What is it really like to compete in the 5400 mile Transat Jacques Vabre? Yachting World's contributing editor Pip Hare and Phillippa Hutton-Squire embark on the Transat Jacques Vabre on Class 40 yacht Concise 2
The 42 double-handed crews lined up at the start of the Transat Jacques Vabre on Sunday 25th October to commence the 5400 miles journey from Le Havre, France to Itajai in Brazil.
While the start took place in light airs, the fleet experienced heavy weather, resulting in retirements, dismasting and even capsizes.
Alex Thomson and his co-skipper, Spanish sailor Guillermo Altadill had to be airlifted to safety after the new foiling IMOCA 60 yacht Hugo Boss capsized.
Take a read of Pip and Phillipa’s blog and find out what it’s really like to compete in the race, which follows an ancient coffee route across the Atlantic that was established in 1728…
Tuesday 24th November
‘We finished the TJV in the morning of the 22 November, in 9th position overall. ‘
We were battling to the end and finish only 1.5 hrs behind 7th position Groupe Setin, and 19 minutes behind 8th placed SNBSM. Right up until we heard SBBSM cross the line we believed we still had a chance of catching them.
It has been a full on epic race, incredibly demanding, never easy and very, very long. When we set off we did not imagine it would be four weeks before we set foot on the land again and certainly did not imagine we would be racing within sight of our other competitors so close to the finish.
Before the race as I am new to this fleet the other boats were just names, I did not know the skippers and had no idea how the course would play out. Over the last three weeks of the race our group of four boats have got to know each other intimately on the water, we have been watching each other’s every moves, speaking often about what the others may be doing, the boats have developed their own personas but still the skippers remained faceless.
When we arrived on the dock the first people to shake our hands and welcome us were the skippers from Groupe Setin and SNBSM, it was a great moment for me to meet these guys for the first time having been locked into competition with them for so long. Later the Brazilian skippers from Zetra joined us and all three teams had the same thing to say – ‘you were pushing us really hard, we sailed faster because of you’ – it seems no one wants to be beaten by the girls.
I am, of course, gutted that having been ahead for so long we ended up coming in 9th place but our competitors were worthy; we sailed as hard as we could, overcame what problems we had and at the end of the day lost out by what is a tiny margin over such a large distance. Our competitors did not try any less hard than us, they deserved their positions and it has been an absolute honour to have raced against such great, dedicated sailors.
Last night we had our post race party and a chance to catch up with all of the other teams (bar two that have already left) we sat in a bar on the beach, swapped stories, made plans and promises about what and where we would be next and generally revelled in our achievements.
Phillippa and I came into this race with, in reality, very little time on the water together. We both have a lot of different experiences behind us which put us in good stead.
As the race went on we started to perform better and better as a team, we pushed harder, sailed faster and made the most of every minute spent out there; at no time did either one of us let the other down, we learned when to and how to support each other in the best way and always with the end goal of how we could make this boat go faster.
For me, gender is not relevant to what we have achieved – we can both come out of this race with our heads held up as sailors exactly the same as our other competitors.
A massive thank you to Tony Lawson and Team Concise for the opportunity, support and belief in our ability to compete in this race; Team Concise continues to offer great opportunities to young up and coming British sailors and is a wonderful platform in developing our offshore talent of the future. But most of all thank you to Phillippa for choosing to sail with me as her co-skipper and for taking on the Atlantic and all that it has thrown at us with equal determination and passion to do well.
Sunday 15th November
‘We are running low on cooking gas. We tried making porridge on the engine last night.’
We have definitely now entered the drag race phase of the Transat Jacques Vabre. Our routing shows us a 949nm straight line south, with little variation in wind direction along the track.
There is only one tactic here, put up as much sail as you possibly dare and then keep steering hard, he who breaks boat, sails, crew or bottles out loses. That is a lot of pressure on over a near 1000 mile track, and with our competitors just a stones throw away from us on the water the heat is on to stay in the game.
It’ll be interesting to see how this all pans out. Theoretically the 3rd generation boats should show us their heels now and we will be pretty powerless, literally, to stay in touch with them. Groupe Setin are our closest rival now, being a similar aged boat but even then who has the most power at their fingertips will also rely on what sails we each have onboard to cover this wind range.
At the moment we are pushing it with the biggest sails we can, there is water flying everywhere and during the gusts the boat is trying to wrestle itself from our control. Conventional seamanship at this stage is screaming at us to take some sail down but putting in a reef though leading to a much more manageable boat also loses us a knot of boat speed so we need to lock in for the wild ride.
Meanwhile in the sweatbox down below the big spinnaker repairs are coming along. I have been steering in the morning and sewing in the afternoon, the sewing is harder going than the steering, it is so hot down below my head starts to go foggy quite quickly and my eyes smart from starring at that garish pink for hours at a time. I will have an estimate of how many metres of sewing I will have completed at the end. Answers on a postcard?
Along with our on the water race we are now racing against time to get in as fast as possible. We received news yesterday that the cargo ship which is supposed to be taking Concise 2 back to the UK will be loading on the 24th. Current routing does not put us there on the 24th and this ship may well be steaming out of the harbour as we are crossing the finish line. We are trying not to get stressed about this situation now as the 24th is still a long day off, though seldom have I known routing to go down in time.
We are running low on cooking gas onboard now too so are starting to come up with ingenious ways to cook our food. We tried making porridge on the engine with not much luck but are going to have a stab at heating ready cooked packet of rice and stew on there tonight.
At the moment we are barreling along with great speed towards the Brazilian coast which we will converge with tomorrow. We can feel the presence of the other boats, it is making me nervous with the competition still being so hot and when I am not steering every other glance is a furtive one at the instruments to check our progress. Only four days of this intense pressure to deal with.
Sunday 22nd November
The chase down to Cabo Frio, and surfing in torrents of water
I haven’t written a blog for a few days now, the pace in this final phase of the race has been as intense as ever, hours and days have merged and been totaly absorbed by steering, trimming, navigating and sail changes. Precious down time has been for sleeping only to recharge ready for the next burst of activity.
now with less than 200 miles to the finish of the TJV I have managed to snatch half and hour in the early morning sun to take stock.
The chase down to cabo frio was wet and wild, we chose a route inside the oil fields and heading into the night of the 20th November were flying with the small spinnaker up and sea state starting to build as the wind increased to 30 knots. As the waves started to build Concise 2 made the most of them surfing regularly at 16 or 17 knots and easily making our course between the land and the oil fields and we counted down the miles.
Night fell and we discussed what should be our cut off point for dropping the spinnaker, we still had no reliable use of autopilot on stbd tack and could we really hand steer it through the night without incident?
We set our dropping parameters to be one of us not able to steer, no moonlight or a consistent wind over 33 knots, the latter came first and though it was so tempting just to carry on as we were doing fine we resolutely dropped when we had a consistent wind speed of 34 knots and continued the rest of the night under staysail and reefed main.
Thisturned out to be a good call as the moon disappeared not long after and the wind through the second half of the night was a consistent 36 to 37 knots. We desperately needed to try and get some energy back for the morning.
By morning and after a couple of hours sleep i was feeling like a new woman, we hoisted the kite as sun rose in the ‘moderated’ 28 knots and Pip did the first shift, as we swapped the breeze again increased to 33-34 knots but in the daylight we held our nerve and I then took all the pleasure from a five hour helming session which has been already logged as one of my all time best sails.
The times when sailing an assymetric spinnaker that it is generally beneficial to arc the boat up and sail like an absolute lunatic are actually few and far between. Normally downwind VMG with it’s sensible shoes and clip board reminds you that though you might be going really fast in that direction, where you want to go is actually over there so fun is not always on the agenda.
For a couple of hours on Saturday morning the course the wind and the waves allowed me some proper lunatic helming. The boat was on fire as I was properly able to surf off one wave, then steer up increasing my speed to catch the next, which our bow would skip off with a gentle slap, bursting over the crest into thin air and chasing the next.
Speeds of 17 knots became the cruising average and while making breakfast Pip started to set me challenges saying,’ you can’t have coffee unless you are going at over 19 knots’. With that I hunted the first wave, surfed, bounced to the next then jumped and skipped between crests with the bow continuosly in thin air and the lightest of slaps as we made contact with our next victim.
The boat speed ramped up and up, the humming and screaming from the foils got louder and louder, the helm felt electric and as torrentents of water burst down the deck covering me, I was locked in, adrenaline pumping, biggest grin ever on my face; we broke through 19 knots at the third wave, then carried on to 20, 21.2 knots with me screaming over the noise of the boat,’ GIVE ME COFFEE’. Both of us were crying with laughter and the boat still charged on at 18 knots.
My new speed record that morning came in at 23.2 knots. That is my kind of sailing.
As predicted the richness of this last race to Cabo Frio died with the wind later that day, and we sat in a windless hole, waiting for the others to catch up and restart this 5400 mile race with only 450 miles to go. The contrast in conditions was the same in emotions, how could we go in a matter of hours from full on flying and pulling away from the competition to sitting with sails flogging while we literally watch Espoir sail up behind us in their own personal wind destroying a lead we had been fighting for days to keep.
Since cabo frio we have been at the back of this pack now in 9th place. We spent a lot of the day yesterday in sight of Espoir but finally lost them late afternoon. We are pretty much sailing blind at the moment. We have two possible systems to gain weather information onboard, one is via a satellite broadband connection which would allow us to access any weather source on the web, the other is via iridium email which confines us to requesting GFS model gribs via the sail docs service.
A problem with our computer has meant we are not able at all to contect to the internet so can only use sail docs as our weather source. This has done us well to date however the further south we travel the less reliable these files are and we have now got to the stage where after at least three days of completely incorrect weather information we would probably be better off splitting open one of our teabags in the bottom of a bucket and reading the weather that way.
Yesterday our routing told us to go far South, with the wind we had that didn’t seem right so we did the only sensible thing which was to stay close to the rum line. During the morning a 30 knot weather front passed over us, we had no indication this might be coming the grib had suggested 10 knots from the south east not 30 from the south west. Like this we feel lame, we can’t really plan, we don’t know what is ahead there is very little strategy available to us other than sailing the shortest course we can.
It’s a strange set of circumstances, less than 200 miles to go, 4 miles between us and our coveted 8th position and 20 to 7th. All we can do is keep focussed on sailin g fast and on the right gybe, maybe cross fingers for a bit of luck but I am willing to bet there are others in the fleet also with crossed fingers too.
Saturday 14th November
We were stunned and devestated this morning to hear of the terrible murders that were committed across Paris last night. That over 120 people could have gone out last night for a normal evening and been needlessly murdered is so hard to believe and why any living person could want to and feel justified in carrying out such an act is beyond comprehension.
This terrorist activity is against every principle of what it is to be a human being there is no justification for the murder of innocent people.
Out here we sail, we eat, we sleep, life is stripped down and simple, we can go about our business with the total freedom that the ocean provides us and are absolutely privileged to do so. Our hearts and thoughts are with all those who have been affected by these crimes and with France.
Friday 13th November
‘You could see nothing outside the boat. It was like sailing with a blind fold on.’
We have nearly been racing for three weeks and the competition is still as hot as it was at the start. Within our own little pack there have been multiple changes of position over the last three days and slowly but surely we are all aiming for the same bit of water and to arrive within a few hours of each other.
It is hard to believe that we still have 2000 miles of this race to go; it feels like the equator is moving away from us as fast as we can chase it. There is still so much more sailing to do.
The last couple of days have been tough, come to think of it, this whole race to date has been tough, but coming through the ITCZ is always a challenge and this time was no exception. We burst our way out of the NE trades on Wednesday morning and sailed straight into a wall of impenetrable black and brooding cloud. The light all around was dull and ominous and the wind dropped to nothing, during the rest of the day, each new head of cloud brought it’s own breeze and had us chasing off in different directions, or once even doing a full 360 to absolutely no avail. As night fell it started to rain and blow from the east under a total heavy covering of cloud.
There followed a hideous night of continuous driving rain, mixed up sloppy sea states and wind blowing between 20 and 35 knots. The cloud cover was so dense and so complete that all form or nuance of shade or shape had been removed from our surroundings, you could see nothing at all outside the boat, balancing was impossible as you had no idea of when waves were coming or gusts of wind. It was like sailing with a blindfold on.
The night seemed never-ending, requiring reefs in and out continuously and all to the beat of the driving rain. At 6am I started to look longingly west for any sign at all of the dawn. Eventually the world turned grey, then blue and we sailed out into an equally murky day but what appeared to be the start of the southeast trade winds.
We are further west than the rest of our pack and during the last couple of days have managed to climb from the bottom of the pack to the top, as different teams paid their dues to the doldrums.
Today is the first day we have seen the sun in a few and this morning a neat little line of cumulus presented themselves on the horizon, then made their way towards us carrying the new trade winds. The pack of chasing boats is now settled and we are in a white sail drag race to the Brazilian hump off Recife before we drop south.
We are desperately trying to hold off the chasing boats but the are coming in at a faster angle and with every position report the take a little it more out of us; our only hope is we hang onto them until we are all in the same patch of water when our courses converge and then the race can begin again.
When I am off watch I am frantically sewing up the spinnaker. This sail is going to be vital further down the track and so I have decided to reinforce every one of the sticky repairs by sewing round the edges. I estimate there is around 12 further hours of sewing to get through; I have already done 6. My fingers are a mess of needle marks. It reminds me a lot of my first single-handed voyage across the Atlantic when my sails were so old I had to sew them back together every morning. Times don’t change.
Monday 9th November
‘I have given up trying to stand when the boat is wildly leaping between waves at 18 knots’
I am exhausted! This race is turning into an epic that no-one predicted, we have been sailing now for 15 days and only today will we cross the half way mileage mark to Itajai.
We have had to inventory our food, check water supplies, ration autopilot use to ensure there is enough diesel to charge the batteries for another two weeks. Food is not scarce yet but there will be little to spare.
It is not only the number of days that seem relentless but the conditions themselves have allowed little scope to recharge our own batteries, we are hand steering as much as possible while the other person attends to keeping the boat in order, and sleeping where ever possible, during the day we are able to do longer stints on the helm, at night time we change more frequently and need to be sympathetic to each other’s different needs and levels of concentration in the dark.
There is only a very dim moon at the moment so when there is cloud cover it is hard to see the spinnaker or waves to steer, you end up squinting through the murk to find the outline of the sail, the instruments glow red close at hand but being fixated on them whilst steering can lead to a disorientation and disengagement with the sea all around you.
For some reason it always seems to kick off at night as well, sail changes galore, wind shifts, squalls. For the following two nights in a row we have gybed at night which takes about an hour from start to finish with both of us working to set the boat up, check and double check ropes and lines, perform the manoeuvre and then tidy up. Not to mention of course moving all of that gear down below.
The difficulties of doing all this in the dark are not straightforward, we must use head torches to find the right ropes but then that destroys your night vision. When it is cooler on deck we are wearing thermals and foul weather gear but the moment you move around or go below to move equipment it becomes like working in a steam room.
Going onto the foredeck wearing a head torch makes you completely blind to the waves coming at you so very unaware of how the boat is going to move. I have given up trying to stand and just crawl everywhere at night. It is not glamorous but I am still here!
Yesterday we made another one of those tactical decisions to go west. Yes, I know! Stop banging your heads on the table, it didn’t work out so well for us last time but we still have another 600 odd miles to get to the doldrums and just feel that there is more wind over in the west and we will have more options for where to cross the doldrums in a couple of days. The rest of the fleet currently looks to be following the line of the lead boat, which is still wallowing whilst I write. Cross your fingers for us!
The tactic for more wind paid off in spades in the latter part of yesterday afternoon and overnight as we are flying with our little kite up in 30 knots of wind.
The ride was incredible with the boat regularly surfing and holding 17 or 18 knots of wind for a time and bursting out of waves, bow completely in mid air only to leap from the next wave and carry on in mid air beyond that.
The steering required a huge amount of concentration, I got two 20 knot surfs but all the time with a knot in my stomach knowing if I get it wrong we will wipe out in a big way.
We sustained the pace for a good few hours and made the best mileage we could, but as the sun set and we contemplated a night of on-the-edge extreme sailing in over 30 knots, neither of us having slept much in the last 24hrs, we discussed whether we should take the kite down for a bit of a break.
The decision was made when a sustained gust came through at 35 knots sending the boat on a wild frenzied ride at 18 knots for 3 or four minutes; the sun had already set and the light was getting dim and it seemed like the decision had been made for us.
We dropped the spinnaker with a view to riding the strong winds to our gybe lay line bare headed while we both banked some sleep then gybing and rehoisting.
As it happened this worked out well as we made our layline in an hour and at the same time some sort of front passed overhead with the breeze dropping to 25 knots after the gybe. Kite back up and time to go again, but another night with little sleep and a lot of activity.
Today we are finally heading south in relatively stable conditions. We have allowed ourselves some time to let the pilot drive while we catch our breath and take stock.
One of the costs of the last couple of days has been the fact that through hand steering all of the time Pips and I have very little time to talk to each other other than when we are changing watches and one of us is really tired.
Good communication is so important when sailing double handed or you could end up with two isolated people who only ever cross over with each other and feel less and less part of a team. So this morning we sat and had porridge and tea together, we looked at the weather, discussed the job list and talked with each other normally.
We have been making an effort to do this at least once a day and it seems to be making a difference. Who would have thought sailing double handed that making sure we spent time together was going to be an issue?
Saturday 7th November
‘It’s exhilarating to be surfing down waves at 13 knots with an incredible display of stars on the horizon’
After another excruciating day of not quite getting the boat going yesterday, we finally found our trade winds just after the sun set and spirits were instantly lifted with the hoisting of our big pink spinnaker.
It had been a tough day, we sailed and sailed but never seemed to catch up with the wind that everyone else seemed to have. Like running for a bus but never ever making it. There were a couple of false starts where a promising uplift in the wind strength had us clambering to hoist the spinnaker, only for it to flog uselessly when up and have to be taken back down again. As the heat is building each one of these manoeuvres leave you in a hot and irritable state afterwards.
The relief when we finally got the spinnaker up and filled was immense, we had become unstuck from the windless gloom of the last few days and were ready to head south for real now.
We have lost a lot of ground, over 100 miles to every one of our closest competitors which is going to be hard for us to win back now, as conditions appear to be similar and the boats performing at similar speeds.
Solidaires en Peleton which had made a stop over for repairs in the Cape Verde islands is back on the course again, meanwhile SNBSM have caught up to within 20 miles of us on the rankings and their 3rd generation shape will be loving these downwind conditions.
La Conservateur has an unassailable lead and is currently lining up to take on the doldrums, it will be interesting to see what they have in store for him and doubtless the rest of the fleet will be keenly watching as they make their decisions about where to cross. Again we are suffering slightly from a lack of information around this with only grib files to aid our decision. We will have the benefit of learning from other mistakes as we watch the front runners go through though in reality, they will be a few days ahead of us, conditions will undoubtable change and tactically we need to commit to our spot from quite a way off. Last minute changing of minds is not something that works down there.
Last night was excellent for a sailing junky like me, the breeze grew and grew and by the early hours of the morning I was surfing down waves at 13 knots, a full set of stars on the horizon and that exhilarating, rushing amazing feeling.
We are now up to pace and working our way south, the chase is on. Phillippa and I are taking it in turns to hand steer to ensure we make the most of every opportunity to ride a wave and work our way down wind.
The weather is now properly hot, this is perfect trade wind conditions, sun on your back and the wind in your face; what could be better? Doubtless the way ahead will have more sticky patches but at the moment we are relishing the simplicity of this part of the course, there is nothing to do but sail fast. This is the prize.
Thursday 5th November
‘Today I have been choking down and enormous urge to throw all of my toys out of the pram’
I didn’t want to write yesterday. It was a dark day and I had no inclination of sharing it with anyone in the outside world. We made a bad tactical decision many days ago and yesterday we really paid the price for this bad thinking. Not only have we had to endure two days of wallowing with no wind and all of the torture that goes with that but we have had to watch the rest of the fleet in slow time catching up and then over taking us while while we were powerless to do anything about it. The pain has been a bit like having a plaster ripped off really slowly one hair at a time.
In our wind hole we have chased every prospect of wind, every tiny zephyr we have hunted down and sailed in whatever direction it might take us, just anywhere but here. Each time a new waft of breeze has come our way we have sincerely believed it was our ticket out of hell, the boat has leapt forward often at 10 knots, ‘this is it’ we have said, ‘here we come Brazil’ only to be dumped back in to nothing some half an hour later and wallowing again.
One of the reasons I have often cited for the attraction of short handed sailing is that the fewer people there are on the boat the fewer options there are to apportion blame. Your own effort directly brings you reward and your own mistakes must be taken on the chin.
In the mini fleet we had no outside comms, when I sailed into a wind hole there it was only my imagination that made me conjour up the conditions the rest of the fleet were experiencing, but as we have outside comms available on this race I can see for real just as anyone else watching the tracker the cost of mistakes.
The race now truly is in two halves; the first four boats through this high pressure are gone. We have no chance of catching them, La Conservatour the lead boat is the rich man that just keeps getting richer, they have sailed and outstanding race and are streaking ahead.
Pips and I have been dealing with the conditions as best as we can, always hand steering the boat, changing sails even for the tiniest glimmer of hope, eating, sleeping, just getting on with it. Di’s fruitcake has been offering us words of wisdom and consulation in the dark hours of the night – last night’s quote was ‘In sport integrity is everything.’
We still have the back half of the fleet to fight with. Overnight tonight we fell from 6th to 8th place and the two boats ahead of us are eating up the miles while we wallow. We are moving today, we have 3-5 knots of wind from the East and are ghosting our way south to try and find anything better.
I can’t say the last couple of days have been enjoyable; I have been choking down and enormous urge to throw all of my toys out of the pram and just not play anymore. I endlessly replay the tactical decisions made, when and why.
Every mental time frame I have put on how much longer we will be wallowing has been broken, then I make endless mental calculations of how far back we are falling on the fleet every hour we are struggling to move.
At one stage the ETA to Itajai on the GPS said 55 days. When the breeze comes it will be relief. I don’t think I need to spend anymore time beating myself up.
Wednesday 4th November
‘Tonight there is shooting stars galore, and the wind is soft and warm. It’s the most incredibe soulful experience.’
Pips and I have just swapped over helming and I have come down below from a cloudless star covered night, to listen to the water gently bubbling past the hull of concise 2 as we slip through the silky black water around us.
Having spent the last 24hrs banking every ounce of wind we could find and endlessly asking the question, ‘how can we make this boat go faster?’ we have finally fallen into the wind hole that has been holding the front pack back for the last couple of days and it is our turn to grind to a halt.
The wind just literally ran out; one minute we were barrelling along at 9 knots the next the boat had ground to a holt, sails were hanging loose and water was slapping against the transom. Knowing that this could be 180 miles of nothing we instantly re-stacked the boat down below to move every scrap of equipment onboard to the bows and into our light wind sailing configuration.
Moving the stack is becoming easier as we both get stronger on a daily basis, which is ironic as the stack itself is getting lighter- every time we finish and crush a bottle of water we let each other know that is 1.5 kilos less to move around the boat each time.
It looks like in the short term our hitch to the west paid off and we are once again back up in 6th position, but doubtless the light winds over the next couple of days will once again reshuffle the pack, with particular interest are the boats who have chosen to go east through the canaries – which have more miles to sail but look like they may pick up the breeze earlier than we do.
We are still pretty in the dark as to what is going to happen with the wind, working only from a grib file in an area of no wind and high pressure like this is pretty much impossible so we are taking the strategic approach just to get south in the fastest way possible and to try and understand where and how the new breeze will fill in. We can see from position reports that the front-runners are out of the other side and off again, another chance for them to extend their lead. We can only hope to break through as quickly as possible.
In the meantime, despite the fact we would rather be hooning down waves in classic trade winds we are being treated to a rather special night. it is remarkable to have light winds and no swell in an ocean setting like this, so we are able to make best speed out of Concise 2 and are not being tortured by the flogging and flapping that normally accompanies these moments.
To be on deck steering tonight has been one of those incredible soulful moments – there are shooting stars galore, the wind is soft and warm, everything is gentle and we are slipping along at a half reasonable speed. If i could turn my racing head off this would be a 100% perfect experience….. However some of us have places to go.
Sunday 1st November
‘My arms just feel empty and my sense of humour is bleak’
I feel broken. The last 18 hours have done their best to break my body and my spirit; it’s been nothing like the weather we have had over the last few days but instead last night having had an awesome day driving down waves under the big spinnaker and chasing towards a 300 miler, we sailed into a massive windless hole.
I just don’t know why. I didn’t see it coming, we were somewhere on the forecast chart where it looked like there really should have been wind but we sailed into a hold and stayed there all night and most of this morning.
You might think that dealing with light winds is easy by comparison to a good old gale but in my mind it is a million times worse. During the course of the night we have had nearly every sail up and down at least three times, we have sailed round in circles, we have listened to the endless flogging of the battens in the mainssail, we have been rained on, got wet and cold, changed direction multiple times and every time we thought we had got going the boat would just park up and stop again.
We have moved all of the weight around the boat countless times, forward, from one side to the other and every time we make a manoeuvre like this it takes another little bit of energy and spirit.
Neither Phillippa nor I slept much last night and this morning when I go to hoist a sail or pick up a bag of water to move my arms just feel empty. I am operating in a slightly hazy slow motion world through lack of sleep and my sense of humour is bleak.
Position reports this morning confirmed our worst fears – this has been our own personal hell hole – all of the gains we fought and worked so hard for have gone, the sea is playing games with us.
News continues to roll in from the rest of the fleet – Hugo Boss has been abandoned! The others in our class that have had to pit stop are finding their way back out again, good news for them and bad for us is it looks like the whole of the 40 fleet is on track to be held up for days trying to get past the latitude of the canaries.
The forecast is bleak and while we are flogging and slopping around it is all to the gain of those making a pit stop.
We have now finally found some wind and with it the stability to allow both of us to get back in track with sleeping, it is slightly warmer now and I have let my feet out of my soaking wet boots for the first time since Sunday. It is not a pretty sight.
Over the next few days we have more and more light winds on offer so I in particular am going to have to dig deep and try hard not to exhaust myself trying and trying to move forward in impossible conditions. The problem is I have always been a heavy weather girl, give me the big waves and the grrrrrrr any day.
Saturday 31st October
‘This is the best feeling on the planet’
We are having an amazing day today. We finally popped out of the bottom of our low-pressure systems and slowly the wind has been working its way round to behind us.
Last night we had an amazing ride under white sails only, the waves were still big and the wind still blowing so we started to surf south and pick up the pace. At one stage Phillippa hit 22 knots under one gust though it is in dispute if she can claim this record as the pilot was driving.
By the morning we were able to set the code zero and then finally change to our bright pink hedkandi enormous spinnaker.
We have worked really hard to stay on the pace, driving the boat, not being lazy about stacking equipment and changing sails and we were delighted to find out that we’ve moved up the rankings to an incredible 6th overall. OK, it is still really early days in the race but this is way better than we could have imagined it is so gratifying to find out that hard work does pay off.
Last night we celebrated leaving the low pressure by breaking out a piece of vacuum packed home-made fruit cake that had been made by Di, Phillippa’s Mum. Each piece she had made had a word of wisdom attached, last nights was about the wealth of a smile. The cake was absolute mana from heaven, rich, moist and really hit the spot for two tired and bruised sailors. I ate mine in tiny little bites to make the most of each morsel. Small things do make a huge difference.
Sailing under spinnaker today I had for the first time got the feeling of power from this boat that I have been looking for so long it was an absolute pleasure to steer and I felt like I always do making miles in the middle of the ocean under spinnaker – that this is the best feeling on this planet, the endless nature of the waves and water as far as the eye can see; go where you want, go as fast as you want, this feeling makes all the uncomfortable physical demands of this sport so totally worth it.
Friday 30st October
‘We are drenched, bruised and tired’
The past four days have been as tough as you might well expect for a yacht race leaving across the Biscay in late October, this is after all the Transat Jacques Vabre!
Days, is actually completely the wrong way to describe how time has moved on as there has been no defining moment which has ended one day and begun another; instead hours have just merged into one and the way south has been paved by never ending greyness of sea and sky and a cycle of weather systems which have tried their best to break us.
We always knew we were heading out for a pasting, but as in the admiralty notes to tall ships captains from centuries ago the advice is still the same when trying to clear the Biscay at this time of year, ‘make westings at all costs!’
The cost to us has been days of the boat pounding and slamming of waves, a deluge of water constantly rolling down the deck from one direction or breaking through the cockpit from the other. We are drenched, bruised, tired but growing stronger every day. The only damage to the boat so far has been through the repeated and hard slamming as the boat launches off a wave at full pelt into thin air and then slams down onto the next wave which caused our electrical switch panel to pop clean out of it’s housing over the chart table pod as all four screws just pulled out.
Luckily I was down below to notice catch it and how it is held back in place with four industrial over specced moster screws – that wasn’t an easy job, balancing in the middle of a bucking boat in 30 knots of wind trying to drill holes over your head.
Other boats have not faired so well and we are hearing of multiple retirements and pit stops. When we eventually get to a more settled sea state we will need to do a full rig and boat check to make sure we too have not suffered any damage.
The range of conditions we have seen has been never ending and demanding on a crew of two- it would have been easy to just reef down, and settle for an easy life but in order to keep in the money we have had to drive Concise 2 through this weather, hand steering as much as possible has really made a difference as you can actually see the waves coming and steer over or through them rather than just crashing our way through with the pilot.
Yesterday I hand steered for eight hours while we negotiated an aggressive little front. At one point there were gusts coming in which were around 15 knots greater than the mean wind speed and from a completely different angle.
The gusts were so aggressive I could actually hear them coming, when I heard on I would have to steer the boat hard up into the oncoming gust before it arrived to avoid it from knocking the boat flat, when it was gone steer back down hard to course to avoid tacking. I have never experienced quite as nasty a little front as that before- I’m sure there must be a technical name for it- I gave it a name that is not publishable. As we passed through the back of it the whole sky went red illuminating the decks and the sea all red. It was eerie and unpleasant so I was almost glad of the 40-knot squall with driving rain which signaled it’s end.
We have found a good rhythm onboard, one of us is on deck getting a soaking whilst the other sleeps in foul weather fear on a bean bag down below ready to come up if needed. We are eating and sleeping well but the most uncomfortable thing is our clothing. After four days of total drenching my bottom half is no longer keeping any water out.
Crawling up the deck to drag a sail down while being continuously drenched by wave after wave allows the water to get in everywhere. My mid layer has been drinking up water and is totally sodden, I permanently feel like I have just got out of a swimming pool after having jumped in with all my clothes on.
I am wearing a jacket with dry seals on my top half which is better but the rubber and salt are starting to burn my skin now and the jacket is getting water logged and really heavy. There is no point in changing though to get another load of clothes completely soaked so like this I will have to stay until the weather becomes a little less full on.
Tuesday 27th October
‘Concise 2 is a wet boat, you are being instantly hosed with litres and litres of water at a time’
I’m going to keep this short as we have a bit going on out here, but hello from a wet and wild Concise 2.
It’s kind of ironic that we started the Transat Jacques Vabre as a driftathon and I feel so sorry for all the people who turned up to see the spectacle of multis, 60s and 40s mixing it on a short course and were treated to a boat park.
Well it’s certainly not like that now. The last 48 hours have been a build up to this which is us bashing our way through the bottom of a low pressure system in 30+ knots of wind, freezing squalls and messy aggressive waves.
The strategy from the start has always been to head as far west as possible before being clobbered. The leaders of our fleet have been heading just north of west for the fastest wind angle and must been spanking their boats like crazy to try and get round the centre of the low.
We with around half the fleet have taken a more conservative route to allow us to settle into the race and try not to break anything early on.
Concise 2 is a wet boat. When you step into the cockpit you are being instantly hosed with litres and litres of water at a time. The full force of a wave rolling down the deck will push you sideways out of the steering position so one arm needs to be anchored round a stantion and always harnessed on.
Down below we are set up well, every ounce of weight on the boat is on the high side and we are sleeping in our foulies crashed out on a bean bag ready to leap into action should the other one need us.
As I am writing we are bouncing over some big waves, the boat is launching into thin air and then crashing down hard. On the bigger waves I am actually being thrown into the air so it’s a good idea to stand up when you hear a big wave coming and take control of the situation.
In a couple of hours we should meet the wind shift which will allow us to finally go south. All of the boats kit, which must weigh around 500kg must be moved down below from one side to the other while we are crashing around. Well that is going to be fun isn’t it?
We are fine, finding our rhythm and dealing with what ever is thrown at us. We were gutted this morning to hear Team Concise has had to head for Ireland with damage. It is just gutting for them after so much preparation.
We are glad to be out here, keeping it steady and dealing with what ever comes our way.
Sunday 25th October 0800 GMT
Race start: 1330 GMT
I slept on the boat last night – well if you can call it sleeping. I lay on a bean bag with a million things whirling round my head. Lists and thoughts and imaginings of what the next three weeks at sea is going to bring.
The forecast is intimidating. It would be a foolish person that looked at an incoming low pressure like the one we will encounter in a day and a half’s time and didn’t get that feeling in the pit of their stomach. Concise 2 is a strong and well prepared boat, of this I am sure but the chances are we are going to see some full on conditions to test her out early in the race.
The noise in the port started at 5am – Monsiour French announcer who has been the sound track to our basin lives for the last week started to chat at 5.30 as the first of the multi hulls got ready to leave.
By the time we were off at 0800 the dockside were already lined with French well wishers. The crowds on the pontoons saying good bye were thick and the past weeks build up is definitely coming to the point of explosion.
The start is all 44 of us en masse – we have one line with a French military vessel as committee boat in the middle, multi hulls to one side and mono’s to the other. A short 10 mile course along the French coast and then we are off. I will be blogging and sending pictures throughout the race to share our experiences as we take on the 5400 mile legendary Transat Jacques Vabre.
Keep checking back at yachtingworld.com for Pip’s updates