I’ve been through every emotion under the sun in the last day; nervousness, stress, frustration, hope, blind optimism, the depths of despair, immense gratitude, relief and finally deep joy – and all because of a VHF aerial.
For those that aren’t familiar with offshore racing and may be wondering what the contrôles are I keep misspelling here is a brief outline of the what happens before the mini transat.
Once you arrive in the race village you are at the mercy of La Comité du Course and le jury and must prove to them that your boat is within classe, has complied with all the safety rules and measures and that you are ready to race via a series of inspections.
You are issued with a piece of paper on which to gain six stamps from each of the different officials; most of which I breezed through.
Firstly with Classe Mini, all your membership must be up to date, they must have pictures of your boat from sea level and from the mast head for rescue purposes. This is also the time you must show your insurance ( thank you Pantaenius) and for those that have not chosen to insure their boats you must buy an extension to the FFV license which will cover your rescue (but not the boat) up to 200 miles offshore by the French rescue services – the lifeboat is not free in France.
Next a check in with the race organisers to make sure you are displaying the race sponsors flags, my information board is hanging on the back of the boat and to present for the official portraits – three of which were taken one is called ‘Young and cool’ – err, no comment!
Next I took my sails to be checked over – as they are all new they needed to be looked at twice, once to comply with Classe mini rules and to pay the new sail tax; and another to check them in for the transat.
Each sail is checked for correct sail numbers, and then is stamped and numbered with the number recorded so at the end of each leg a race official can get onboard the boat and make sure I have the same seven sails as I started with.
Then to Denis Hughes who is our race director and must check over our charts and books for the race not only to sail the course but also to make emergency stop- overs along the way which includes the coasts of Spain, Portugal, Gibraltar and also a lot of Africa.
The inspection with the doctor was disappointingly quick. In anticipation of the palaver I had trying to pass my medical kit with British drugs during the last race I was looking forward to the battle and had with me my amazing looking kit put together by Dr Richard Power and the Spire Hospital Leicester and I was ready to fight my corner.
The race doctor was so impressed with the organisation and quality of my kit he hardly wanted to ruffle it up. He ran his fingers over my alphabetically organised row of medicines and their laminated card explaining which one goes with which ailment and wanted to know who put the kit together, where did they get the boxes and oddly enough after seeing the Lifeboats logo on my sweatshirt, asked if I had heard of Professor Mike Tipton – who is a world expert on cold water shock and who we work quite extensively with at the RNLI.
Finally the biggy; contrôle sécurité. This is when all of the safety equipment on the boat is checked and not just to see if it is there but to make sure it is working and located in a suitable position so easy to find in an emergency.
My inspector Michel was thorough to say the least and I think he would be pretty awesome in one of our RNLI lifejacket clinics.
During the safety inspection we must demonstrate we are able to launch our life rafts in 15 seconds and show all of their up to date service records. We must demonstrate our EPIRB is within arms reach from outside the boat, all dates on flares are checked, I had to blow my fog horn to prove it made a sound, the gas bottle in my inflatable Dan buoy was checked (and found to be rusty so had to be replaced), wooden bungs must be tied close to any through hull fittings and I was required to prove that both of my bilge pumps actually were able to empty a bucket of water (I’ve never had to do this before and this test caught a few people out and you could see them wandering up the dock looking slightly shocked carrying bilge pumps with perished rubber seals).
This is the time as well that the items which are under specific rules on the boat are sealed; the liferaft and batteries are sealed in place to prevent them being stacked while racing and the emergency survival pack and survival water are sealed to ensure we do not use them in every day but only in case of emergency.
If any of these seals are found to be broken at the end of the race we will have to go up in front of a Jury to explain why and they will give the appropriate time penalty.
Then of course there is the VHF. We must call and make a radio check with Semaphore La Chevre, which is some 10 miles away.
Those who watch my facebook page may remember I replaced my VHF aerial only a couple of weeks ago to have a brand spanking new one ready for the race.
This has caused me nothing but heart ache.
After whistling through the rest of the safety check I have been stuck without the final stamp to my sheet for three days.
While I climbed up and down the mast many times each day, entirely replaced the coax cable, changed my twist on fittings to soldered ones and endlessly called the French light house, Michel my inspector kept wandering past the back of the boat looking hopeful and being turned away over and again. I just could not get a response and had no idea what the problem was.
Eventually having been up the mast four times yesterday morning and while I was sitting in bottom of my cockpit feeling utter despair at what to do next, the wonderful Lucas walked past with his clever machine.
He stood next to the boat, typically French he took a final pull on his cigarette and said very quietly ‘ I think you have some problems with your VHF, may I come aboard?’
My face said it all and Lucas did the race in 2011 so he knows how it feels in the final preparations when something goes wrong. ‘T’enquête pas’ he said – Don’t worry.
Then in 20 minutes his machine had diagnosed the problem was aerial and not radio, had a look at my connections, sighed, asked to remake them, tried with my soldering iron, sighed, went off to get his own tools, asked to cut my connections off, and made super duper new ones; including climbing to the top of the mast with a gas soldering iron and doing the one up there.
It turns out I am proficient at many things but making a good connection to coax cable is not one of them; but it take me three days of trying to find this out.
Erica (my wonderful shore crew for the last couple of days) and I waited with hopes held high in the cockpit while he called the semaphore and I have to say hearing the response ‘forte et clair’ back on the radio was the best moment in the last few days.
Lucas smiled, packed his tools and machine back into his shopping bag and wandered off down the pontoon lighting a cigarette on the way. What a legend.
And now with fully stamped up paper in hand I went and retrieved my black bag. This is our ticket to race, the sailing instructions. We are good to go!