MINI TRANSAT LEAD UP AND LEG 1

I’ve been working towards the Mini Transat now for 3 years. In 2013 I was part of the Artemis Offshore Academy sailing their Pogo 2. Having joined with 1 year to the Transat it was always going to be difficult to get a place in the prestigious race. In order to qualify every skipper needs to complete 1,000 miles of official mini races as well as a 1000 mile non stop passage, of which the logbook is submitted to Classe Mini to be assessed. Once your qualification miles are complete you can then enter the race. I put everything into my 2013 campaign, traveling down to Italy to compete in the earliest races in the season, completing my 2,000 mile qualifications by the beginning of May. Unfortunately it wasn’t soon enough and I joined 13th on the waiting list. Regardless of my place I didn’t give up and kept going as if I had a place on the start line. With document, medical and payment deadlines approaching, there was still a chance I could move up and gain a place, and that I did. By August I was 2nd on the list and things were looking more and more positive. Bringing on board Disc Manufacturing Services (DMS) as a title sponsor for the race, everything was in place. As days moved on, and deadlines passed, it was looking less and less likely I was going to be on the start line. The boat was ready to go, in the next door marina to the race village, food prepped, everything on standby. Motivation went out the window and I started to think of what next…well 2015 of course, and so my dream of being on the start line of the 2015 Transat begun. I started wandering the pontoons, eying up the different boats, finding out costs, working out logistics.

My Pogo 2 went back to Artemis and there begun my own campaign and my sole mission was to be on the start in 2015. Budgets, sponsorship, boat details all flying through my head; it was an exciting but hugely frustrating time. Every day watching the tracker of 2013 wishing I was out there, trying to funnel the energy towards my 2015 campaign. The hunt for sponsors to try buy/rent a boat was relentless and some days seemed impossible. Living with parents and on friends sofas, working in bars/restaurants just to keep my head above ground. A full time job was impossible to find. As soon as anyone looked up my name on Google or even asked me a question, it was clear I was planning for the Mini and the race calendar couldn’t accommodate a full time job.

Salvation came at the beginning of 2014 when I secured the purchase of Mini 741 a competitive reliable proto while reasonably priced. With a 2 year loan to help fund the remainder of the boat I was set and the 2015 dream came alive. Although the hard work wasn’t over, as most people know, the running costs and maintenance of a boat is the worst bit of it all. I’m quite lucky that I have a small flat which I rent out which brings in enough money for me to be able to eat, so anything on top I can earn goes directly to the boat and campaign costs. With the boat now in Hamble, at the Royal Southern Yacht Club I started working in the King & Queen, renting a room in the village. Working on the boat and my campaign during the day, then in the pub most evenings, life was very busy but manageable.

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Race season began and I moved out to France, unfortunately as I had a new boat I needed to repeat my qualification. The mission was to complete all my miles in 2014, then when entry for the Mini Transat 2015 opened in December 2014 I was all set to go.

Equipment sponsors really helped with lowering my budgets, so the majority of my costs were entry fees, membership, and insurance, with the odd cost when I needed emergency repairs, like replacing VHF antennas or making boat repairs, something you can’t really budget for. With the help of Marlow Ropes it was possible to replace all my running and standing rigging. Helly Hansen kitted me out head to toe with technical clothing, Imray provided me with all my charts and One Sails and NKE electronics gave me a nice discount on new sails and electronics. With lots of added extras from Overboard Bags, Buff headwear, Bolle sunglasses, and Jetboil, and not forgetting Sailing Logic who supported me through all my training certificates, First Aid, Sea Survival, and Yachtmaster.

However still with a tight budget I was living on the boat in France and cooking out the back of a car or on the boat which can be tough at times (particularly when it’s raining!). Although the beauty of the Mini fleet, most people are in the same situation and there’s a great community so you’re never alone. I’ve also been lucky enough that various families and people have “adopted” me and invited me to stay in their homes, which is unbelievable. The support and generosity surrounding France and the Mini Transat is truly magical.

The summer of 2014 bought the Les Sables Azores race, a two leg race starting in the Vendee Globe town of Les Sables d ´Olonne, sailing down to Horta in the Azores, and then back again. A challenging race across the Bay of Biscay, a great test run for Leg 1 of the Transat.

Conditions were tough in the Les Sables Azores, with strong winds in both legs; it certainly tested both me and the boat. I had a few breakages, including the ballast system and my rudder joining bar. Better to break them now than in the Transat right?

After Les Sables Azores I started to make a list of all the systems on the boat, and possible breakages. Making sure I had optimized the system as much as possible to limit breakages, but also knowing a way to fix any problem I could see arise. Over the winter of 2014/15 I moved back to Hamble again, working in The Bugle Pub this time while working on the boat in the day. I changed the whole ballast system, strengthening the joining points to the tanks, changing the transfer tubes to be more flexible, as not to strain the tank joins, as well as adding in an electric pump, to save me spending 20 minutes manually pumping in 200L water. I also completely redid the electrics onboard, building a new fuse panel with circuit breakers, replacing all wiring and double checking every device. I also changed my standard batteries to Victron Lithium batteries, installed a Victron battery monitor and solar regulator. Later in the year I also installed a new Autopilot, a more responsive and powerful ram yet still power efficient. Before I was using an on deck tiller pilot, which certainly does the job, but isn’t ideal when you have to clip it on and off every time you use it.

This was all possible with the help of Go Ape!, DMS, and Team Concise who joined my team as financial partners over the year and towards the Transat. Costs for entries, membership and the return cargo were now covered, pheeeewww!!!

Always striving for more I continued to work, aiming for some new sails, a week in a bed and not on the boat before the start, healthy food and not just pasta pasta pasta! I headed back to the UK for a delivery job, and Cowes Week to work as First Mate with Sailing Logic / Britannia Events. Picking up any work where I could, but still leaving time to work on the boat and prepare for the race. After Cowes Week, it was straight back to France and boat work, antifouling, recoating the mast and boom, replacing more ropes, servicing all mechanics and checking everything over.

I was now based in Douarnenez the town of the start and extremely lucky that my commercial partner (every skipper gets paired up with a local business), had gone way over expectation and generosity and invited me into their home. Now known as my French Family, I feel completely adopted and part of the family.

Typically time never quite works out in your favor and delays held me back a bit, but everything’s always ok in the end and the boat and I was ready to go! Problems seem to come in threes and this time they really did, a weeks delay with technical issues with the antifoul spray job, my van decided to die on possibly my busiest day, and my ballast snorkel needing resealing to the hull days before I was due to launch. Everything worked out, with a bit of extra time and effort, and a massive thank you to the loan of a car from a great friend.

Weeks before the start I exchanged a few emails with Sam Davies, skipper of Team SCA, the all girls team for the recent Volvo Ocean Race. I’ve known Sam for a long time, since she did the Mini Transat in 2001 the same year as my dad. We’ve kept in touch and crossed paths along the way. All of Team SCA was given a €1000 bursary which they could award to a team /association / individual, to help encourage women in sailing. She got in touch with me to tell me I was being awarded her bursary to help with my Mini Transat campaign. Amazing news, not only for the extra cash, but to have contact and to be associated with Team SCA, who have changed the face of girls sailing and shown the world we can compete on the same level if given the chance.

The time came for the race village to open and to get towed into the marina, an incredibly emotional moment for me. My smile stretched from one ear the other; finally I’d made it into the race village. Everyone was cheering as I got towed in through the lock; I couldn’t help but well up a bit.

WE DID IT, WE MADE IT!

Everyone kept asking if I was nervous, stressed, anxious, and I can honestly say it never hit me, not really. I thought that as I got in the marina it would but as the days got closer to the start I just got more and more excited, an amazing feeling.

The start getting closer, family and friends started arriving in the village for the send off and to help in anyway they could, and hundreds of messages and emails of encouragement flying into my inbox, it was real, it was really happening. Official briefings on safety at sea, weather, SSB radio, race briefing, then reporters, interviews, the opening ceremony, the last week before the start was jam packed. I was lucky enough that my good friend Matt from Hurricane Rigging had taken a “business trip” from New Zealand which timed perfectly with the start of the race. Putting himself forward to check all my rigging and sort out my ropes the week before the start. Busy working away, it was great to have a 2nd set of hands to help me and I can’t thank him enough.

The night before the race “Team Nikki” enjoyed a meal together; having everyone in the same place before I headed off was truly a special occasion, it doesn’t happen very often in my family – as we’re always off in different places. My older sister had even flown in from Australia. I’ve decided I’ll have to do this all over again just to make it happen again!!

 

START DAY

Start day arrived; the weather was looking perfect, locking out at 9am and heading for the other marina, with my chosen song blaring over the sound system. “What a bloody great day to go sailing” and that it was. We stayed in the other marina for a couple of hours where we had a BBQ kindly provided by SNSM (the French Coastguard) and a chance for final goodbyes. I had a final security check to confirm all my security seals were still in place and I wasn’t above the maximum or below the minimum water allowance. As my song came over the sound system again it was time to go for real.

We had a short 4 mile course in the bay before we headed out into the Biscay, an intense start line, most boats starting on Port tack, with a fetch to the first mark. Everyone wanted to fight but at the same time all of us knew that the first 4 miles in a 1300 mile leg ultimately isn’t THAT important, except for the photos!

Ribs zooming around with support crews and friends of all the skippers, spectator boats, the French Navy, press, helicopters, the bay was buzzing with excitement and the atmosphere was incredible.

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With the short course over, we headed towards the Raz de Sein, support boats zooming around saying final goodbyes. We passed through the Raz just before the sun was setting, kites went up and we were off, next stop Lanzarote. Masthead lights everywhere, the first night, unlike most past Transat starts was peaceful and very enjoyable. Adrenaline was high but I made an effort to try get into a routine early, sneaking in some 15 minute power naps, enjoying a nice hot meal. Life at sea isn’t bad at all, starting to wonder why people keep saying I’m crazy, this is just perfect.

Due to the weather the whole fleet was heading west, to try pass through the front into the new wind on the other side. One of those battles where; the first to get into the new wind will win. 6am came quickly and our first radio check was in motion, each competitor relaying their position to the support boat. Scribbling down positions, mostly in an attempt to practice my French for the weather bulletins later in the race. The fleet was still quite compact, I could almost hear everyone, and as the sun came up, boats started appearing on the horizon. I thought this was a solo race? The wind started to drop and most of Sunday was spent drifting, trying to get gennekers to fill and make any progress forwards we could.

Fully immersed into Bretagne life now, Sunday morning’s breakfast was the “Boreal crepe challenge.” Is it possible to cook a pancake on a Mini? In short the answer is yes, but next time I’ll definitely be more prepared. Pre made mixture in a bottle and my little frying pan for the jet boil all was looking good. Heating up the pan nicely and then turning the heat down I was focusing hard on not letting the pan get too hot (very easy to do with a jet boil). With the new simmer feature thankfully this wasn’t a problem. However forgetting oil to grease the pan was a massive downfall, as when it came time to flip, the whole thing was completely stuck to the pan – doh!! Regardless of the situation I did what I could to rescue what was in the pan, and enjoy my “pancake” with one of Rolly’s brownies, a great start to the morning. Now back to drifting.

At 10 UTC everyday we had our SSB bulletin with a brief weather forecast and our ranking and distance to finish. In order to pick up the signal I’d had to create an antenna which was taped to the rigging. The antenna is made from solid core coax, with a 3.5 jack fitting on the end which can attach to the radio. There was a lot of debate among all the different skippers for the best methods, lengths and materials. Unfortunately you can’t really test the antenna on land as there is too much interference so it’s very much fingers crossed once you get out. Day 1 came and I didn’t hold much hope as we were still very close to land. I tuned in and could hear a very faint signal of something, but nothing understandable. I had a spare antenna so I quickly hoisted it up the mast using a spare halyard, just in case it was any better – no luck…tomorrow’s another day!

The wind filled in, genneker up we were heading off at 5/6 knots. Wind very up and down; I really had to change the set up, ballast in-out-in-out trying to find the best set up. The wind started to die into the night, then build again in the early hours. Passed the front – yahoooooo! The decision when to tack across was vital to the route, and something I definitely was too late on and lost a lot of ground sailing as far west as I could. I tacked over in the middle of the night, the wind now quite strong, after the tack I ran onto the deck to check the rig, not quite straight, a big bannna belly in the middle. Ok tack back, tighten the right. I then waited till the morning light to tack back and have a thorough check. Best to be safe at this point, it´s still early days. Morning came and everything was ok, wind was building and freeing up. The kite went up and I was up storming along, surfing the waves. It soon became very gusty and was becoming very sketchy with the kite, I had a knock down which I couldn’t bounce up from. I went to drop the kite, tack line round the winch, trying to blow the clutch. A big gust knocked me further over and I fell down across the cockpit into the leeward guardrails. Head under water I scrambled around trying to find a stantion to grab and get a foot on. Adrenaline pumping, thank god for safety lines I knew I wasn’t going anywhere, but still eager to get back into the boat. I pulled myself up the boat with the tack line in my hand. I got the kite down, and then just lay on top of the bag for a few minutes, reliving what just happened. Pheeeewww, that was close.

It was nearly time for the SSB so I headed below deck and got the radio and papers out, turning on the fuel cell to warm the boat up. The fuel cell is a magical device, not only because it charges my batteries fairly painlessly, just by taking in small amounts of methanol each day, but also it pumps out a bit of warm aim, which I can trap in the “tunnel” under the cockpit. It keeps everything a bit drier but I can sneak down there and warm up on those cold nights. Perhaps in the second leg I won’t be so thankful for this, but right now, completely drenched from head to toe it was the best thing since sliced bread. Still no signal on the SSB I gave up quite quickly trying to tune in and proceeded to find my clothes bag and completely change. Fresh new thermals, and my dry suit, I was now nice and dry again, if still a little cold, I took a nap and used the Jetboil to heat up some food, along with the fuel cell it was now like a sauna down here – perfect! Ready for action again, if a little pensive.

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For the next day I took life easy, getting lots of sleep, preparing for the Finisterre TSS, to make sure I was well rested. The wind was quite strong now with gusts up to 40kts, I had the genneker up most the time with 2 reefs in the main, sometimes with the jib as well, depending on the waves, which seemed to have a life of their own.

By Tuesday afternoon I was passing Finisterre, the wind had dropped, but the waves were still very choppy. Waypoint in the GPS now Lanzarote, 10 degrees off course, some 800 miles to go….Awesome! Wednesday morning I saw my last mini, as we crossed paths on different gybes. “Nikki Nikki Nikki, is that you with the Orange spinnaker – yes yes yes that’s me, are you with the red kite? Little did I know that this would be my last conversation with a mini´ist until Lanzarote. Strangely it was quite a nice thought to have, I really quite enjoy being alone at sea, and with everyone still in sight at Finisterre I was keen to get going and get on with MY race and loose touch with everyone else.

As days passed I could pick up more and more on the SSB:

“November November Echo 10 to 15 knots, one, zero, to one, five, knots….! Great got something, no idea where it’s for or what day but it doesn’t sound bad so whatever….! Maybe tomorrow”

Wednesday was probably my favorite day of the leg; it was windy, perhaps because it reminded me of “Windy Wednesday” from Cowes Week. Gusts above 25 knots we were flying down the waves, really flying. Boreal found what I like to call “stage 2” she just took off above all the waves, it was incredible. The pilot really couldn’t handle the waves as they were so unpredictable so I spent the day on the helm, briefly dropping the kite to be able to get some food down, and go to the toilet. The wind almost by clockwork died down a bit by sunset and with the code 5 up the boat was very manageable. If the rest of the race was like this it really would be perfect.

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By the 24th I started to get almost all the weather forecasts and rankings. Typically the radio had a great habit of tuning out just as it got to something I wanted to hear.

I could listen to the whole series ranking then “Now for the proto ranking, in first place…loerhguiowrhfgwrgebrjhgb3ruigbf3rui” absolutely nothing, re-tuning swapping between receptions, just gone! Scrawling down anything, any numbers I could hear, or think I heard, my logbook is barely understandable.

From 25th onwards I could hear almost everything, French and English weather, both rankings, yahoooooo my antenna isn’t completely useless and I’m making progress up the fleet catching the guy in front.

A very odd thing, although not the first time for me, having not seen a boat, a cargo, anything for 4/5 days a cargo came onto the AIS screen, and then the horizon. I became almost quite aggressive, shouting at the boat to bugger off and that it was my ocean. Well at least I know I really do like it…! Then as I approached Lanzarote a feeling of apprehension came over me, I really didn’t want to stop. I had enough food to keep going for a few more days, maybe I’ll go visit Tenerife?

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Fighting in the waves surfing with the kite, the AIS was constantly beeping, so I went below to check, a French MMSI, maybe a mini? Then suddenly on the radio “741 741 741 Nikki this is Jacques.” It was the French Navy ship that was following us down to Lanzarote as a support boat, with Jacques Vapillion onboard the race photographer. “Do you mind if we come up behind you quite close and take some photos.” How cool… I quickly ran down below to grab my GoPro, how often do you have a Navy ship get that close to you after all?

I started getting excited, making stupid sounds from Jaws or something, who knows…wow I’ve gone mad. They followed me for a good 20 minutes to half an hour.

“Goodbye Nikki, enjoy your approach to the finish.”

With less than 60 miles to go I knew I would be in before the sunrise the next day. Gybing passed the north headland and making my way south suddenly the VHF comes alive with Mini sailors, who are just finishing, and approaching the line. My peaceful silence onboard was over….

My AIS starts beeping, as I’m catching the boat in front, then the VHF calls, Nikki are you trying to catch me. Mathieu, on 879, 5 miles in front, and Seb, 660, 5 miles behind. A fight to the finish, now only 20 miles away.

Mathieu and Seb proceed to natter away on the radio and I take the opportunity to try catch up, playing with the gybing angles to get to the finish. Every time I go inshore the wind is shifting 30 degrees in my favor, but not quite enough to lay the line. Gybing out taking the hit to get the final 5 degrees I need. The wind starts to drop and waves die down with it, I’m now sailing the boat a lot like an optimist. Everything stacked to windward with the kite bellowed right over, managing to steer 170 degrees from the wind. On lay line, soaking soaking, tiller extension in my toes, kite sheet in my hand, really playing to the end.

The moon is shining bright, stars out in full motion, it was truly a magical night toarrive in Lanzarote. Finishing just 1.3 miles (12 minutes) behind Mathieu who was 5 miles in front when I had 20 miles to go.

Arriving on the pontoon, all the organizers, and other skippers were there to greet me, all sharing stories completely buzzing with excitement. Showering everyone else and Boreal with champagne, received for being the first girl to arrive. Then looking up to see that the full moon had gone, not realizing it was the night of the lunar eclipse.

Now it’s time to prepare for Leg 2, after a break here in Lanzarote. Setting off on 31st October. I’ve not had much work to do on the boat; the jobs list has included replacing a speaker which broke on the first leg. I’ve also rotated my wind anemometer 180 degrees on the mast, so the spinnaker turbulence affects it less. By doing this hopefully my true wind mode on the pilot will be a little more reliable now. Otherwise I’ve been chasing customs to get packages cleared and sorting out my kit bag, and packing up my food and water for the second leg. Thinking about what next…..