The second leg of the Mini Transat started on 31st October, just over a month after I finished the first leg, in order to wait for a good weather window. The gap between the two legs was a very odd period, half the competitors went back home to work or see family, while the rest of us stayed out in Lanzarote. I tried to escape and separate myself from the boat, to then be able to get back into “race mode” before the next start. Learning to surf was a key focus, but often distracted by jobs lists and catching up on emails.
Two weeks before the start I went down with a nasty bug, which started off as just swollen glands, which escalated quite quickly, which in turn knocked out my ears, and then my voice. I was out for the count – even just standing on a moving boat sent me spinning! Thankfully I didn’t have a huge amount of work to do on the boat before the start, so I worked through the list steadily, and spent my days sleeping and trying to recover.
Come start day I felt a lot better, my energy seemed to have returned, however in my head I didn’t feel pumped for it. I’d spent the day before sorting a problem with my wind wand, which involved me climbing the mast over 10 times to test different solutions. Not ideal when I wasn’t 100%, thankfully I had a lot of help from Jacques Vapilion the race photographer, local NKE supplier Michael and neighbouring support boats and friends, especially Olivier and Fabien. Without them I probably would have sailed the second leg with no wind data!
The morning of the start we were greeted by typical British weather, rain and wind! With a final climb up the mast to secure and tape the wand in place now it was working. Everything felt a bit last minute and I didn’t feel prepared, I knew I had to go, and I wanted to go, but the adrenaline, buzz and excitement I felt at the beginning of the first leg just wasn’t there. I was the last to leave the pontoon, hoisted my sails and went out to find the start line. Just as I found one end, I’m searching for the other, then I hear on the radio….5, 4…I scramble to find my watch to start the timer…3…2….1….BOOM! “Bon depart, bon depart”! Oh shit, that was the start, ok time to go, lets go, kite up, this is it!!!
Adrenaline pumped I hoisted the medium kite, wind blowing 25 knots, with a massive chop, boats everywhere, it’s absolute carnage. Ok it’s set; it’s time to fly, next stop Guadeloupe!
I get the boat settled, everything stacked to the windward start, then grab the helm and start playing in the waves, surfing along, picking up boat by boat, making gains through the fleet. Then BOOM just 1 hour after the start, I hear a loud bang/crack and the boat spins out and broaches. I put the autopilot on, and quite quickly realise I’ve snapped my spinnaker pole in half. Time to get the kite down and assess the situation, which was a harder task than I anticipated. After quite a struggle the kite comes down in one piece and I crawl forwards onto the foredeck to fish the end piece of the pole out the water, dis attach the whole thing and bring it inside the boat. Wow it’s going to be a long way with no spinnaker pole…DIY time! I made contact with the support boat/race committee to let them know my situation, that I had no intention to stop and that I would make a fix on board, but I might be a bit slow until I do!
First things first, I grab the hacksaw and the spare blades and cut off the two jagged ends, trying to keep the carbon dust and splinters outside in the cockpit and not below. Once I’d cut the ends I sanded back the paint lacquer on the pole to reach the raw carbon, to create a clean surface for my repair. On board I had a “Composite Patch” repair kit, which I still had from my 2013 Transat campaign. I was incredible impressed with the pack, it contained a piece of carbon, which was vacuum-sealed in the same pack as the two part epoxy. Using a flat spatula you could break the seal between the two-part epoxy and mix the two, without getting your hands dirty. Then once mixed I could break the seal to the carbon fibre piece and let it soak up the epoxy. Once I was ready I could cut open the pack and directly apply it to my spinnaker pole. All was looking good – I had the pole inside and tied to the boat as not to move, and try keep it straight. With slight apprehension that actually once I’d fixed it if I could push it forward enough to get it out the hatch again…!
I prepared the carbon patch and attached it around the pole to join the two pieces together. Once on I then attached a pre made circular clamp and tied it tight, making sure it wasn’t going to move. Cure time in the current temperature, 40 minutes to 1 hour. Perfect! All was looking good. By this point I was absolutely knackered, I hadn’t eaten or slept at all during the race. I grab some kip and a quick snack, with the thought that shortly I’d be reattaching the pole and getting the kite up again.
Time was passing slowly, I kept checking the pole, getting nervous, it wasn’t setting, even the remains of the epoxy mix in the vacuum pack hadn’t properly set, and those that had, created big lumps. Eughhh! I panic and start to double check the instructions, and realise that the epoxy had expired!!! Frustrated with myself that I hadn’t checked it, I looked through my repair kit to see what else I had and to see what my options were. I had my West Systems repair kit still, with plenty of epoxy and enough carbon and glass fibre to make the repair again. The problem was the old one had stuck enough to the pole that it was near on impossible to get it off to make a clean surface – and what if I had another problem later in the race that I’d need it for? My brain starts drumming through my options, so I decided to sleep on it and to have a look again in the morning in daylight. I spent the night, grabbing 30-minute naps and trying to eat as much as possible to get my energy levels up.
As the sun came up I could see Jan in 613 and Jesus in 654, we sailed alongside each other, for a while. We crossed paths a number of times on opposite gybes, sharing moments of conversation and singing over the VHF.
Still plagued with my broken spinnaker pole I start to think of more options, looking around the boat I realise the bar joining my two rudders together is almost exactly the right size to fit inside my spinnaker pole! Last year in the Les Sable to Azores race I broke this bar where the adjustment rigging screw (to change its length) jumped and twisted out and broke. For the Transat I’d had a new one made, beefier and stronger. I had the old one on board as a spare and after much debate in my head I swapped back to the old one in order to use the new bigger tube to fix my spinnaker pole. Paranoid that the old one would break again, I screwed a rod to the two pieces to stop it rotating and moving so much. It meant I couldn’t adjust the length of the bar, but hopefully it wouldn’t break!
Changing the two bars over certainly wasn’t the easiest of tasks, leaning over the back of the boat unfixing one end at a time, then finally the middle fitting to the tiller. Trying to leave the current bar wedged between the rudders, and still work even though it wasn’t attached. All while making sure not to drop it in the piss!!!
Stage 1 complete – I had the bar and it definitely fits inside the pole – perfect!
The inside pole was slightly smaller than the interior of the spi pole so I laminated on a layer of carbon to thicken it up, and I wedged it inside. Once inside I triple checked it was facing the right way. Then once it was in place I got my drill and drilled through the two poles each side of the join, and inserted two bolts to lock the poles in place. I then wrapped the whole thing in tape, as not to expose any sharp edges or spikes that could rip the spinnaker.
A surreal few days, which left me completely knackered and drained, made worse that my cough was back from before the start and I seemed to have an infestation of African mosquitos on the boat!! I was so unbelievably frustrated and although it never crossed my mind to stop, I wasn’t exactly having fun. My motivation and energy was gone and I stopped pushing the boat and myself.
You have to complete to compete – and that’s exactly what my mind-set was from then onwards. Taking day by day as it came, and enjoying the experience for what it was – a great big adventure, after all, no one said it would be easy!
From then on, days just got better and better, I was feeling better, trade winds were blowing, and it was time to head west! When to gybe over was a big question, not going too soon, as the forecast was to have no wind in the north, but not going too far South to add distance to the route.
Once I’d gybed, the strategy was pretty simple, head slightly south of west, but don’t go too far south, if the wind dies go more south. The great thing about heading west is that you’re constantly sailing into the sunset, my favourite time of the day. For me this was really the best part of the Transat, every night as the sun goes down, enjoying the orangey yellow sky, spinnaker up, doing what I love, pure bliss. Then the sky lights up with stars, and quite often the moon, truly magical.
All was going well, and then just as I was due North of the Cape Verdes my main autopilot started playing games. It would be working fine, and then suddenly freeze. If I then wiggled the tiller it started working again. I tried all the different modes, true wind mode, apparent wind, compass, even rudder mode and I had the same problem. On board I had 4 different rams with me, so I swapped to a Raymarine ST2000, a standalone unit which runs solely off 12v and attaches directly to the tiller on deck, with it’s own compass built in.
Not the most responsive option on a mini but great for emergencies while fixing the main system. I tried everything to try get my main pilot working, I opened up the motor, thinking maybe there was a connection problem inside giving inconsistent power inputs/outputs or possibly even the motor having burnt out. I replaced all the wires and fuses in the system. Maybe it was the pilot’s clutch failing and turning on? So I tried disconnecting it altogether, nothing seemed to work. Next step was to take my spare ST4000 ram and attach it to the NKE system and see if that worked, but unfortunately I got the same problem, so I concluded it was the NKE computer, and a problem internally with the chip/settings. Just over 2,000 miles to Guadeloupe and I’m now relying solely on two ST2000 pilots on compass mode. This could be tough! With the waves being so confused and choppy the pilot was really struggling. I could set it to steer 260 and it would oscillate between 250 and 270, like a drunken man trying to walk down the street, it couldn’t keep a straight course but it would get me there, and that was all I needed. It meant I had to drop the kite if I wasn’t on the helm, or the boat would end up on it’s side or gybing, I was taking no risks now. I spent hours on the helm per day, and when not helming I was grabbing quick naps, listening to the meteo forecast, or eating.
EAT – DRINK – SLEEP – SAIL – REPEAT
I have this written inside my boat, and once again it rang true, it really is back to basics in more ways than one on the Mini. Although tough with the basic pilot the sailing was incredible, but very wet, with waves crashing over the side into the cockpit the sea was very agitated.
One night while I was asleep I got thrown out of my bed, the boat had crash gybed, a situation I was quite used to by now with the pilot moving around so much. But this time it was different, the pilot was making a constant beeping noise….oh god that’s not good. I crawled out the hatch and scrambled across the cockpit to check the screen, and it was completely blank, with the backlight on and constant beeping. I quickly turned it off and took the helm while I thought about what just happened. I turned the power back on, hoping a simple reset would solve the problem…..beeeeeeeeeeeep!! Arghhhhh! Thankfully I had two ST2000’s on board so I swapped to the 2nd one. -10, -10, -10 ok the arms central, I hit the AUTO button and nothing it just wasn’t activating. Now around 1700 miles to Guadeloupe I had no working pilots, unless I could fix one of them.
So project “fix an autopilot” began…I locked the tiller in the center using the ST4000 ram and began work on the ST2000’s. Because of the wave and wind direction this meant I was a good 40/50 degrees off course, heading NW. Knowing everyone was watching the tracker, and the race committee might be concerned I pressed the “Presence on board” button on the tracker, to let the organisers know everything was ok. I then set up below, drying the boat as much as I could and creating my “work station.” I opened the beeping ST2000 up, to discover a fair amount of water inside. I dried it all up and tried to clean the chip board as best I could. Hoping for a quick solution I plugged it back in to test, beeeeeeeep! Ok so the problem is bigger, something has blown or corroded inside the solders on the board. I moved onto the 2nd ST2000, I opened it up, couldn’t see anything drastically wrong, but knew it was engaging so figured there was an issue with the connection between the compass and computer.
Curiosity got the better of me and I took out the computer chip from both ST2000’s and swapped them over. Carefully reconnecting all the wires in the right place. Plugging it in and YAHOOOOOO it’s working!!!!!! Ok so back together it goes, carefully screwing in each screw. But how long will it last this time with the waves crashing over the boat straight on top of it. I decided to create a waterproof case for it, cutting up my chart case and wrapping it around and taping it closed, bingo, we’re back in business. I quickly attached it to the tiller and got the boat going in the right direction again. I tried to grab some kip but was full of adrenaline from fixing the pilot and couldn’t stop thinking about the problems for the main pilot. Once again I found myself playing around with wires and settings trying to get it to work, but still nothing seemed to work.
The fixed pilot didn’t last long, by midday it started beeping again but this time flashing C on the screen. It seemed lost, the compass just wasn’t responding quickly enough in the waves. Back to helm! This lasted 2/3 days, in order to sleep, eat, hear the meteo or do anything off the helm I was sailing NW again, the only direction the boat would sail with the tiller locked off. There wasn’t a lot I could do now, so I just made life as easy as I could and took things easy.
Problems come in threes and that day they really did, I was just about to drop my spinnaker to have dinner and prepare for the night. Moments before the corner of the spinnaker at the tack (the front end attached to the pole) completely ripped out, and the kite was flying out the back of the boat. I grabbed the tiller and bore away as best I could, but without a pilot it was impossible to keep the boat downwind and not gybe to be able to get the kite down. The kite was flogging and the mast flexing, I didn’t like it one bit so I went for the clutch and dropped the halyard. The kite now trailing behind the boat in the water, it was time to grind it back in! Absolutely knackered I had my dinner and got some sleep.
Always trying to optimise my pilot situation I rigged up a rope system in order to steer from below, forward in the cockpit. Attaching a line each side to the tiller, turning around the back stanchion, round the winch and through the hatch. Once below it ran through a pulley on the roof. It was amazing; I could pull each rope to go left and right, a system that saved me a lot of grief! I could listen to the meteo and stay on course; I even managed to “sleep” with this system, dropping and hoisting the kite also became much easier. Granted it wasn’t ideal but it would get me to the other side! I grew quite used to the system, but I will admit 2/3 days later when the pilot started to work again I was incredibly relieved.
From then everything started to settle down, and problems came far and few between. The daily routine of breakfast then helming solidly till the meteo and lunch at 12UTC then helming again until the sun went down. Dinner and then night mode, which involved helming as much as possible, but grabbing 30 minute naps. Which now it was less wet and a bit warmer was quite often on my beanbag in the cockpit, within grabbing distance to the tiller, just in case the wind shifted.
Smashing through the miles day by day, it’s funny how your mind works. As I reached the 1000 miles mark, “oh it’s just a qualifier now,” 600 miles, “oh it’s just a Fastnet race, relating the remainder of miles to the shorter races/passages I’d sailed previously. 100 miles…well that’s just a channel crossing!
Then as the miles kept reducing the VHF started to come alive with other Mini’s, and for the last 2 days I was sailing in company with Tom on 481 and Victor on 599. A chance to practice talking and communicating again before the finish!
The first contact I had was with Tom Dolan. I overheard a conversation between him and Victor. I’d just experienced one of the famous BIG BLACK CLOUDS of the Caribbean and was waiting for the wind to pass. During the nights these big black clouds appear and when under them you can get wind up to 40knots. I grew scared of them, as you can really go from 15 knots to 35 in a matter of seconds. On this occasion I was asleep with the pilot on, 1 reef in the jib and a full main, one hit and the boat spun up into the wind. I scrambled on deck, took the helm to try and bear away, but I had too much sail. The sails were flogging and the mast bending like crazy, I was scared it was going to break, but there wasn’t much I could do. I opened the clutch for the jib and main, I had no intension of going forward on the deck in these conditions, so just hoped they would come down ok. It would only last 10 minutes max, so I just had to survive. I tried to bear away again, but no luck, I just have to wait for it to pass.
So I joined Tom on the VHF and laughed about my situation, we shared our positions and suddenly:
“Oh shit really…ok ok I’ll be back I’m going to take a reef now!”
As the night passed the miles reduced and soon I could see land, the first island of Guadeloupe was in sight and just in the distance I could see the sails of Victor. For the last 35 miles we were only a couple of miles apart, even though we were in different classes it was a great battle and kept the pressure on till the very end.
I was one mile from the finish and Victor came on the VHF:
“Dammit Nikki you’ve got me.”
“It’s not over till it’s over!”
“Well what can happen now, you only have a mile to go. Oh, well I guess your keel could come off, or you could snap your mast.”
“Don’t Jinx me now!!!!!”
Then suddenly I started to realise the race was coming to an end, and although I was incredibly excited to cross the finish and to have made it. There was a horrible feeling in the back of my head, that it was all coming to an end.
As I approach the line, zodiacs and the committee boat on standby, it’s time! I cross the line and shortly after my great friends Nico and Edouard jump aboard to help me, with my family in the rib. Sharing stories as we get towed into the marina, then to be met by everyone on the pontoon. A very surreal feeling, the contrast of being completely alone on board, then to be surrounded by people, all excited and buzzing from the atmosphere. Greeted by a glass of rhum and a plate of fresh fruit, shortly after being picked up and thrown in the water. A tradition for all arrivals in the Mini Transat, day or night! Celebrations carried on all-day and night as boats continued to finish. The Mini really is a special community; it’s a great big family, one that I will never forget.
It all flew by very quickly, and I still find it hard to comprehend what I’ve actually achieved. I’m now back in the UK, still dreaming of the magical nights in the Atlantic. My boat is sold and I’m starting to plan for what comes next…!
2nd leg time: 17 days, 1 hour, 6 minutes, and 59 seconds
The total trip time for both legs was 25 days, 12 hours, 25 minutes and 27 seconds! Finishing 12th out of 26 in the Prototype division.