Dear loyal followers, I have just got home and I am starting to recover, from what was my attempt at the first race of the season. Sadly it did not end well but there were some pretty interesting bits along the way.
The race started out really sparkly and with a nice 12 knots blowing I ambled across the start line, slightly confused by the flag protocol that was going on onboard the committee boat. Staying close enough to the group of boats at the committee boat, I positioned myself right next to the winner of 2015 solitaire Yann Elies, and copied his every move – my new tactic for the season.
I managed to wriggle my way to the top mark in a pretty respectable 10th position, and just on fellow Brit Alan Roberts hip. I clung on like a limpet and held my boat in position there for many many hours as the boats bounced over the waves.
We were sailing upwind and as the sun began to set an enormous black cloud engulfed the fleet and the wind began to rise.
I had spent the previous day and night dreading what could go wrong over the course of the race, unusually the different types of weather forecast all agreed so I was braced for the worst and had already planned for everything that could go wrong and how I would handle it.
Potentially a sport psychologist could have a field day with me here, but I prefer to be mentally prepared for the worst and then pleasantly surprised when it comes to sailing conditions.
When we reached the windward mark, after an enormous 52 mile upwind leg, the wind was up at 27 knots, pitch black and raining. The next leg was a long downwind with the potential of several gybes around various rocky patches littered all over the race course. With winds expected of up to 40 knots this was a rather scary concept.
In the daylight, sailing to me still seems more natural, I am agile like a gazelle, racing around the boat, but strong and brave like a rhino knowing what needs to be pulled when and where. But as soon as the inevitable darkness descends, I become like a staggering baby deer with wobbly knees. Bumbling about, unable to see what coming, you are thrown around the boat, blind to the colour of ropes and potential dangers, everything around you is black and all you can do is feel the boat being smashed by the waves and then react afterwards.
The idea of gybing when its howling is scary because there are many things that can happen.
- Broaching (keelboat capsize) – you get wet feet and lots of flapping incurs.
- The Spinnaker pole stuck on the wrong side and snap it – v poor downwind speed there after.
- The Spinnaker pole stuck around the rigging and break the mast – ultimate game over disaster.
- Wrapping of the spinnaker around forestay (front wire holding the mast up) – very hard work to undo, involving balancing on the bow whilst boat out of control, pulling with all your might, on bit of cloth, high potential for man/lady over board.
- Or total success everything goes well and you sail around whole fleet as they are flapping and capsizing around you.
And scariest of all is that throughout my previous year of Figaro sailing I had just never experienced these conditions in the dark.
That being said, rounding the occasionally flashing white windward mark, surrounded by boats, there was no question of not hoisting a spinnaker.
The boat took off like Red Rum at the start of the Grand National, and we were flying through the miles, smashing through the waves, white water pouring over the decks. Unable to see anything coming towards you, you have no choice but to sail by feel, reacting to the boat as a big gust accelerates you and enormous waves tip you down into the trough of the next one in front. I was braced against the side deck steering straight from the main tiller bar (and I’m not a fan of this phrase but its never been more apt) absolutely shi**ing myself.
At the Figaro’s top speed of around 17knots everything is squealing and moaning with the pressure. Many times the whole bow disappeared in white spray covering me and washing everything down the boat.
In the pitch black inky darkness all you can see are the tiny little lights at the top of the every boat’s mast, prancing about in the waves. When you are dead behind someone the light is white, and when you are on their left side the light is red and right side its green so every now and then the light in front would change from white to a colour as they hit a big gust or an awkward wave and their boat spun into a broach. The aim was always to be in a position that you could avoid piling right into the back of them and ideally sail on past until it was your turn to get wet feet and do some flapping.
It was impossible to leave the helm in this conditions. I’m not sure what the pilot setting for 30 plus knots and ridiculous waves is, but every time I tried something the boat just went into a spin and required some quality human recovery and swearing session. This made it intensely hard to check the nav, or get a snack and go to the toilet, absolutely no chance. It being the early hours of the morning now and having been fully at it for over 12 hours I was starting to feel sleepy, each time with the slight nod of my head I would be jerked awake by the boat crashing into a wave or almost slipping into a gybe surging my body full of adrenaline once more.
Soon all the lights ahead were crossing my bow and hence I could tell they had gybed and it was my turn. With the wind now up to 32 knots I had already decided I was not even gonna attempt a gybe with the spinnaker up but would instead do the calorie burning and more timely manoeuvre of dropping, gybing and rehoisting. preparing for the manoeuvre by eating a whole bag of slightly damp and salty jelly beans that were left in my pocket. I performed the manoeuvre well, it wasn’t that quick but it was mega safe and soon I was up and going again, having sailed past many other lights in the inky rainy haze.
In less than a quarter of the time it had taken us to sail up wind, we reached the turning mark and after a quick jib peel (not quick and very wet) we were turning onto the next leg. In the routing before the race, we had identified this as a leg where we might get a little nap in however the wind had changed and it was an upwind slog once again. Being slammed into wave after bone shuddering wave was not conducive for sleeping or again making the boat go fast on pilot mode.
Due to this nasty wind shift the next turning mark required a gybe and head back straight back into oncoming traffic, whilst hoisting the kite. When, as each of the little lights ahead of me rounded and turned back I had to make a few alterations of course to avoid the boats ahead.
I rounded, gybed and went onto the bow and braced onto the bow, with the wet heavy spinnaker in one hand I was just freeing everything for the hoist, when I looked up and three boat lengths from me, appearing from out of the darkness was a boat.
Looking up I saw the big numbers of 23 on the bow of this boat and screamed, coming directly at me, bow to bow I already knew it was too late. I desperately scrambled on my chest for my autopilot promote control but there was nothing to be done.
My final second change of the course of the autopilot meant Hugh hit me about a metre back from the bow, there was an earth shattering crunch and the boat span up into the wind. Everything flapping and slamming in 30 knots of wind I ran back through the boat. My mast was still there, there was a hole at deck level, although big and had penetrated through to the inside, it wasn’t going to sink me, immediately anyway. The other boat had hit my kicker on the way past blowing up the block from the boom and severing the rope holding it together.
Without a kicker in this much wind I couldn’t turn the boat downwind without wrapping the boom around the rigging and potentially causing greater damage and with another 80 miles upwind to follow in these conditions with hull damage of unknown severity, I decided with a heavy heart to call it a day and retire from the race.
I spoke to Hugh via the radio, both alive but shocked and devastated about what had happened, I assured Hugh I was OK and that he should carry on with the race. Made of seriously hard stuff Hugh’s boat was unscathed and I was left to drop/wrestle the mainsail down and under jib head back towards the port of Granville. On approaching the marina I was joined by several other boats, the conditions injuring boats and people and everyone had battle stories to share.
Very disappointed and sad to have both retired and been injured by a boat and that of my boyfriend no less at 4am on my birthday. This was possibly up there with the worst outcome of all.
Reaching the shore, I was caught on the dock by a team of helpers from the yacht club and the wonderful Pistol Pete (Alan Robert’s preparateur) who found me a shower, a bed, some food and donated his clean clothes for me to wear. Whilst making me laugh, force feeding me beer and a cake complete with a birthday sparkler.
To plan it did not go and birthdays its up there with the one when my sailing loving Grandfather died on my birthday but on we must go.
After the application of a lot of sikaflex and duck tape and a few days tinkering waiting for the storm to pass I safely delivered the boat around to the boat yard capital of France and met a lovely French boat builder who has promised to make 21 as good as new and ready for the next race.
So now a little chance to recover and prepare for the next race.