Its been just over one month now since the second and final start of the Mini Transat from Sada in Spain. Mini Transat yachts that finished the race are now all in Guadalupe and no doubt celebrating the awesome efforts of their trans Atlantic success. This years Mini Transat was grueling and unrelenting and only about half the original competitors made it to the finish. The figures stack up to prove the decimation of the fleet including three boats five boats lost or abandoned, approximately 10 dismasting, keel and rudder failures, and countless amounts of rig and pole damage.
Sadly my campaign fits into the above statistics and despite trying everything possible to stay in the race I was forced to abandon my attempts to finish the Mini Transat of 2013. I was quite deviated that I was forced to pull out of the race and fulfill my life long dream, so it has taken me up until now to write this post. Lets look at the campaign from the start.
The first official start from Douarenenz and the fleet was meant to race to Lanzerotee, but due to weather window delays the race committee decided to change the course directly to Guadalupe. This was very exciting as it would have been the longest race in Mini Transat history. I had a killer start in Dz, and shortly after the race was diverted to Sada. Three days later after battling high winds and big seas I was leading the race in the Series class, sitting close behind the new prototypes and matching their speed! With only 40nm to go before the new finish in Sada the race was canceled and the fleet was diverted 85nm back to another safe port called Gijon. The race committee then announced that the fleet would sail as an unofficial convoy back to Sada for the re-start.
The restart for the Mini Transat was from Sada on the 13th of November. Though the forecast was for strong northerly winds the race was postponed due to light winds. We finally got underway and had a beat up the bay of Sada to Punta De La Torella. As the wind veered and we rounded the point we were able to hoist the kites and reach towards the Isles de Sisagras. The wind started to increase as the day went on and by nightfall we were experiencing 20-25kts from the north. I bore away but remained on stbd gybe as I wanted to head west into more wind and be in a good position to make gains when the wind shifted to the NE. By nightfall I was out at the NE corner of the Finistere TSS and making fantastic speed. When the change came through I gybed and headed south down the boarder of the TSS surfing huge waves and averaging about 16kts, but surfing waves at over 18kts! I had never sailed the RG650 in these conditions and had to make a few changes to the pilot settings to adapt to the strong running conditions, large swells and high seas. The boat was performing fantastically and I was very happy with my speed and position.
I was pushing the boat hard – very hard! You need to push hard if you want to win the Mini Transat and I knew my competitors would be working just as hard as me. Through the day I had been predominately sailing with a reefed Medium weight kite, but when the wind started to pick up above 25kts I changed down to the code 5 with 2 reefs in the main. The boat was flying at speeds I had never experienced before in the RG. I knew I would be sailing faster than the other minis further to the east, and in a good position to take the lead in the coming 24 hours.
At approximately 1800 the wind hit 30kts and I thought it was time to drop the Code 5. I dropped the kite without incident. I went below to place a position on the chart and re-assess the weather prior to the 1900 radio sked. When I came back on deck I was supplie to see a large power vessel that resembled a big trawler at about 200m ahead of me. The vessel was not displaying itself on AIS, nor was it displaying lights required for a fishing vessel so I was happy I did not have to alter course to steer clear of any trawling lines. I took the helm and as a matter of caution slightly altered course to increase our separation but due to its close proximity it was hard to make any substantial difference. As the vessel passed clear I was surfing down a massive wave at over 18kts and I hit its wake. The RG650 816 became airborne, I could feel the rudders loose grip on the water below, and as I looked over the side I could see the water an unusual distance below the hull. My first thoughts was “Wow this is awesome, imagine if somebody had this on film” My second thought was.. OMG, this is going to hurt! The boat landed with the expected crash, but then there was a cracking sound and the boat nosed dived which I thought unusual. The boat picked up speed and was handing normally so I put the pilot back on and sat in the cockpit to listen to the sked and give the race committee my position.
After reporting my position I went below to pack the Code 5, and was horrified to find water in the boat almost level with the batteries. I began pumping out the boat like a man possessed, until I had go the boat almost empty, but it was evident that water was still entering the boat from somewhere. My immediate thought was the water was entering through the life raft hatch on the transom which had copped a pounding by the large seas. I crawled to the stern but found it dry. I began searching around the boat for the leak and finally lifted the chart table/battery cover to find the keel housing had been damaged and water was penetrating the boat around the keel bolts. I managed to ste
m the leak using my rubber Zhik glove, and immediately went back on deck to put in a third reef, and alter course towards the nearest safe port called Bayona. Once the boat was stable I went below to pump the water again and send out a Pan Pan urgency call to the race committee who were still in the middle of the sked to notify them of my concern for the keel and diversion to Bayona.
It was a challenge to overcome the issue with the keel as my focus for the race was still very intense. I tried to think if I actually needed to repair the keel or if it would be ok to continue racing, however with over 3000nm still ahead of me I knew that there was no option but to get to port and lift the boat. I knew that the time taken to make repairs and inspection would take me out of contention to win the Mini Transat however I was still opportunity to finish in the top third of the fleet if I made repairs in good time.
I arrived in Bayona at 0400, and by 1100 the next morning I had the boat in the slings to inspect the keel. Upon investigation I found three fine deep grooves on the leading edge of the keel indicating that I had hit long lines made of strong spectra, nylon or wire that were trawled by the fishing trawler. The lines had placed a great load on the keel and it was evident that repairs done to the boat in July the previous year when the boat had run aground had been weakened by snagging the trawlers lines at high speed. I managed to repair the damage and by 1600 I had the boat back in the water a
nd ready to rejoin the race. After leaving Bayona I sailed south west to get back into the stronger wind. The fleet leaders were now 100nm ahead, but I focused on the fact that there was still a long way to go and
with good tactics and sailing I could make up this distance over the rest of the race. By midnight I was back in the wind and making great speed to the south. The swell and sea had now increased considerably and the boat was performing well surfing down some massive waves at insane speeds. I was loving the excitement of the race, and the knowledge that I was sailing a lot faster than the boats ahead of me and making up some good ground.
The next morning the wind was still blowing over 30 kts and I was running square with two reefs and the storm jib up which I was trying to goosewing by leading it as outboard as possible. Waves were crashing all around the boat, and occasionally smashing over the side of the boat or over the stern and into the cockpit. The autopilot was working hard to keep us on course. The wind picked up more and I took the helm to steer the boat through the squall. The boat began surfing down a big wave so fast that the apparent wind basically took the wind out of the sails. As I had all the weight stacked to windward the boat began to lean to windward and consequently began to roll into a crash hype. The speed of water flow between the twin rudders created a hyper lock, making it very hard to move the rudders to break the hypertension and it was not until the leeward rudder came out of the water breaking the hypertension, however this also resulted in all the load being forced onto the windward rudder, and without warning the rudder snapped at the waterline sending the boat into one of the most amazing crash gybes I have ever experienced. When the boat gybed the wind gusted to over 35kts, and a wave smashed the side of the hull, pinning the boat over 90 degrees over and driving the top of the mast into the water removing all the instruments from the top of the mast.
With no rudder on the port side and the starboard rudder completely out of the water the boat would not turn around and I was pinned down with the mast now sitting just above the water. Each big rolling wave would hit the side of the hull, knocking the boat further over. Finally I realised I had no option but to drop the mainsail completely to enable me to regain control of the boat. Dro
pping the main is no easy task when the boat can not go head to wind and the boom in the water prevents the sail from luffing, but finally after about half an hour of wrestling the main I managed to get it down and regain control of the boat. I gybed the boat around and started to make my way back to the east into lighter winds so I could repair my rudder. I had not slept since prior to my keel repairs and now the weight of physical and mental exhaustion was intense. With reduced steering, high winds and massive seas I knew that I would not be able to re-hoist the m
ainsail so after deciding my course I went below to get an hours sleep.
When I woke up I managed with some difficulty to remove the broken rudder and took it down below to use it as a template to drill my spare rudder and prepare it for fitting. This was a tough job and I was very hard that I had decided to bring a good quality drill with me. By mid afternoon the wind had reduced enough for me to re-hoist the mainsail with two reefs, and I started to make a plan to replace the rudder. I was unable to gybe so knew that I would have to find some shelter in order to fit the new rudder. My log reads “New rudder made, attempt to fix it to the boat but sea too big and boat too fast. Try slowing boat and divert course but no luck (to fit rudder). Decide to try to anchor in lee of Cape Mondego to fix.
As I approached Cp Mondego I realised that there was no possibility of shelter, the swell was too big. My only option was to try to attempt the risky entry across a bar and in behind a breakwater at Figugira de Foz to make repairs. Going over the bar was nerve-racking, I knew I had only one shot at it and gybing back to sea was not an option as without a port rudder I could not sail on stbd gybe. I surfed a wave across the bar and managed to somehow get in behind the breakwater. I dropped my anchor and the sails and immediately began repairs. There was no time to loose as I was not sure how long my light weight anchor would hold. After two hours of pain and frustration I finally managed to get the new rudder to fit. I also took the opportunity to climb the rig to inspect the damage at the top of the mast.
In the mid evening satisfied with my repairs I set sail again, still determined to catch the fleet, and still fully focused on the race despite having had some serious problems which would have retired most yachtsmen days before. Even in the short amount of time I was behind the breakwater the wind had substantially reduced in strength. My new course basically took me on a rhumbline to Lanzerotee. I was further east that my original planning, but after looking at my options, this was now my best option.
By midday the next day the wind finally reduced and I was able to hoist the Code 5. Without instruments on the top of the mast I was unable to listen to the radio sked and so had no idea where the rest of the fleet were. The other problem I was now facing involved the loss of the wind instruments which are vital for the autopilot to work in True Wind Angle mode, therefore I could only set it on compass course, but with every cloud that passed the boat the wind would shift up to 20 degrees, and if t
he boat continued to sail the same course the spinnaker would get wrapped around the forestay. I tried sleeping for short periods between clouds, but it was very hard to time it right to allow me to get adequate rest, and I would wake up after only 15 minutes of rest to find the kite wrapped around the forestay. At this stage there was no other option. If I sailed higher the boat would broach or kite flog and I would risk breaking the spinnaker pole, so sailing low and risking wrapping the kite was my only option. Amongst all of these other problems my batteries were not holding charge, and I had to sacrifice sleep time to investigate the problem.
The next day things really started to look up. I was having an awesome time reaching with the code 5 and getting some great surfs. I began to play the shifts with the big clouds that rolled through, and was making some good ground, though I still had no idea of my position compared to the rest of the fleet.
The next morning the wind dropped to 10-15kts from the North, and I hoisted the full main and medium weight kite. I had been working hard with only short rests my hands were sore and swollen
but I was loving every minute of the sailing! Battery problems were now fixed and it was finally dry enough to play my MP3 player. Nothing like good wind, morning coffee and some good Aussie tunes to make for a fantastic morning! Later that day I climbed the rig to conduct another rig check. I found the forestay and Port D2 to be freed and had to pull myself out to the forestay to cut the frayed wires. While cutting the wires wind swung and the kite wrapped.. memories of the southern ocean flooded back, but thankfully I managed to unwrap and re-set the kite from the top of the mast and alter course with my remote control to suit the new conditions.
I realised that with no wind instruments or VHF, having freed rigging, and also not having a secondary chance to inspect keel repairs that I would have to pull into Lanzerotee to get these items fixed and try to find and fit a new wind wand. As the waypoint of Lanzerote was close to Porto Calero I decided it would be prudent to pull in to resolve these problems before crossing the Atlantic. On my arrival into Porto Calero I was surprised to find a number of other Mini’s, some who were making repairs, and others who sadly had to abandon the race. I was also surprised to find my friends on the beautiful Swan 90 SY White Lie who were on delivery across the Atlantic.
I immediately began to enquire about finding a new wind wand, vhf aerial and getting the damaged rigging repaired. Further inspection to the rig while removing the damaged forestay and D2 found that there was some other damage. The rig was obviously damaged during the previous weeks of harsh conditions and particularly the wipeout when the rudder had snapped. By the next afternoon I had sourced the new parts and my new wire rigging and other fittings required were getting made by Wez from Catlanza who was doing a fantastic job not only helping out the Mini sailors but also supporting the RC44′s and SCA volvo team.
Time was of the essence as the weather window to get across the Atlantic was closing with the approaching of a massive high pressure system. Once I finally had all the pieces together I set about repairing the rig. With everything set I made preparations to haul the boat over on its side so I could fit the new wand fitting, fix the VHF aerial and make other adjustments. I decided to winch the boat over on its side, which is standard practice in Mini sailing, however, when I attempted this I was severely lacking sleep and had not thought to adjust the new shrouds. When the boat was at approximately 45 degrees I notice the rig start to bend and released the haul down but sadly it was too late, the rig snapped above the first spreader. I was devastated but still determined to keep racing.
Not wanting to give up I repaired the rig. I found a J80 section in the junk yard up the road, cut it, welded a 2m section on the base, then end for ended the top section of the mast which was severely bent before welding in sheaves to supper the middle section of the mast. I managed to get all this done in under 24 hours thanks to the hard work of Wez from Catlanza and a massive effort by the crew of White Lie who worked with me through the night to repair the rig.
There is a time limit for port stays in the Mini Transat and time for me was fast running out. Somehow by 2200 the next night I had the rig stepped and could leave the dock scraping just inside this time limit. I went to sea and re-tuned the repaired rig and was at sea for a few hours working on the rig and re rigging the boat. I found that the rig was not up to standard to cross the Atlantic and while in an emergency I could have re-rigged the boat using the spectra line I have onboard, this was not an emergency as I was still within easy sailing distance of Lanzerotee. Adding to the decision to abandon the race was not having the opportunity to re-inspect the keel and check that repairs had been sufficient. I decided that from a seamanship point of view I had to return to port, and therefore I would exceed the 72 hours of port time. My race was sadly over.
The next week was spent cleaning the boat, organising transport and working with Diane Reid to build two cradles so we could pack our boats into containers and send them home. In itself this was a stressful operation, the race was over, I was exhausted physically, mentally and emotionally. Thankfully we managed to weld the cradles together, and by the following Saturday I was on a plane back home to Tasmania – a home I had not seen since July that year
This was the first time the RG650 was in these conditions so I learnt a lot about tuning the boat and correct settings for the pilot etc. Overall my speed was excellent, the boat was absolutely flying before things started to go wrong and I have no doubt that I would have been up there for a podium if I had backed off a bit (sailed with my brain instead of my balls) and did not break the boat.
The Mini Transat dream is still not over for me. I learnt a lot from this campaign about the boat and solo racing. While I am still in financial debut from my last campaign I still have the ambition and drive to work towards the Min
i Transat 2015. To enable me to compete I will need to secure substantial sponsorship and continue to focus this race and other races. We now have less than two years to prepare, so time is alrea
dy running out. Sponsorship needs to be found soon or RG650 816 will be sold, and along with it my qualification miles and races which are in themselves very valuable. With your help I can make this happen and win the Mini Transat 2015
Thankyou to all my sponsors and supporters for the RG650 AUS816 2013 campaign. Special thanks to Brett Perry from Katabatic Sailing and RG650 Europe, Nico Goldenberg from RYG Yacht Design, Nathan Quirk for designing the sails, the team at Zhik who provided my amazing clothing, thermals and foul weather gear, Boatbooks for proving the charts, Harken, Profurl, Doyle Rigging and everybody else who provided help, support and donations throughout the campaign.