Class 40 sailor Alex Bennett with an account of what happened in the TJV and what prompted him and his crewmate to quit the race 15/11/07

Alex Bennett and Ifor Pedley on the Class 40 Fujifilm made a decision to abandon the Transat Jacques Vabre Race earlier this week. They have now arrived in Lanzarote. Before he headed back to the UK, Bennett sent an account of what happened?

Well, here we are tied up in Puerto Calero, Lanzarote. Not quite the end destination we had both expected and were looking forward to. However, as with so much in life, you make plans and goals and things don’t always turn out as expected.

The first four days of our race panned out very well with us in the top three heading out of the English Channel and into the Bay of Biscay. We were engaged in a gybing duel between several other Class 40 boats as we headed down the rhumb line and off the continental shelf into the Atlantic. About a hundred miles from Finisterre, the fleet were faced with a decision to either gybe off to the west of the rhumb line or to stick to the shortest course and shoot for our waypoint off the infamous Cape Finisterre.

We decided to keep pointing at the mark and continue on a direct course. This option turned out to be the easterly route. Many of the fleet as it turned out gybed off to the west – perhaps for a better angle to the wind when they gybed back onto a southerly route.

The night we rounded Finisterre, Ifor and I were most certainly pushing the button onboard Fujifilm. Code 5 and one reef in the mainsail with average wind speed of 30 knots gusting to 35 at times. Fujifilm was rocketing downwind regularly at speeds well over 20 knots. Big seas and darkness amplified the scenario into what we felt was a real ‘turbo’ situation. Water everywhere and the vision of water spraying out from the sides of Fuji’s hull illuminated by our head torches made us realise that this was what it is all about!

The feeling you get when you’re pushing a boat to the limit is quite an awesome experience. I always think you know you’re alive when you start to think – it’s so windy we had better get these sails off the boat, but then it’s getting way too dangerous to go up on the foredeck and take the sails down, but it’s way too windy to keep them up’. What do you do?

For us the decision was made when in the early hours just before we rounded the Cape the tack line on the Code 5 blew apart during a particularly big gust. We were going very fast at the time and all of a sudden, bang. This was our cue to get the sail down. Trying to furl it in 35 knots with a baggy luff quickly proved impossible and with the whole show flogging itself and the boat to bits, we decided to drop it like a conventional spinnaker.

As we barrelled downwind I could see Ifor on the foredeck undergoing a monumental battle with this code sail, which really needed six of us on the foredeck to tame the beast and subdue the power it was generating. There were only two of us though and I knew I had to go forward and get stuck in.

Trouble was that I was hand steering at the time, keeping the boat on track. The size of the waves was such that there was a real danger of the boat being laid over and gybing while we were both in the foredeck. All these thoughts run wild through your mind in a split second when you’re thinking the situation through. I was certainly relieved that we had Raymarine systems onboard with the new AST pilots as I pressed the auto button on the pilot control head. We were asking a lot of the automatic pilot system in those conditions, but I turned up the rudder response to maximum and went forward to help Ifor.

Twenty minutes later the fight was under control and the code sail was safely stowed below. Ironically we were still averaging 12 knots or so with just the main up! An awesome night of sailing and under the cover of darkness we enjoyed some awesome surfing until the following morning.

Once Finisterre was astern, the winds abated and during the following 3 days the fleet were entangled in a battle to get south towards the Canaries. With very lights winds affecting the majority of the fleet, we struggled to make significant headway south.

Initially the boats in the west made good gains on the boats to the east. However after 36 hours of very light and fickle winds we eventually picked up some favourable breeze from the north-east and started to head south again making up ground on the boats that had kept a westerly route.

So what happened then? For the last couple of days of our race, we experienced some issues with the generation of power onboard due to what we think is a problem with the alternator. The decision to pull the boat off the race track was a difficult decision to make, but one that was made due to several factors. Without power you can’t feasibly expect to stay up in the front with the leaders, these modern day race boats rely on electricity to run the navigational and tactical software, weather information and things like the automatic pilots and satellite telephones.

Without all of this you can of course still sail, but we entered this race to be competitive and with such a handicap this seemed to be an unlikely position to hold. The Canary Islands at this stage were only 12 hours away. Once south of them, there are no real quality ports of call other than the Cape Verde’s which I didn’t relish pulling into. So with all that in mind and the prospect of rocking up to Salvador as a back marker (something that’s just not my style) we decided to head for Puerto Calero in Lanzarote. I knew the harbour having been there before in 1999 during the Mini Transat race stopover.

So for us it’s back to the UK for now. We will stay in Lanzarote for the next two weeks making good the boat before setting course back to the UK in preparation for next season.