When we eventually started the 2013 mini transat, exactly one month late and from Sada in Northern Spain, it was into a forecast of winds in excess of forty knots over the first 24hrs and I think we all understood that there would be casualties.
Yes, it was totally ironic that after so many delays and problems along the way trying to avoid a hammering at Finisterre the fleet was setting off into what would definitely be winds in excess of forty knots.
More than two competitors pulled out on the morning of the race, simply not wishing to go out into storm conditions which made the tension a notch higher.
Despite the lack of crowds and fanfare that accompanied the departure of my 2011 transat the start still delivered all the excitement and thrill of.
We were towed out in the dark and then set off into grey skies and a building breeze. Soon I was able to free off from the wind and up went my first spinnaker for what I hoped would be the first of over 3000 miles of downwind Atlantic sailing – according to the forecast and the text book weather routing my jib should have been a passenger for the next three weeks.
The ride to Finisterre was amazing, small spinnakers all around and the little boats fully charged and screaming towards the corner at 10-12 knots I was relishing the conditions and our final escape to freedom but nervously aware that after weeks sitting in port waiting for something to happen we were all in at the deep end racing out to take on our first nightfall in massively challenging conditions off one of the most notorious areas of rough water in Europe.
Because the race had been changed to one leg only I very much had in my mind that any gear failure of breakage between Sada and the Canaries would mean game over in terms of a top ten placing; with the wind allowing the fleet to achieve 200 mile plus days having to stop for any length of time would put a huge gap between the front etc…..
The first night lived up to it’s expectations the boat was thrown from one wave to the next and my mini felt untamed careering off into the darkness. I was running with two reefs in the main and my small spinnaker; the boat felt great but every gust blew a little bit harder until the gradient wind was a solid 28 knots and the gusts regularly topping 35knots.
With every gust I made a resolution to myself – if it blows 34 knots again I gust I made a resolution to myself – if it blows 34 knots again I will take the spinnaker down – but each time the devil on my shoulder told me I was doing fine, I could still make out glimpses of other people’s spinnakers in the twilight and I held on for just a little bit longer.
Eventually a sustained 37 knot gust combined with the imminent need to gybe before approaching the offshore Traffic Separation Scheme provoked a high adrenaline take down. It has always been that way with the mini pushing the boat to it’s absolute limits is addictive and drags you along until dropping becomes the kind of manoeuvre where your heart is thumping through the walls of your chest in the anticipation of what will occur if even one corner of the spinnaker is pulled away from you by the ocean and it all goes horribly wrong.
Our first night out was black and wild; the fleet was already separated enough for only the odd navigation light to be spotted but the VHF airwaves were alive a seemingly endless stream of competitors reporting broken rudders, loose keels and other problem; already the fleet was so split up that I was only able to hear half of the boats when they called in to the accompanying boats to report their positions on the morning of the second day.
On the Potting Shed it was a rough ride, the wind was constantly above 30 knots for most of the day and I was torn between pushing the boat to make miles and keeping it safe and in one piece.
The four metre breaking waves made flying the kite exhilarating beyond belief the boat was surfing at speeds up to 17 knots but the wipe outs were harsh. Every so often a breaking wave would come from a totally different direction, you heard it’s roar before it connected with the side of the mini, thumping the hull with its full force, either rounding the boat up or baring it away. The little rudders where powerless against the force of the water and the boat ended up pinned down to the water.
One such wave wiped me out in the middle of the second night; this was a bad one, the boat boar away hard in the darkness, I was pushing the tiller at full lock away from me but the boat was heeled so much my leeward rudder can’t have been in the water. Time slowed down to sickening slow motion as I sat and looked up at the mainsail which was hanging directly above me then just to seal my fate the bowsprit folded in to windward wrapping the spinnaker around the forestay and the main came crashing down onto my backstay.
I was powerless to prevent any of this, I just sat at the helm shouting, ‘No, No, No!’ into the night. I was exhausted, soaked through, cold and hungry. Leaving the helm for any amount of time in these conditions was a high risk manoeuvre and so the last couple of days I had neither slept much nor eaten enough. Things seemed to be getting on top of me.
But what can you do? There is no-one to help, only one person on board was responsible for sorting out whatever mess I got into and that was me. The boat was pinned on it’s side by the boom on the backstay, the kite half full of water flogging at the masthead and the other backstay somewhere in front of the spreaders as the retaining elastic had broken and it was free to escape.
It took a while to sort it all out; waves were still slamming into the side of the boat and sending me flying across the deck. While taking the spinnaker down the tack line jammed and while trying to hang onto the flogging sail with one hand and untie a knot with the other I had my knuckles repeatedly smashed into the coach roof until the skin had ripped off everyone and in the morning my hand was black and blue like I had been punching a wall.
Once the spinnaker was down and the boat set back on course under white sails I repacked the spinnaker carefully checking it for holes with my headtorch, then re-lead the lines ready to hoist again.
That is the thing about single handed racing, no matter how badly the boat beats you up or how catastrophically you wipe out with the spinnaker you always have to be ready for the next hoist.
I decided to have some food and a sleep under white sails then to hoist again and hand steer through the rest of the night, still very aware of the consequences of breaking the boat at this early stage; I was totally unaware it was already too late.
When I came to re-hoist the spinnaker in the dark the spinnaker halyards appeared to be twisted at the mast and when I went forward to investigate I discovered the collar which makes up the lower spreader brackets was cracked right through on the starboard side, the halyards were trapped underneath and the spreader unsupported swinging fore and aft.
A cold flat feeling crept over me as I shone my torch up the mast; it felt like game over. I was still heading South for the Canaries and I briefly considered whether I could still make it, feeling making a stop in the Canaries would give me a better chance of staying the in race, but it was a crazy idea the minute I gybed that spreader would fold up and I would dismast. The only solution was to head for the Portuguese coast; I was around 60 miles offshore from CasCais where I know I would be able to make a repair and if I was careful I could get there on a port tack.
Mini’s have no means of communicating with the outside world other than our VHF radios and emergency equipment, which meant I was not able to tell anyone of my damage, to make any calls to arrange the delivery of parts or to find a local rigger. When I eventually hit the dock just outside Lisbon it was Friday lunchtime and I was very aware if I did not find a way to make a repair that afternoon there would be little chance until Monday morning. But I was totally unprepared, with no information about where I was or who to call which was irrelevant as I did not even have a telephone.
This time luck was shining on me; I was met on the dock by some storm bound French sailors who had been watching the race and seen my tracker so knew I was coming in. I frantically explained the damage to them asking if there was a z-spars dealer in the marina.
Whilst this was going on a softly spoken Portuguese man who had been listening in the background came up to me and said, ‘I heard your problem, I know a good rigger. He likes mini’s. Shall I call him?’ and within the hour Jorge the hero of CasCais had appeared, fixed my mast, removed the bracket and as we could not buy one or get one shipped in the required time took it off to Lisbon to have a replacement made.
I set off to find some change and a pay phone to ring the race director and let him know I was just stopping not quitting – this turned out to be quite a challenge – there aren’t that many people left in the world that use pay phones now.
Jorge by now had disappeared off to Lisbon to have a new spreader bracket machined for my boat and I spent a nervous afternoon, waiting for him to come back, not even knowing how to contact him.
Meanwhile I learned of the carnage that had been ripping through the fleet over the last 48 hours, both from the mini fleet and also the TJV double handed race which had passed along the coast just 24hrs before us. It was a cold comfort knowing the conditions had indeed been extreme and boats had lost rigs, and broken rudders. There were another four boats heading for Cascais behind me, the first being my friend Canadian sailor Diane Reid who had ripped the bobstay out from the front of her boat.
As night fell there was still no sign of Jorge, I decided the best course of action was to eat and sleep; pacing the deck waiting for my riggers to return would not make them appear any sooner.
I woke to footsteps on the deck and found Jorge and his crew already up the mast and fitting my new bracket in the darkness; they had provided me with unbelievable support and within 13hrs of arriving at the port I had rung the race director and let him know I was back in the race.