UPDATE: This morning the Race Director posted an amendment regarding a postponement of fifteen hours to the start of the race from Sada to Pointe-à-Pitre. The new warning signal will be given on Wednesday 13 November at 9am. There are two reasons behind this new start: first, according to the race meteorologist, the fleet might encounter strong winds with a risk of winds gusting over 40 knots off Cape Finisterre. More importantly, the passage of a front overnight will cause heavy rain and very low visibility. To send a fleet of over 70 boats out at night into in a high traffic area where many fishing boats do not have AIS was an added complication in the circumstances.
While you wait, (and stay on the thread for the latest news), have a read of one of the most frightening accounts of solo ocean racing we’ve read in some time below. It’s from French Minista Arthur Leopold Leger, when last week he came within an inch of losing his life shortly after the start to the now-abandoned first leg of the Mini Transat. Extra special thanks to Europe’s best sailing site – Voiles et Voiliers – for the piece, to Anarchist “BitBrace” for the translation, and to Jaques Vapillon/Sea&Co for the photo.
Tueday the 29th of October: 5:45 am Douarnenez. It’s still dark out. I open the latest weather report. The system we have been watching for several days that will let us take the start of the Mini Transat is finally here. However the window seems even smaller then predicted; to round Cape Finisterre before the heavy weather we will need to give it everything from the start. I hope the Series boats will make it around in time as well… Maybe they wont and will get hammered, or will Denis delay the start again? Back to bed? Don’t think about it, its time to send it.
7.30 am, dawn. It’s blowing, the first boats leave the harbor. 709 and me are blocked in the end and we are the last to leave. These last moments are long, I am surrounded by my family which is nice, I see other competitors that are here alone, their families unable to come, or are waiting in Lanzarote…
Saying ‘farewell’ to my loved ones is an emotional moment, not much is said, not much is needed. We have all waited for this moment with lots of impatience. So much work, so much time, so much help, I think of those who couldn’t be here, thank you, what we have achieved is huge, even though our boat is small!
8.30, I leave the dock and the shelter of the harbor, and we are quickly in the thick of it, a steady 20 knts, swells, and occasional squalls, the start is going to be intense!
9 am, The start is off. I am at the extreme right end of the line, I start a little late because I don’t want to be over early, or involved in a collision, and most importantly I want to have room to tack as soon as I am over. Everything goes well and I am alone in taking the right hand option, giving me an added safety margin against collision.
After a few minutes, I tack and head towards the middle of the course, seems to be going well; even very well because I seem to be in the lead with the 2nd place boat crossing about 100 m behind me! A big squall with rain and a important gust arrives while we tack our way towards the mouth of the bay. Behind me is now Gwenole and his boat, Logways, his sail selection seems better suited to the building breeze, and he starts making gains on me, but we are still a ways ahead of the rest of the fleet.
Noon, We have covered 2/3rds of the bay, Gwenole and I are in touch, the wind drops a bit however, and I extend. It is now time to tack and lay the point of Raz. Gwenole and the next closest group continue on the right side. I find myself alone on layline to the Raz de Sien, positive for the moment, I even ask myself why they continue so far. They finally tack, and I am still happy with my position, they seem to have sailed much farther then needed. The minutes pass, and now they look very fast, their progress on the horizon is impressive. I understand now that they found a different breeze which allowed them to ease their sails a bit and accelerate. I have a good lead but is it enough to get me out of the bay in first place? Well no, just before I reach the Raz de Sien, Gwenole and another boat pass me, and the rest are right behind me. Still not bad!
Ahead of us the Atlantic opens up. Direction: Lanzarote
As soon as I am clear of the Raz, I hoist the gennaker, and we start to fly at about 12knts sustained. Our group of frontrunners start to spread out, some stay high while others turn down and to the south, I chose the middle option. For the moment, the focus is on boatspeed. It’s blowing about 20, and a nasty sea state with 5m swells. A new squall is approaching, and I finally have to douse the gennaker, but continue to go as fast as possible.
We are now in the middle of the afternoon, the squall is passed, but seasickness starts to set in, I force myself to vomit quickly but difficultly, I haven’t eating anything all day, but I just take a pill and redeploy the gennaker. I lost some ground while dealing with my nausea, and my closest rivals continue their attacks, so the gennaker is out and we are off.
The sea is powerful and the sky filled with big cumulus, behind us rainbows appear and disappear, nothing short of magical. The only downside is the firehosing on deck, not 30 seconds go by without a wave exploding in my face.
Dusk approaches, with 2 reefs in the main, one in the solent and the gennaker up. The wind weakens a bit. I hesitate to shake out a reef in the main so I finally decide to shake out the solent.
Before going forward, I ease the main slightly to slow the boat a little, I clip into the rooftop safety line, and unclip from the cockpit floor. I crawl on to the foredeck and loose the reef in the solent and start my return across the boat. At this moment, my back is to the wind and I have a hand on the lifeline, I feel the boat suddenly take off a wave top and I feel myself go up and over my hand holding the lifeline, I fall past it and that force of the boat movement and my weight make me let go. I land pretty much head first into the water, and feel my harness go taut while my life vest inflates. A fraction of a second later, I am on my back being towed by the boat still underway. Quickly I reach for the autopilot remote to put the boat head to wind. Shit, its stuck under the life vest. I struggle a long moment with the waves that smack my back, and regularly slam into the windward daggerboard with my shoulder. The leading edge is painful and I start to lose strength and hope. Everytime I get my hand under the jacket a wave rips it out.
After about 5 minutes of effort, I manage to grab it, and finally I am saved. I push the button and don’t let go, the boat is supposed to go head to wind. Instead it tacks violently. I feel myself trapped under the boat. The sails all backwind, and I am now stuck behind the stays. The boat is heeled over because the keel is canted to leeward and the whole stack below is to leeward.
The boat drifting quickly which traps my legs under the boat, I feel the lifelines cut into my stomach, the harness is still holding me forward, the life jacket keeps my head above the water; well, more or less out of the water!
But the situation isn’t much better than before. Impossible to pull myself from under the boat. A hope comes to me, even though the boat is mainly moving laterally, it still has some forward movement. I feel the tension in the harness, so I decide to attach my 2nd leash to the lifeline against which I am, while releasing the other one, this should push me to the back of the boat and hopefully release me from under the side of the hull. This works more or less as I thought because after considerable effort I manage to reach the stern. Then fatigue hits me and I stop moving. I lose hope for an instant, but realize that within arms reach of my left hand is backstay cleat. I pop it, it hoping that it will ease the main and flatten the boat somewhat. In the following second, I feel the boat right itself, I even stay hooked on the lifeline and am almost lifted out of the water. But I immediately crash back in.
In a big moment of despair, I realize that when I blew the backstay, the mast fell. I almost forget that I am in the water with 4-5 meter waves, exhausted, and starting to feel the cold.
I am now at the back of the boat and try to get back in the cockpit using the semi-step built into the stern, but I can’t get my foot on it. Its moving too much and I am just too tired.
Finally I decide to try and enter the boat using escape hatch on the stern. I open it and pull out the liferaft with much difficulty. Once it’s out, I have to remove my life jacket to get through the hatch, because inflated it is too big. But impossible to unbuckle it under tension. In hindsight I did have a knife within arms reach that I could have used to cut it off, but I didn’t think of it at the time… cold and exhausted, I start to capitulate and resign myself to the hope that someone passes close to me soon.
A few minutes go by, and I realize that the boat is listing and low in the water, the escape hatch isn’t closed. At the same moment I see that the starboard side is under water, so I slide over it and into the cockpit. I turn on my emergency beacons, and tell myself that it would be good to free the rig to protect the rest of the boat. Barely through the first stay, I am almost tossed overboard again. So I wisely crawly back into the cockpit and don’t move.
At the same moment I see the top of a Mini sail about 50 m away, heading straight at me. He furls his gennaker and I see it’s Tanguy le Turquais, who was in the lead pack of the series boats. He slows down and passes close to me. I learned later that when he saw the look in my eyes, he immediately called in a VHF rescue, then stayed at my side so they could find me in the waves.
Ten minutes later they arrive, and despite the conditions, put out a tender to come get me. It is night and I am happy to see them and feel the heat upon boarding the PSP Cormoran!
So a huge thank you to Tanguy, to Commander Lore of the PSP Cormoran and the rest of her crew! I spent the next few days in their company as we followed the rest of the minis. They were very attentive and preoocupied with the safety of the fleet, as to be as available as possible within the capacity of their ship.
I am now on my way to La Rochelle. Our boat waits for me in the yard Loctudy were I will meet Wednesday morning with the experts…. What next? We will see!
The lessons? The drysuit kept the cold out. The harness kept me attached to the boat. The lifevest kept my head out of the water. The rescue came when the situation was dire. If only one of these was missing, or faulty, I am not sure I would be writing these lines.