Dear my faithful followers, we have now reached the last and final Leg….
Leg 4 again started from the beautiful bay of Concarneau, but this time we had hardly a breath of wind and a heat wave 35 degrees to contend with. Finally we started and I got a great start and rounded the windward mark in a good position in the front group. About 3 miles out of the bay the wind started to completely die and there we sat, some minutes later, it filled in from behind and all those who had bad starts sailed to the front whilst we sat and watched. The wind then went round and within seconds the whole fleet was decorated with colourful spinnakers. As the race continued on and we crept along at under 5 knots the wind would die out in patches leaving you totally becalmed whilst your neighbour 50 m away would catch a puff and sail off into the sunset.
The race course was littered with seaweed, and the real good stringy feathery stuff perfect for wrapping around your rudders and keel so regular ‘flossing’ and poking with weedsticks was required along with mental concentration about where the wind was actually coming from as so light the instruments were telling crazy lies.
The wind also did delightful little circles, becalming you, filling in, then turning so much that you have to hoist the spinnaker to make any progress and then turning back forcing you to drop said spinnaker and then dying and the waiting would commence once again.
This delightful circular motion was rather taxing not only mentally coping with the changes and stresses of losing and gaining without much understanding but physically running forward to hoist running back, hoisting sheeting in, dropping, repacking, setting up the boat again, and again and again I think by sunrise I had done 17 hoists and very little napping.
The plus side of this crazy wind was after you suffered serious wind injustice if you waited a few hours and your time seemed to come and around the fleet you would go. But staying calm and not losing it altogether during this process was easier said than done and there were many shouts, screams and bangs of thrown winch handles carried through the still night air.
Adding to the stress was the race course was strewn with rocks and wrecks and without any noticeable wind in your sails the noise of crashing waves on the rocks just meters from you was enough to keep you awake and wishing for some kind of divine intervention.
The next morning I had wangled a good position and with some good spinnaker speed was working my way up through the fleet. This inevitably turned into an upwind and playing the shifts and getting to what I thought was the right side of the tide I thought I had got the hang of it but a massive pressure filled in from the other direction and on rounding the mark the tide was not doing what I was expecting and I painfully watched as 10 boats passed me. This was first meltdown point for me of this leg ,only dampened by the sight of Damien one of our French training partners who was miles in the lead on day one, rounding behind me, evidently been more thoroughly shafted than me and as I caught his eye he seemed to have it together and I decided to stop feeling so sorry for myself.
I then had a good nap and feed and then managed to capture a little puff which brought me up a few places another 10 or so hoists and drops we approached the notorious Raz de Sein a small passage up the western side of France, ripping tides and hidden rocks everywhere, we were swept through as the tide started to pump with us. Initially this was a pleasure, doubling my boat speed and with the sun setting on the rocky island the water was smooth and calm but then the wind followed the sun and totally left us. I went into this section leading a group of 5 boats and with another group just ahead it felt like it really wasn’t over. The ripping tide forcing us through the water the sails began to flap but not in a speed conducive way. I lost all steerage and with the water rushing past it felt like the boat was going backwards it was HORIBBLE nothing you could do, I soon fell out of the best tide and fell to the side watching all my competitors pass me. I was left to enjoy the horrendous feeling of drifting helplessly through. I hid downstairs and wished I was anywhere but here. There was nothing to do but put the autopilot on rudder mode ,keeping the rudders central, and get the anchor ready to throw out to avoid ploughing into rocks.
Our engines, before the start of every race are sealed – this means they put basically a cable tie with a special individual number on your propeller shaft and thus you can charge the batteries with the engine in neutral but not put it into gear without breaking the tie. We also tie this up with a strong rope to prevent any accidental breaking of the seal and the horrific time penalty it occurs. However whilst drifting with no control I decided to remove my preventer rope and leaving my knife next to the seal, readied myself to turn on the engine and get out of where I might end up.
The night was inky black but illuminated by the bright and insistent bright flashings of various lighthouses and the sound of rushing water, waves breaking on rocks alerting you to dangers in every direction, I really wanted to put the engine on and motor to England and be done with it all.
Miraculously for me there was a tiny breath of wind and although losing several more places in the meantime I was hugely grateful to again hoist my spinnaker and get out albeit very slowly from the rocky horror show that is Northern France and be finally off out into the channel and towards England. This however puts you straight into the path of the shipping lanes and I’m sure the tankers relish the sight of 43 sailing boats that are all named ‘solo sailor’ popping up on their tracking systems about as much as we do them.
The next day just settled into best position to get all over tan whilst effectively trimming the spinnaker we were suddenly encased by thick fog and with it a casual 20 knots, from bikini to full HPX kit in under a minute. Boat speed quadrupled and finally we were making some real progress towards the west edge of lovely England and the mighty Wolf Rock which appeared from the gloom. Along with the sweet sound of the beautifully British voiced Falmouth coastguard transmitting their weather messages, it was a welcome relief from the constant bombardment of French voices with unknown meaning.
On turning at Wolf Rock to head off along the southern English coast, the display flashed up with a terror inducing 202 miles to go until the next point but with the wind with us blowing from behind and finally a good forecast I was relieved to surf the waves and try as hard as I could to reduce the distance of the boats in front.
Passing the lumps and bumps of recognizable and well loved headlands brought back memories of the hours spent sailing there and with anguish passing them by and trying not to look too much for home where in lay just a few miles away.
The wind was kinder here, staying consistently from the west but presenting the dilemma of gybing along the coast and with the wind up to 24 knots and tide mostly flowing against the wind causing horrid short waves and presenting problems for every gybe and potential for broaching and wrapping
Finally just as the sun was beginning to set I passed the mark that send me back out into the channel and back towards France. Knowing this would be the last one we would see , it was extra beautiful and instead of wishing for the sun to stay I relished its disappearance over the horizon.
My skin had taken a bit of a turn for the worst and usually quite robust I had developed itchy rashes all over. I took this time to completely strip off and cover myself in talcum powder leaving the boat perfumed but looking like a bread factory but my skin much happier.
Once I hit the French coastline it was another lovely downwind sleigh ride 25 knots big waves and tide just turning to be with me the miles were gobbled up. Several surprisingly successful windy gybes and only a couple of broaches later I was cruising into the finish line at 15knots of boat speed and warned the finish boat was 50m off the beach and once through the line swift dousing of the spinnaker was required to avoid certain shipwreck.
Landing on the dock greeted by my parents, Hugh, Joan, the race director and many others was an incredible feeling. It took a while to be able to talk in coherent sentences to real people again and I’m sure the scoffing down of champagne and croissants helped greatly.
A huge thank you to all my wonderful friends, sponsors and supporters, it has been an incredible race but I couldn’t have done any of it without you all. It really did keep me going in the dark times knowing people were out there wishing me well.
It’s going to take some time to get over the sleep deprivation and mental disorientation but hopefully I will be back soon with details of my next adventure.
Lots of love Mary x