Yachtswoman Pip Hare learns some key lessons on her Mini Transat Race qualifier

Read Pip’s previous diary entry here.

Wednesday 9 March 2011 – Wallowing home

Last night, as I was powering down to the Barcelona turning mark under spinnaker, all was right with the world.

I had made a great time around the track to date, it was simply a question of round the mark and home; I had already visualised my finish, sometime late today, and decided that though I was close to the fastest course time for a series boat (7 days and 6 hrs-ish I believe) it was not quite in my grasp, but close enough to gain some satisfaction. Happy Days.

However, my stunning ability to visualise success did not quite match up with my total inability to tally up what was actually feasible with the current forecast and I have to admit this has lead to a foolish amount of disappointment today.

Key learning point – in order to sail fast, there must be wind!

The Barcelona turning mark is in the approach channel to the port, and I arrived there around midnight under spinnaker and pretty exhausted, having still not managed to catch up from Big Monday.

The return course was going to be upwind and I desperately needed some sleep so took an offshore tack to get away from the ships and the annoying beep beep of the radar target enhancer.

A couple of miles off the coast, I felt secure enough to put in a serious nap. The boat was going well and I knew from the way I was feeling a quick 10 minutes would not do the job so I set an alarm for a couple of hours.

I woke around 4 in the morning, from a very deep sleep, hearing the radar alarm. I ran up on deck; there were no ships around, but no land around either.

The wind had died a lot, and we were bobbing along at 3 or 4 knots, with an unpleasant swell knocking the breeze out of the sails and the boat of her course. Not my favourite conditions at the best of times.

I tried tacking for the shore, but the tacking angles in these conditions were huge.

A quick plot on the chart confirmed we had made hardly any ground up the coast and if current conditions stayed it would be a mammoth trip back to La Grande Motte and I would be lucky to get there by Friday morning.

I had totally underestimated this last leg of the qualifier, being so buoyed along by my great progress to date; to bump into these extra days on the water as a reality was quite a shock to the system.

When morale is that low, there is only one way to deal with it; tea and chocolate.

I must say that tea stocks on the potting shed have dwindled considerably during today, as ongoing therapy has been required, with every further hour the breeze did not fill in; but now having turned the corner into the golfe de lion and effectively on the home stretch to La Grande Motte, big spinnaker flying, morale recovered; I can confirm the great restorative qualities of tea!

I have a light wind night to get through, but it should all be downwind, with any luck I should be tied up and getting the Capitanerie to sign my logbook around lunch time.

The Artemis Offshore Academy are racing in the Figaro’s today; it will be one of the indicator races, to decide who eventually gets the Figaro scholarship this year.

They set off this morning into not much breeze and are heading down towards Marseille on a 180 mile course; I know we will all be working hard tonight trying to find that extra 0.1 knot of speed in what little breeze we have; them, trying to get to the start of the Solitaire, and me trying to get the finish of my qualifier.

This time, I think my visualisation is a little more realistic, less marching bands and civic receptions, more me nurturing every ounce of speed out of the spinnaker, right up until the finish, and quietly arriving, very tired but very content with the world.

Thursday 10 March 2011 – 28 miles to go

I have sailed through the night following the breeze where it took me, first under spinnaker then reaching with the solent, and now I am beating into a gentle northerly breeze back towards La Grande Motte.

This last leg of the qualifier has been a tough one, seemingly with the end so close, it is taking forever to get there and to avoid frustration I have just had to let go, and accept the fact that we will arrive when we are ready and not before.

This is sailing after all.

Now is a good time for me to reflect on the last week, to think about what has happened and what I have learned; as I know when I hit the shore more immediate and physical actions will take over and I will leave myself no proper time to think.

The boat is looking good, both on deck and down below, there are few leaks; all of which have been easy to identify and will be treated to some Sikaflex over the next couple of days.

Most of the water that came below was either on sails or on me and my system of keeping everything in dry bags and boxes seems to have looked after everything. The main lesson to learn here applies to every aspect of this boat; that is that laziness does not go unpunished.

I learned pretty quickly that when I have finished with an item, I have to meticulously put it back in the box or bag where it came from, and though this makes a 20 second job into a 5 minute one the consequences of not doing it are wet, broken or lost items that then cannot be used again.

My system of stacking below worked reasonably well, though I need to make up a series of short strops that I can tie across the ends of the bunks to stop boxes and bags from sliding their way forwards as the boat slams through waves.

For me stacking itself is better done with several smaller boxes rather than one large one, as when the boat is cranked right over and pounding through seas and I am tired and cold and wet, it is quite an effort to get a big box up to the high side and quite easy to get pinned underneath the same box as it comes crashing down towards you on the low side.

On deck I am pleased to report very little breakages. There is wear to some of the running rigging, which I will take photos of and send to English Braids who are supplying my campaign with cordage in return for a hard and unforgiving test bed.

My major loss this trip was the storm jib. Very silly really and cost me a Solent as well.

The storm jibs on mini’s are racing sails, and used rather as a number four than a storm jib. Quite early on in the qualifier, I went to change from a reefed solent to the storm jib. It was dark and there was a punchy aggressive sea off the French coast.

I took the sail up to the foredeck under my arm, unrolled it to clip on to the baby stay when a wave threw me up in the air.

I came crashing down onto the deck, landing on the jib, which is pretty new and still has it’s shiny coating. I then surfed the jib down the side deck to a point where I was stopped by the guard rails but the jib was not.

I just caught a glimpse of bright orange being carried off on another wave, and that was that!

I think my biggest lessons this week have been in just spending time on the boat, sailing it, pushing it, pushing myself and seeing how well we worked together.

I am really pleased with the ease at which I have slipped back into my single handed regime, napping is not a problem, and I quickly found the driven person that will not give up even when dog tired, and will not allow herself to rest until the boat is taken care of.

One useless piece of kit I bought with me was a sleeping bag! Quite when I imagined I would be snuggling up in that I cannot think!

There is a philosophy of looking after yourself first and the boat second in solo sailing, but I am not sure I subscribe to that. The fact is that the boat cannot look after itself and if there is a problem it must be dealt with, no matter how cold, tired, hungry you are.

Problems left unattended will grow to be bigger issues, and if you want the boat to look after you, you must look after it first.

A couple of areas I need to improve on are management of my eating and my general strength and fitness.

Eating has always been a problem for me as I lose my appetite when pumped full of adrenaline, so I need quick and simple ways to get calories in without having to pay too much attention. I am happy to say a possible solution is on the way in the form of Crew Fuel, who have offered to work with me for the season supplying hi energy drinks and snacks aimed at maintaining a constant level of energy and electrolytes and to stop the crashes.

As for fitness and strength, there is only one way to increase that.

No doubt about it the mini is a very physical boat to sail, the motion alone, requires your body to make constant muscular changes, just to stay standing or sitting in the same place.

The boat needs to be worked, it demands your attention every moment and for that you need to be fit.

I normally have a reasonable level of fitness and know I am off form at the moment, due to a bicycle accident I had in the New Year, which stopped me from weight training and any heavy exercise over the last two months. I have felt the price for that in my burn outs and recognise I have a lot of work to do before September, both cardiovascular and muscular.

The spinnaker work hoists, drops gybes have continued to progress, I am slowly finding where the limits are, how far I can push, what is too risky and what is worth the risk. All this experience needs to go in the memory bank to allow me to make the best tactical decisions while racing; as I can only know from having had the experience that 30 knots with the little red kite = wipe out!

The big breeze sailing was out of this world. I have never sailed a boat so alive and exciting, that feels so powerful yet has no weight. I have to say Big Monday was some of the most thrilling sailing I have ever done in my life and I cannot wait to get out there again.

Upwind in big breeze I have also learned a lot. I have learned I can more than just cope.

Time spent setting the boat up, making sure all lines are within reach, finding a comfortable steering position.

Mine is almost standing, with one foot against the moulding for the life raft hatch, and one on the foot stop in the cockpit, leaning back on the guard rail, with one arm hooked around it to stop the waves that pass through the boat taking me with them. When a wave jolts the boat, I stand up, taking the weight on my legs, absorbing the shock and saving my bum from a few bruises. I have managed 6 hours on the helm like this.

One problem I have yet to find a solution for is how to stop all the sheets disappearing out of the back of the boat in rough conditions. Both upwind and downwind, every wave that came through the cockpit took all the rope with it, and I was continually trailing halyards, sheets and backstays.

The list could go on, but the most important thing I have gained this week is a feeling for my boat.

There is no substitute for time spent on the water and to for me to be truly confident in what I am doing, I need to feel that I know the boat.

I have gained so much this week; learned how the boat feels when it is good, how it feels when it is bad, started to get develop a knowledge for relative wind angles and speeds on my own, rather than looking at someone else’s piece of paper; how to manage life in a tiny and bare environment below, what tools are important; the fact that if you do not pull the lazy back stay on it will hit you in the face over and over again and if you need a good instant ‘ pick me up’ try a Haribo crocodile!

I have learned that I love this boat and I love sailing it. I have enjoyed the experience and reaffirmed my passion for short handed racing.

I should get back into La Grande Motte this afternoon after having spent eight days sailing over 1000 miles; I cannot think of anywhere else I would rather have been in the last week.