, and though my initial reaction was disappointment at everything I had lost with a little perspective this a result to be proud of.
I did not just sail but I raced 450 miles without an autopilot in a boat I virtually no previous knowledge of.
I have discovered a lot about what I am physically and mentally capable of, I have pushed the boundaries as hard as I can and now gained more experience of the unknown.
The RG was an incredible boat to sail, to have been easy enough to handle and to allow me to do what I did is surely the sign of a forgiving boat. It was a great experience to sail it and I have been really delighted with the way Bret Perry and designer Nico Goldenburg have been so supportive of my race and are eager to hear my thoughts on the boat and all my feedback as this was the first solo race that the boat has completed.
One thing now because with me there is never an end to the story…………. I want to race it again, to ride those waves and scream off over the horizon; but this time with a pilot.