Wednesday, 9 November 2011

My Transat

My transat- Madeira to Bahia.
The very first thing I want to say is thank you to Soitec, they have made it possible for my dream to come true and I am very proud to be assosiated with them.

What an amazing life changing experience, 3 years of my life leading to this 1 event and it was everything I had hoped it to be and so much more....
I think the easiest way to explain the emotional roller coaster is to follow my log book and give you some highs and lows.
The first thing I need to convey is that this has been one of the trickiest transats on record, one of the main advantages of this race is supposed to be the reliability of the conditions with trades winds and doldrums, we had opposite and unreliable conditions most of the way. It was frustrating at times and if I never here the word Variable again it will be too soon. but in many ways this made it a far more interesting race!

So the start was tight with a short beat up the coast of Madeira, I had full plans of hanging back at the start to get a later but cleaner start with no issues, but its not in my make up and the competitiveness took over as soon as we were in sequence and I pushed hard and got a great start.
We rounded the windward buoy, next mark was the Cape Verde's over 1000NM away, the whole fleet went straight to code zeros and all 70 something of us were going all the same speed but in a huge range of angles, it was fun to watch.
I stuck very high with the group going more west heading straight for the Verde's, the big decision is if you sail the further distance to the Canaries for the wind acceleration or rum line, this time from all the weather it did not seem to pay to do the extra mileage so I went route 1.
The conditions stayed very stable over the next few days changing between the zero and code 5 in around 10-15 knots.
Day three brought the first memorable experience, the tail of the spinnaker halyard broke at the knot up the rig so the sail fell out of the sky and the rope was stuck at the top, this meant the inevitable task of climbing the mast. I got very well prepared, The halyard all flaked nicely so it would run smooth, the climbing equipment all prepared and the bits i may need for the task. The first problem came with the climbing kit, we use two Gregories to climb, 1 take your weight on a rope while you slide the other and then visa versa so you awkwardly shimmy up the rope.
Then to come down 1 gregory descends you with a brake. The descender wasn't working, so I knew I would have to climb to the top, do the task, then un-clip and slide down, free climbing... scary stuff.
I got to the top and retrieved the line and started to send it down, then 1 of the coils from the rope caught the clutch and closed it, locking the rope so I had to unclip, slide down, unlock it, re climb and do it all again. All went well but I was shattered.

(I Just want to add in here that I am writing this in many small chunks, this one I am writing from a hammock in a tiny pousada on the beech in the middle of nowhere on a small island in Bahia, some well needed R and R after the race, We have done a quick disappearing mission for a few days and its perfect.)

Anyway back to the transat,during the rig climbing I had lost some positions and was generally quite grumpy from being so bash up, but it never lasts long for me on the boat, I know many of the skippers get into huge spirals of almost depression and lows when things go wrong, I think I am very fortunate though, I generally just end up telling myself off laughing about it and getting back to have fun and sailing hard.

The wind started to shift behind as and was looking perfect for medium spinnaker, so I did a couple of small repairs 1 to the cloth and 1 stealing a zipper from a sail bag to fix the reef and got it up sailing well. It was easy sailing for the day and I had many little jobs and house work to do round the boat so I spent the whole day busy working.
I always enjoy this because it is all performance enhancing and critical but really take your mind off the actual sailing.

The wind became patchy and then die for almost 12 hours, but followed by the first of the real system and gave me some amazing downwind sailing, it was a very hardcore night and I pushed really hard to try and win back some positions, I was sailing in medium waves, with the big kite in around 20-22 knots, definitely not cautious but such fun, I whooped and screamed along all night.

This had taken me up to day six, I started to lose VHF with the accompanying boat after the first few days but had always been able to speak with Emma, but I slowly started to loose her too. Its a big psychological change to loose contact with the people you care about, but also all part of it so you have to focus hard and carry on with your on little world.

The day of the 19th arrived and I was flying with my favourite sail, the code 5 through the through the Cape Verde's Island, I choose a route west, through a large group of islands, close to saint Nicolas. On the way out I say my first other mini since the first night, it was great to see land and another boat in the same day. But then disaster struck. My first proper squall.
Even after sailing squalls before and seeing it coming, I still wasn't fully prepared, I ended up dropping the medium spi to late and getting it in the water. then I had hours and hours of no wind at all and heavy rain, I took advantage of this and stripped off for a shower, it felt great but squall are always freezing. Since Madeira I had worn shorts all day and night, and now I was shivering.... it felt great to be cold.
Then next 48 hours were patchy with periods of no wind and periods of great down wind sailing, I had a few breakage, the tack line fitting broke,the runner block broke and I got a small tear in the spi, but they were all easy to fix, just running repairs. Its never good to break anything but I am very confident in my ability to fix almost anything on board, I love the problem solving and crazy cowboy solutions you can come up with. I i think I need to take out shares in 3M for my next races because my whole boat ends up covered in tape.

The 23rd brought the worst day of the race for me, and it was all my own fault, in a way it was the end of me ever being truly competitive in the race.
There was a big squall coming and I had the spinnaker up, it wasn't moving very fast and the wind in front of it was perfect, so i did what I always do wrong, I pushed too hard for too long.
Finally the squall hit, I still had to much sail up and broached harder than I ever have before, I couldn't get the tack of the spi in so I had to fire the halyard and let the sail fall in the sea to depower it so I could drag it into the boat.
During this as the boat was literally lying on its side with the mast in the water and the spinnaker in the sea. During this I broke something critical.
It took hours to get settled again and I waited till sunrise to assess the situation, I had noticed all the NKE wind/speed instrument figures were all over the place. As the sun came up, I say what I was dreading, I had broke the wand at the top of the mast.
This is the little pole that holds all the equipment for measuring wind, it takes speed and angle and then processes that info to give you all your on board data, angle/speeds/directions.
I have spent alot of time on Soitec working with the numbers, I know at what speed and angle I should have which sail and how fast I should be going, but that was all gone, back to old fashioned bum on seat and see what the boat wants.

This would be fine, annoying but fine, but it isn't the real problem. Down wind you can really only steer the boat using the auto pilot on true wind mode, because as you have so much sail and the relative wind is moving around so much compared to the boat, if you try to steer to compass you either crash gybe, broach, or wrap the spi within minutes. None of these are good thing!
So it was that time again, don the harness and back up the mast. I took what I though I would need, electronics kit and kit to fix the actual wand itself.
When I got up I found that the wand arm was bent at 45 degrees, the stainless fixation bracket had snapped, the cup were broken, the plug was broken and it was all very dead.
After an hour of swinging about in very heavy seas I had manged to splint the arm with sail batten at a slightly better angle and fix the electronics, it was not pretty but I thought it would work.
I got down now at least knowing it was attached properly, I started trying to re-calibrate everything so the numbers made sense. I know pinching upwind I do around 45 degrees true so I sailed to that and start, estimating numbers from there.
The numbers all started to make a little sense but were by no means accurate, it certainly helped to know if the wind was going up or down, clocking or veering, but they certainly weren't accurate enough to base decisions like sail selections so still old school sailing.
Now it was time for the moment of truth, would the pilot sail to the wind. The short answer after hours of trying was unfortunately NO!
It was hard news to take, it completely changed my race, you can not be competitive sailing to compass mode all the time, so all the time you are not hand steering you are loosing out to the others. I have to be honest, this got me down, to know I had 2 weeks of sailing, with minimal sleep and loosing time was a big knock.
I remember making a coffee sitting in cockpit hand steering that night and thinking I have 2 choices, I can either let it get me down or man up and sail the hardest I can and do my best to still get a good result... it worked I shook myself out of it and knew I would never forgive myself if I went into cruising mode, the wind shifted and I put up the big kite and hand steer all night. It was beautiful, dolphins, shooting stars and surfing down big waves, then I knew I'd be fine!
(So once again I'm writing the next install before the sun has come up, everyone always says it must be amazing to get back into a proper bed, and it is but when I arrive I really struggle to sleep properly for a long time, so for the last week Ive been a strange creature of the night.)

Everything went well until the 23rd, it was getting quite rough and I notice the dagger board pole looking very peculiar, I went investigate and found it was no longer attached. So I tried to pull the line that lifts it and it was free, I looked down the case and found the dagger board had gone.... a major. The dropping line was super tight and luckily was jammed on the board which was floating next to the boat. I slowed the boat as much as possible and began the long task of working out how I could get it on board with out undoing the only thing attaching it to the boat and loosing it completely.
It was a trick and danger task but after lots of ropes and inventions I got it back on board. I laminated the pole back together and off I went again.

24th was the day I crossed by doldrums waypoint at 8n 27w. As I explained before, this was all a mess though and there were no real doldrums, especially not where they should be.
Instead of light down wind I had a squall with 30 knots and 2 days of upwind beating. It was very tough and hard going on the boat but soitec went well, I broke the small pole that swing out the spinakker pole but that was it.
I fashioned a new pole my cutting up my carbon paddle, not an easy task to cut carbon with leatherman and a winch handle.
The next few days were very variable with many sail changes just to suit what was going on at the time, all I was trying to do was get due south as fast as possible.
Generally the further East you go the longer your doldrums crossing, the further west the worse the angle to get to Brazil when you exit, so south south south.
I did have one lovely day in the doldrums with the big kite up.
On the 26th I made contact with a cargo ship, in broken English he explain that Aymeric 778 a competitor in front of me had lost his mast. I got his lat and long and started trying to call him.
I got no reply so changed course to sail to the position I was given, think that if he had lost his mast his VHF reception would be terrible. I kept trying and could not find him anywhere.
Henry from 551, finally got on the VHF and was relaying that he had talked to the ship and a message had been sent to the committee and a chase boat was on its way, so I carried on, but still trying to make contact.
It turned out it was a communication problem. 778 had asked the ship to relay that he was worried about his mast but that was all, so I wasted a few hour.

27th brought more squalls but by now I was used to them and just dealing with it, I think I must have the speed record for putting in and taking out reefs by now!

The night of the 28th I suddenly lost power, nothing major though one of the batteries had jumped about with all the slamming and had pulled the connector off, the boat sailed in a straight line on its own, it took me nervous minutes to find the problem, but once I got it the repair only took 5, so no real drama.

The next day the wand was starting to look very loose with all the slamming, so once again it was time to go up, this time though there was 25 knots and a very rough sea, but I couldn't risk loosing it.
30 minutes and 2 rolls of tape later I was back on deck, I was exhausted, cut and black and blue all over, for the rest of the day all I could do was eat and lie in a heap in the cockpit.
Apart from crossing the equator at 28'45 W where I had the gifts that Emma had given me, a small bottle of champagne to share with Neptune and some beef jerky, I even managed to make a small movie and I think I pulled off being alive.
The 29th saw the start of the last stage... full speed to Bahia or so I thought. After the Doldrums you hit the SE trade wind and have some upwind sailing to lay Peter and Paul, some random rock in the middle of the Atlantic and then after to Lay Fernado de something or other, but basically the top of Brazil.
As you get closer to the coast the wind starts to back and you can hoist the code zero, so
the 29th, 1st and 2nd were almost going to plan, I was sailing fast and making good way and had worked through the sails from the code zero to the code 5, medium kite and finally the big kite, but by now I was exhausted. The whole time I had the big kite up I was having to hand steer. Basically I knew the last 3 days to get to Bahia I would be awake.
It scared me at first, wondering if it is is physically possible, I decided I would just sail as far as I could and if I had to sleep I would reduce sail to try and control the boat and if the worst came to the worst, take all the sails down to sleep a few hour, what else could I do.
Its amazing what the human body can do in those situatons, I literally stayed awake just with micro sleeps for best part of the 3 days. I had a few dramas where I fell asleep steering, but the boat tells you when its all gone wrong very fast by either, crash gybing, wrapping the kite or broaching.
I kept trying the compass mode on the pilot and could get it to work for long enough to pee or make a coffee or food, but after long it would all go terribly wrong because the winfd was constantly shifting through 30 degrees.
On the day of the 2nd I had 150Nm to go and made the terrible decision that I would arrive early the next day. Nope!
I was flying along doing 12 knots with the big spi pointing straight at Bahia in the middle of the night, loving life and excited to arrive. As dawn came the wind suddenly died and went shifty. Then I saw the craziest monster storm cloud I had ever seen.
It arrived with vengence and built, 15,20,25,30,35 and finally 40 knots of SSW. A dead beat to Bahia. I was not a happy boy! 75Nm of pounding to go and my ETA was getting longer and longer.
I have to admit I had a sense of humour failure and through all my toys of the pram, I shouted and bash around. But after a while I realised it was here to stay and just got on with it. I think it was the second worst conditions I had ever been in, big wind, massive waves and rain so hard it hurt my face. In some sick way I almost started to enjoy it, knowing I was going to win against the condition, battling into the face of adversity! Its what the Britsih do best!
At one point I had to tack away from land and I was tracking such a bad course over ground, I was actually getting further away, the numbers on the GPS were going up. Never good!

There are 2 routes in to Bahia, very close to the shore inside a reef or 5 mile further and outside the reef in the main channel.
I decided to go the further route on my entry to the Bay, the short cut had a lee shore and it was still 30+ knots with a huge swell and at night. Not normally something I would do but I decided to be a good seaman and that I had come too god damn far to run up on the beach at the finish.
As I came down the channel the breeze went behind and I was flying in at 12 knots with just a main and jib, I couldn't even get the main down to reef it.

Time for 1 last drama. So I approached the line at 23:00 at warp speed and in some of the heaviest rain I have ever seen, I couldn't see the bow of the boat and this obviously meant the finishing comittee couldn't see me. I told them I was approach the finish but got no finish signal, so I carried on for a while. After a mile or so I got back on the VHF to say I really had finished and dropped my sails. Still nothing so I hoisted the sails and sailed back upwind to the line.
I called again and said look I'm here please finish me. My torch had died in the rain and they were asking me to illuminate the sails but I couldn't then finally they asked where I was and I shouted my bow is about to hit the red mark. Suddenly 3 ribs appeared from nowhere and that was it my race was finished, I'd done it.

Then the emotional bit begun, something I hadn't been prepared for, they towed me to the dock and of coursre the first thing you do is check how many other masts are there... it wasn't as bad as I'd worried. Then the guys from Bahia towed me to the dock and all I wanted to see was my friends who said they'd be waiting. I through my line to the dock and couldn't see them. I grabbed another line and looked up and there they were. I have never been happier to see people before, Jimmy, Fia, Yerin and Sammy where there cheering.
I jumped off the boat far too quickly, manage to slip, go horizontal and face plant the dock, never cool but I was so happy I didn't even notice. A beer was handed to me, hugs all round and then the tradition of being thrown in the water was kept, good work jimmy, apart from I had taken off my dry top and had seal trousers on that immediately filled and I almost drowned.

We went into the club and met the other competitors and did the photo and celebration bit. It was an amazing feeling to feel part of this special gang.

Since the race I have seen all my friend come in and waiting for Emma to jump off her boat was one of my happiest memories. Its amazing the feeling between everyone here. Nothing said but we all know we've been through something incredible together, especially this transat with it terrible conditions.
For me personally it has been a life changing experience, I wasn't just another tick in the box like I though it would be.
I'm not very emotional with this sort of thing and alway knew I would get here but I am definately not the same person I was when I left.
The experience has been amazing and something I will always be proud of, I just have to come back now and do it again to get the result I wanted!


  1. nice writeup! Congratulations on the result!

  2. A fantastic effort Dan!!! Congratulations big time!