Catch up with British yachtswoman Pip Hare as she starts her qualifier to compete in the Mini Transat race this summer

Read previous entry here.

Saturday 5 March 2011

Position 42 degreee 50 N 009 degrees 42 E
Heading 125 degrees speed 5.2 konts

Wow what a couple of days! I have never, ever, ever, been so wet sailing for such a prolonged period.

I have six layers of clothing all totally soaked and my skin is so saturated that every time I touch the charger cables coming off my little generator, I get an electric shock.

Finally the dust has settled and my mad boat has calmed down enough for me to reflect on the first days of my qualifier; although I am slightly hesitant to get the computer out, just in case the ‘Potting Shed’ is just have a breather before going back to the same mad temper tantrum I have been putting up with for the last two days!

I decided to head off to the East first for my qualifier, I knew there would be a lot of wind between mainland France and Corsica, but later in the week it looked worse, so I decided to get this bit out of the way as early as possible.

Leaving La Grande Motte was slightly delayed due to some last minute communications problems, however after a brief trip to Montpellier on Wednesday morning I finally got a stamp in my log book from the Capitanerie then set off into a light wind, bright and sunny afternoon.

Fairly soon I was reaching with the small kite, thinking what a breeze this trip would be if it was all like this! Fool!

Evidently all the training of endless hoists, drops and gybes I have been doing alongside the Artemis Offshore Academy has paid off; as I pulled off my first night time solo gybe so well, I was left gawping in the cockpit at how effortlessly the spinnaker had gone over, forgot about the boom, and gave myself a good clunk on the head!

Similarly hoists and drops all went according to plan – so practice does make perfect.

My first night whistled by, I managed to snatch about 2 hrs of sleep in 15 minute bursts, lying in the cockpit, under a blanket.

There is so much to do on this boat, I am finding I have a permanent huge joblist, including the many controls for trimming the boat, stacking of equipment down below, constant bailing out, generation of power and more.

These jobs need to be prioritised into what is the most important to be done now, and which jobs can actually physically be done now? Sail trim and steering always coming top of that list; eating and sleeping struggling to get a look in.

I sailed under spinnaker along the French coast cutting through the Islands off Hyeres to meet with the edge of the mistral, and that’s when my world got a very hectic and wet.

It was like someone flicked a switch and all of a sudden all that had seemed manageable before leapt up and started throwing violent fits. The waves and wind built, the boat took on a violent bucking motion and the water appeared from every angle and direction, flying down the deck, through the air, up to topsides and off the sails, all aiming for one spot alone – me!

I had known before leaving that the mistral would be blowing hard between St Tropez and Corsica, 50 knots at times. So the plan had been to follow the coast up to the Italian boarder, skirting the worst of the wind, finding a better angle to drop down to Corsica and waiting until the wind died a little.

On paper this plan seems fine, and in practice it worked; but I was not prepared for the fierce little waves, and the sudden and aggressive changes in wind force and direction that occur around the coast there.

Acceleration zones around headlands, dead spots, where there is no wind but lots of swell, 180 changes in direction have had me on a never ending treadmill of reefing, changing sails, reefing the jib then letting it all go again.

It really is never ending, because one thing I am discovering about the mini is if the sail plan is not right, the boat will not go.

All the while, the lack of sleep was catching up with me; I always find the second night to be the worst, when adrenaline has worn out and you start to get really tired.

Around 3am I found I was in a zombie like state, where I did not trust myself to stand up. The boats violent motion was difficult to pre-empt on a moonless night, I was weak from endless sail changes and my body was just too tired to react to the bucking bronco.

I have dealt with these nights before and it is important to keep on; you must break through that barrier, to give in and have a deep sleep now would be counter productive; every sail change and task still has to be done I just made a mental check list in my head and did every manoeuvre on my knees, slowly and steadily, waiting until my fumbling hands had finished tying a knot and then dragging my heavy body back to the cockpit on hands and knees.

And it worked. I am now in a happy rhythm of napping and last night, was able to take 3-10 minute naps at quite regular intervals, I now have a spring back in my step (and very bruised knees).

I finally made a break for Corsica at 9am yesterday morning and came hooning over in at times 30 knot winds.

I locked up down below and sat in the cockpit steering for eight hours, taking bucket after bucket of water, in exchange for the fantastic feeling of getting the boat going.

Periodically I would dash below with a bucket and sponge and empty out some of the water. Grab a drink and a snack before braving another face full of Mediterranean.
I rounded Corsica at 3am and the wind has died away, so I am able to get out the generator, make a coffee and look over at a beautiful sunrise reflected on the snow capped Corsican Mountains.

The course today will take me past Elba then onto a tiny island called Giannutri Island which I will sail around before heading back the way I came then out to Barcelona.

I am learning so much; and though it is not always that nice, sailing in big winds and rough weather is worth every minute. Learning how to deal with the relentless demands of the boat in these conditions, and how the rest of life stops while you attend to the boat, can only help to gain a better result in future races.

We can all try and get the best out of our boats on a champagne day, with a nice following wind and blue skies, but it is how we deal with the bad stuff that will set us apart in the end; on days when nothing is going right, and the relentless sea and wind are making sailing at all a huge effort, having the experience of getting through it before will be a great reserve to draw on.

Sunday 6 March 2011 – Issues of trust

I’m back at the tip of Corsica after a 24hr jaunt down to Giannutri Island and back again. What a wild ride that was.

The breeze filled in yesterday morning to a stunning NNEly, which allowed me to fly the spinnaker all the way down to the Island, bringing some hairy and interesting moments along the way.

I am at the moment seriously thinking about conserving my sails, as I have a couple of races to do with them at the end of this thousand miles, and the solent (jib) is already looking like it is not going to make it.

Due to this policy, even though it was only 15 knots yesterday morning I decided to make to with the little kite and not to give the big one too much of a beasting.

I launched just off the island of Elba and then spent a couple of hours skirting round it’s huge wind shadow which was lying directly across the track down to my turning island.

Again all that gybing practice seems to have been worthwhile as I worked my way around the outside of the wind shadow, sailing south away from my course, then gybing back until I fell into the edge of the shadow again and the sail collapsed.

I even started to practice gybing without the pilot at all, which I have discovered is easier in more breeze; however I could seriously do with growing another set of arms and need to slow myself down a little after the gybes, when a mad scramble to keep the spinnaker trimmed and pull on the back stay takes me in two different directions across the cockpit while leaving it to an outstretched foot to take care of the job of helming.

After working my round the tip of the very highest hill thrown down onto the water, I popped out of the shadow into a freshening breeze and a fantastic swell which really allowed me to have some fun.

For about 3 hours, I sailed, playing with the apparent wind and the waves to keep the boat at a fairly constant 11 knots, then picking up one of the approaching waves from the side and riding along the edge of the crest like a proper surfer, now allowing the bow to fall down the front of the wave and accelerate then as the boat started to slow, bringing it back up into the breeze, to build the apparent wind and get back on the wave.

Surfing speeds on average 14 – 16 knots.

Exciting or what! I have so much adrenaline when it is like that I feel like I am going to burst out of my own skin, I want to scream and laugh and it is hard to keep my head on my shoulders – so reminded of ‘The Stig’ I decided to sing some easy listening Art Garfunkel songs, to keep me calm and rooted in the real world, ‘Bright Eyes’ ‘In a little while’ and I even have a video of me surfing a wave while singing ‘Miss you nights’ in the back ground. (interestingly covered by Sir Cliff himself as well!)

Though everyone keeps telling me this qualifier is not a race, I am using it to learn about going fast and the big lesson of yesterday was how would my newly installed Raymarine Pilots be able to cope with sailing downwind that fast?

At some point I was going to have to be able to trust them as I cannot steer forever, so yesterday we started to build our relationship.

Step one, change the settings to steer to a True wind angle and not apparent, this stops the boat from making massive changes in direction as it takes off down a wave.

Step two, turn up the sail tune response and counter rudder (as we had a swell from the side, the counter rudder stops the pilot of over correcting in a cross swell).

Step 3 tune down the wind damping a little – this was probably not necessary but as we had a swell and the mast was accelerating one way with the rolling of the boat, I decided to just dampen down the rate of information being fed to the pilot, to rely on a more mean set of information.

Step 4 – let the pilot take control.

Steering for me was not easy yesterday as it is pretty hard to trim and steer, and as the boat was rolled by a wave, the spinnaker would fill and heel us over, the reaction to this is either to ease the sheet, allow the boat to come upright and then sheet back on, Or to apply lots of rudder and hope for the best – naturally this was the pilots tactic.

I spent a tense hour perched next to the helm, ready to grab anything at all as the boat teetered along on the bring of wiping out. Then was gripping the lifelines, with heart in mouth as the pilot bore us away down the face of a wave, ever accelerating (just as I would do) but wondering if it would carry on going straight into a gybe or come back up again when the surf stopped.

We had a couple of wipe outs, where a wave from the side rolled us and the rudders lost grip on the water, but the exercise was a complete success. As the afternoon wore on I gained more and more confidence in the machine and eventually we arrived at the ultimate test of trust.

I need to go to the loo!

Without going into too much detail, there are no plumbed in facilities on ‘The Potting Shed’. My toilet is a bright blue bucket and in this case I was certainly not going to use it down below.

Needless to say, accelerating up to 15 knots down a wave, with a computer driving the boat while sitting on a bucket with trousers round ankles can make one feel a little venerable!

So the pilot passed the test! However I am not quite ready to sleep on it yet.

I arrived at the Giannutri Island just at dusk, dropped the spinnaker and then sailed a pretty torturous route around it in total blackness not being able to see where the edges where.

As an apology for my pasting on the way to Corsica the wind gods allowed me a one tack beat back again; but I have spent a terrible night in the dark, over tired and not able to sleep for fear of hitting a fishing vessel or island.

Having not got any rest for close to 24 hrs, I spent a terrible time this morning trying to sail back out of the wind shadow of Elba in a channel between two islands.

I kept falling asleep at the helm, just for a minute, turning the boat around and then not knowing where I was. A frantic run down below and a plot on the chart, then back up on deck to aim at the same point as before.

I have looked at the chart this morning and it is scary the amount of inconsistent and inaccurate plots I put on last night. Tiredness is definitely my enemy and I will have to think of a way to deal with prolonged downwind spinnaker sailing, until I have the confidence to sleep with the pilot on.

I managed to escape the worst of the light wind this morning and am currently heading NW back towards France.

Tonight I expect a 6 hr calm, during which I will have a proper sleep then a roaring 30 knot Easterly wind should kick in and blow me back the way I came.

Next stop Golfe of Lyon bouy.