Fuel Cell Systems UK Solent 6.50

On Saturday 3rd May, 5 Mini’s set off from the Royal Southern Yacht Club in Hamble in what was my first race of the year and first race in my new Mini. With a mix of both Solo and Double handed entries, as well as Series and Proto we were divided into 3 classes. With 3 Series boat opting to sail double handed, then two of us sailing Solo, one Series, and one Proto (me).

I’d been homebound the week previous with a nasty throat infection, but dosed up on Penicillin I was able to prepare for the race. I’d created a road book (bible) with everything I needed to know during the race – with screenshots of charts, for all the important sections, waypoints, tides and weather data. Opting to eat fresh food for the race, I had separated and vacuum sealed portions of tortellini and gnocci, and rationed up my snacks and fruit. As the race neared I was feeling much better and my energy returning – pheew!

Race morning came and we got towed out to the start off Royal Thames. We headed out West through the Needles and then south across the Channel, round the corner and down to finish in La Trinite-sur-Mer, a course of 310 miles.

It was great to see everyone supporting the race, with friends and family all out on the water in ribs and yachts to watch the start. A big thank you to Jon (LPB Arieal Imagery) and Warwick who came out to take pictures.

There was very little wind at the start, one hour before HW the tide was due to turn shortly after we started. I had a good start on the committee boat end, opting to start closest to the mainland, with a little more breeze, and chances of a bit of favourable tide in back eddy of tide off Calshot. Once round the corner I stayed high in order to reach the channel, watching impatiently as the others bore off and hoisted their gennekers. Once in the channel I hoisted my genneker, although only briefly as the sea breeze was building from the SW and we were now beating towards Hurst and the Needles.

The forecast for the race was due to be very light across the channel on Sunday. I opted to tack offshore and head South as soon as possible. I wanted to cross the channel as quickly as possible and hug the French coastline, in hope of picking up some thermal wind the next day.

As forecast the wind died overnight and I spent the night drifting the wrong way in the East going tide, switching between the solent, genneker and code 5, what seemed like every 5 minutes, in attempt to keep the boat moving. With everything stacked in the bow I made camp up on the bow and cooked my dinner and enjoyed a short nap in the moonlight. As the tide swung the gradient wind filled in and I could head along the rhum line towards the TSS and the Channel du Four – with that magical feeling of reaching 2 knots of boat speed for the first time after drifting!

I reached the Channel du Four at 5am on the Monday, storming in with the genneker, if only that had stayed! The wind spun round to the SE and I was now tacking up through the channel in the dark against the tide, in 25-30 knots. Just as I had arrived at my first waypoint for the Channel, the drama begun – my GPS turned off and wouldn’t restart, I quickly got my back up hand held out found my waypoints. Shortly after I heard a big bang and the main started flogging, my heart jumped a beat as I looked up at the mast! Phew – it was ok – it didn’t take long for me to realise that the shackle holding my mainsheet block to the track had gone. I quickly found some dyneema and lashed it back down, not an easy task while the main is still flogging, all while trying to avoid the rocks and stick within the channel. As always, distasters always come in threes. Next on the hit list was my wind data on my instruments, which meant my pilot no longer worked. I needed to unplug the wind data from the bus in order to use compass mode. All a bit full on – it certainly made for an interesting passage!

Once clear of the channel I was on a mission to fix everything, I started heading in towards the Brest coast my original routing plan towards La Plate and the Raz but I couldn’t get the boat to stay on a straight course. I tacked over and managed to get her to sit on a course just off the wind, I guess I’m going outside the Raz.

By this point I could see “Mojo”, German team, Morten and Felix in their Series who were catching me quickly. I watched as they sailed inshore towards the Raz, knowing full well I was going to loose out heading offshore – a frustrating feeling, but I was determined to fix everything.

The GPS I fixed quickly, having found a corroded and rusty fuse I removed it from the circuit and soldered the two wires together. I then checked all the connections for the wind to see if one had come loose and caused it to short out. Unfortunately not, the problem was at the top of the mast. I unplugged the data, which was causing the system to fail, so I could then use the pilot on compass mode.

While downstairs I noticed a fair amount of water, and soon discovered my ballast tanks had a small leak. Something I tested on land before I left, but with the waves and motion were now causing me problems. I tightened up the hatches as much as I could and kept an eye on them, sikaflex at the ready.

Life onboard was now somewhat more chilled, I was back on the helm and 10 miles from the cardinal marker off the outside of the Raz. Itching to get round and start heading South as I knew every extra mile I sailed West I was loosing out.

It wasn’t long since I rounded the cardinal that my pilot went down again, this time showing errors of instantaneous current too high. At first I thought I had too much power, with both my solar panel and fuel cell running. I turned both off and kept testing the system, but no change. The wind had now swung round to the West and there was a confused sea state, it was very difficult to leave the helm to fix anything. Now stuck on the helm, I realised the last 100 miles of the race was going to be very tough.

While others were frustrated on the final night when the wind died to nothing, I was pleasantly happy. I ran down below, changed into some dry clothes, cooked up some gnocci and pesto gathered everything I might need for the rest of the race and put it in the cockpit pockets, at arms reach. My road book, food, head torches, spare batteries, charts, water – I was set for whatever was to come!

Almost as I put the last bite of dinner in my mouth the wind filled in and I hoisted the kite and started making progress towards Quiberon. The wind gradually built until we had probably 20 knots. We were screaming along surfing down the waves at 12/13 knots. Possible a bit too keen earlier, I’d stacked everything forward in the light winds, so then when the wind filled I was somewhat bow heavy! Not an ideal situation to be in when trying to gain height for your waypoint. Regardless that night was probably my best sailing moment of all time. It was pitch black with phosphorescence everywhere lighting up the sea. The waves crashing over my bow, my wake behind and white horses across the sea, were all lit up, such an amazing feeling. Made even better when a pod of dolphins came to play, I could see their tracks swimming along under water beside me.

The wind kept building and I was struggling to hold course, digging the bow in. By this point I was starting to feel my tiredness and found myself dosing off on the helm. I decided to play safe and drop the kite early, 20 miles from Quiberon, and white sail reach. Still doing 9/10 knots it wasn’t “too” slow!

As I approached the Quiberon channel I could see a red light chasing me – another Mini no doubt! Visibility was poor by now and the rain coming down hard. I’d planned my route into the bay before the race and had my waypoints in the GPS. I was checking through the SI’s before I got there and got myself confused over one cardinal marker. At this point I was very tired having not slept for over 24 hours and being stuck on the helm. I decided it would be safest to follow the other Mini in, rather than getting the charts out and checking my original waypoints.

Onto the final stretch, the final 6 miles across the bay to the finish, just as the sun was coming up.

I finished at 6:55am, 3rd boat to finish, 1st Solo, behind the Brit duo Toby and Pip on Minkata and Morten and Felix on Mojo.

What a race! A tough 310 miles with numerous problems, but I’m pleased to have worked through them and to finish the race.