I finally arrived in Sada at 0400 yesterday morning. Cruising down the Ria with white sails only in a light shroud of rain with my boat slipping silent through the inky black waters.
Francois from the committee met me at the marina entrance with a RIB and towed The Potting Shed into its berth where the marina manager was still bolting on cleats to the pontoons in anticipation of the unexpected arrival of a fleet of mini sailors trying very hard to migrate south.
The trip here has been epic; there is no other word for it. A simple delivery of 125 miles as the crow flies, rounding two of the most notorious capes on this part of the Spanish coast; at times it seemed like a journey to the ends of the earth.
I left Gijon on Tuesday evening with around half of the fleet to head west for Sada. The forecast was not bad; upwind sailing in a big swell but easily well within the realms of reasonable sailing for a mini.
Let’s not forget minis are designed to be ocean going; they are tough enough to withstand the force of the waves and the wind and yet still to keep ploughing forwards despite their tiny waterline length. The boats ability to cope with conditions should not be in any doubt most problems experienced by mini sailors are down to user error – we are the weak link and this is where experience plays a major hand in the game. The last couple of days have been a wake up call reminding me I have this experience, I do not need to follow the herd, I can make decisions for myself; isn’t that what single handed sailing is all about?
Setting out into the night on Tuesday felt great. I had the boat reefed down a notch from performance settings but with still enough power to over come the monster swell. I sat on deck and steered for hours, happily watching the miles tick away on the distance to waypoint display on the GPS.
By morning the whole fleet had made fantastic progress, we were ahead of schedule and had just 60 miles left to run upwind however the formidable headland of Cabo Ortegal stood between us and our goal.
Just as hope was raised for an early arrival it was taken away as the wind dropped for the rest of the day and we were left rolling around in little wind with a heavy swell making slow progress.
During the afternoon the accompanying boats started to relay the latest weather information, stating that the south westerly wind we were expecting was due to fill in and build quickly to 25 knots and that we should stay within 5 miles of the shore as we rounded the headlands in front of us to stay out of the worst of the wind.
This forecast quickly escalated to a warning of gusts in excess of 35 knots forecast for the round of Cabo Ortegal and the advice that we should seek a harbour of refuge to sit out the worst of the weather.
By this time it was getting dark and with limited charts of the area and only pilot books to guide us heading the shore with no engines was not a simple concept however as ever the mini fleet responded with pragmatic team work, sending two boats into the shore to a small harbour to check out the entrance then relay waypoints and directions to the rest of the fleet.
Soon the airwaves were alive with boats calling each other, asking for advice and I could hear each one being guided into the nameless port by the others.
I thought about going ashore but I was still making good progress towards Sada; the wind was blowing a steady 20 knots, the sea state was lumpy but not that bad and I could see know reason to head for the shore early. If the forecast was for 25 knots then my boat could handle that. I stayed out and sailed.
As the night progressed the radio calls lessened and the nav lights around me in the dark thinned out until I seemed to be alone. With 7 miles to go to CapeOrtegal, my boat was pounding through the waves and the gusts were starting to get bigger.
The night was very black and I could not see the wind coming making it difficult to deal with the gusts but it was all still manageable, just not that comfortable.
The next radio contact came from the lead accompanying boat ‘Imaginere’ who reported that they had experienced gusts of 40 knots when rounding Cabo Ortegal so they had turned back to sit the night out under anchor in a little port under the cape.
I was not out there alone, Richard, Robert and Diane, the Australian, Dutch and Canadian skippers had decided to tough it out as well ( all the foreigners together) and we briefly exchanged calls and plans for the night ahead.
The decision needed to be made to carry on, head back to the port the other minis were huddled in which was some 15 miles downwind or to head for the shore closer to the cape and wait until morning.
For me the decision was clear, close to the shore the sea was flat, the gusts were big but there was no danger of the boat not being capable of coping. I was tired and so considered stopping would not be a bad think and together with Rich identified the tiny port of Cariño which nestled under the cape and would offer refuge for the night.
Rich was the first one in and he found a berth alongside a pilot boat and told me there was a mooring buoy in the middle of the harbour I could pick up when I came in.
I had details of the port in my Reeds almanac but was still feeling a little apprehensive about making the approach in the black night without a detailed chart. A moment of inspiration struck me as we had been allowed to take our phones on this trip, I was close enough to the shore to get a 3G signal and so with the tap of a wet finger I downloaded charts for the whole of Europe to my phone via the Navionics App.
What genius. Instantly I could identify dangers, see a clear route in and I felt safe. On reflection this application of technology could be a lifesaver; ten years ago I would not have been able to do this – someone may have been able to but I would not.
I eventually sailed into the gust harbour at three in the morning and in true yachtmaster style had to the cope with picking up a mooring buoy under sail in gusty conditions and in a crowded port.
On the third attempt I was secure and ready to sleep for the night. I called Diane to see what her plans were and she too decided to come in. With my newly acquired charts I was able to give her good directions for making a safe entry and she turned up a couple of hours later.
In the morning the winds were still fierce. The forecast was much the same, wind between 20 and 25 knots with gusts of 35 around the headlands. The accompanying boats gave the forecast and then suggested that the wind would shift to north westerly at 7pm that evening and the fleet could leave then.
I had a look at my own weather forecast and rang Keith in the UK. We discussed the situation and I had an epiphany. The day was beautiful, sunshine, clear sky, it was just windy but close to the shore the sea state would not be bad and so why on earth was I planning on sitting out such a day in port waiting for an easy wind to arrive in the dark.
The boat was easily capable of coping with such conditions, I am capable of coping with such conditions and although I would always listen to advice if someone was telling me not to go out but there seemed no reason not to carry on making the passage in the daylight at least I could see the waves and the wind in those conditions and it things got too hairy I could turn around and return to a safe port in the daylight.
My feelings were echoed by both the other English speakers in the port; Rich left first and Diane and I followed a couple of hours later to a blustery day.
The wind accelerations around the Capes on the way to La Coruña are fierce and we saw gust of 40 knots as we slipped down the side of the Cape ready to round.
Both of our little boats were fully reefed down with storm jibs, they were like little bull dogs, tiny and muscular punching through the waves. Occasionally a gust would know the boats flat but they just leaned over as the gust went through then popped back up and carried on.
The sailing was great, the day beautiful. It was wet and wild but the boat felt solid and as we left the cape behind the gusts started to die down and we settled into a steady 23 knots of wind and a good rhythm of sailing.
As it got dark the wall of cloud on the horizon indicated the approaching front as forecast and the heavens opened with driving rain and poor visibility.
On cue the wind changed direction and I was able to sail downwind on the final approaches to Sada. I ending up sailing down the Ria in little wind and drizzle, taking the occasional nap in the slow progress and making huge amounts of hot tea to keep my morale high.
We were welcomed to the port with genuine hospitality and whisked ashore to an office where Annabelle from class mini was waiting with food, beer and a smile. We had left the rest of the fleet behind, taken our own path and arrived safe, sound and in good spirits.
It has been a real challenge to get to Sada, and nearly four weeks after the proposed start of the mini transat I finally think we are have made it. The forecast looks great for next week and a start is within our grasp.
We all had a false start for this race and though the last few weeks have been very challenging I have learned a lot of lessons most valuably to trust my own ability to assess conditions and make decisions. It seems crazy that this should be an issue considering my experience and background however I think due to events from the first leg, and the size of the fleet it became a little too easy to slip into the herd mentality. But I am not a herd animal. I am an individual and this is a single handed race.
Having said that it is not a single handed effort and so I would like to whole heartedly and genuinely thank every one of you that has helped me to cope with the last few weeks by contributing to my campaign fund, sending messages of encouragement and willing me along the way. You are all with me.