Mini Transat – Leg 2 Review

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.

JOB DONE!

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.

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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.

 

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…..

TEAM SCA

Nikki Curwen, the British Mini Transat sailor, has received the first Team SCA Bursary from skipper Sam Davies.

Each member of the 15-strong Team SCA squad has been asked to nominate a club or individual to receive a Team SCA Bursary. In this way the all-female team, that completed the Volvo Ocean Race at the end of June, can continue to support and encourage women to participate and compete in the sport.

The Team SCA Bursary program, which includes a €1000 donation and Team SCA clothing, will be rolled out through the Autumn and is part of the legacy of the first all-female team to compete in the Volvo Ocean Race in over a decade.

For Sam, it was a simple choice to donate her Bursary to Nikki. “This is a very fitting way for me to be able to donate my Team SCA Bursary. The Mini Transat paved the way for me in my career and I am sure that if I hadn’t taken part, I would not have got to where I am now. Nikki has qualified for this years’ Mini Transat Race but with a very tight budget. She is very serious and has been racing shorthanded offshore since she was young and is very, very keen.”

“I will be in Douarnenez to send her off and I wish Nikki and all the Mini sailors a great race this year,” she added.

The Mini Transat is single-handed 4020-mile race from Douarnenez, France with a stopover in Arrecife, Lanzarote before finishing in Pointe-á-Pitre in Guadaloupe. The race is sailed in 6.5 metre boats and as entries are limited to just 80 boats, so qualifying to enter is a race in itself.

The race is sailing in its purest form with only paper charts and basic GPS for navigation – no computers, phones or chart plotters are allowed onboard.

Team SCA has strong links to the Mini Transat with Sam having raced in the event in 2001 and her fellow crew member Justine Mettraux finishing in second place in the 2013 edition of the race.

The Mini Transat starts today, September 19, 2015.

START DAY

It’s time to go, and WOW it feels great to be here!

MASSIVE thank you to every one of you who’ve helped me get here. I’m truely humbled by all your support and help throughout my whole campaign.

Now it’s time to leave and the only thing left to say is, see you in Lanzarotte!!!!

Follow my tracker (link below) or even race agasint me in the online game! Let’s see who gets there first….!

Updates : 07h00 UK • 11h00 UK • 15h00 UK • 19h00 UK

TRACKER
ONLINE GAME

ONE MONTH TO GO!!

19th September in Douarnenez, 74 competitors, 16 different nationalities, of which there are only 4 girls.
I’ve been working towards the Mini Transat for 3 years now, having narrowly missed out in 2013, being 2nd on the waiting list. 3 years seems like a long time but WOW how time has flied with only 3 weeks until the race village opens.

I feel prepared and on top of everything, I’m almost getting stressed about not being stressed! Saying that, waking up this morning knowing we only have one month left is quite daunting, and the to do list is still quite long – 31 days sounds much better right?!

I’ve just got back from a couple weeks in England, which included working for Sailing Logic during Cowes Week. Sailing and teaching Sailing Logic Individuals, as well as corporate guests through Britannia Events. I thoroughly enjoyed the week, and re discovered my love of teaching and getting involved with a fully crewed boat. Fully crewed hasn’t won me over yet though, I still much prefer the challenge and enjoyment of solo sailing!

Having been away from the boat and Transat preparations I’m now madly getting the boat ready, my life has become spreadsheets and to do lists, which seems to be never ending.

Boreal’s coming out the water tomorrow, and the mast coming out. For a fresh antifoul paint job, and a thorough check over the rigging.

 

BLOG: BOREAL’S UPGRADES

Over the winter I’ve made a number of mods and changes to Boreal, my electrics, the ballast system and rigging being the main changes. Typically at the beginning of the winter I had tonnes of time but no money to start. Then with the support from Go Ape! And Team Concise I had funding to be able to make the changes I wanted, but less than a month before the first race. It turned into a race against time just to make it to the start. With a few hiccups we made it…not quite all systems in place but we got round 

55% of retirements from the Mini Transat are usually due to electrical failures. For this reason I have spent the time to give my system a complete refit. I ripped out all my wiring and replaced most of the cables. The Mini is very wet and with a mix of salt and humidity, corrosion is very common.

While renewing all the cables I took the opportunity to upgrade my batteries to lithium and install a monitoring system. Lithium batteries have a number of advantages, as well as being lighter in weight they are a lot more efficient as they have a high energy density, perfect for cyclic applications. Every up the mast is new too, nav light, VHF ariel and my wind anemometer, all with new cables. Every is connected up in my new electric box, with circuit breakers on every switch, removing the need for fuses. Not only have I ensured everything has been changed/checked, having done the work myself, I know the system inside out, so if there any problems I will be able to fix them myself. Whether it’s between races or even mid Atlantic, and considering the percentage of electrical issues in past transats, this fills me with great confidence going into the race.

Although we have limited equipment on board we’re restricted on ability to charge without an engine. Monitoring my consumption in and out has become a regular task. With my new battery monitor I can see exactly how many amps/watts are draining from my system. With a bit of button switching I’ve now got a gauge of how much power each item on my boat draws, both during the day and night, depending on its back lights, as well as range of consumption for things like my pilot which change.

The autopilot is probably the most energy intensive piece of equipment on the boat, but as a solo sailor also the most important. I can set my autopilot to steer either to the compass, true wind, or apparent wind. Depending on the course and wind direction I can then also change the response settings to match the conditions. I almost adjust the pilot as much as I would the sails.

Last year I was using an on deck tiller pilot, which required me to clip the pilot on and press the button to activate the system. The big debate of clipping on the pilot or pressing the button first or trying to clip it on after, all while trying to steer in a straight line – nightmare! I’ve now upgraded my pilot to a bigger more responsive system which is permanently attached to the rudder shaft below deck. With a clutch to release the system when it’s not in use.

Installing the pilot itself has been fairly painless in regards to the electrics, however I’ve had to reinforce the hull and the tiller system to withstand the increased loads endured. With a new axel/ shaft for the tiller as well as a new release mechanism, I’m bulking up all elements of the system including the bar joining my two rudders.

Before my pilot attached directly to the tiller the new pilot attaches to the shaft, making sure the system has no play is vital to the operation. If the shaft and the tiller don’t clamp together and move at the same speed and direction, there becomes an element of error, which could ultimately cause the autopilots computer to fail. As the reaction speeds and angle reference can change periodically.

I’ve been working with Lorient based company Metalunox to minimise the play, and increasing the strength of all my rudder mechanism components. The final piece is with them now, and when I return back to France next week hopefully I will be able to say we’ve succeeded in removing all the play and the system is working 100%.

During the winter I also improved my water ballast system, after being plagued with problem after problem last year. With some help from mini and boat building guru Ian Munslow, I now have a new moulded connection to my tank for the transfer tube. I’ve changed to fleible reinforced tubing to allow a bit of movement, rather than the rigid fibreglass tubes before. I’ve also now added an electric pump to the system, which in ideal conditions can fill my 200L tank in less than 5 minutes. Somewhat of an upgrade to the 15-20 minute hand pump from before!!

The existing rigging on Boreal was starting to age and stretch a considerable amount, I could rake the mast back 4/5 degrees and in two weeks it was straight again. I’ve now changed to Marlows’ 7mm Dyneema SK78 Max. I’ve also now added some rigging screws to the caps, so I can easily and accurately adjust my settings, where before I was using lashing. The first few sails was made somewhat interesting and I was having to be very careful, as all the splices were stretching in. Thus my rig was loosening off while I was sailing, and not even evenly each side!

Now we’re all go go go and nearly firing on all cylinders. I’ve got a few more bits to work out – how to empty my ballast when I’m not moving much, which is proving to be impossible, without equalising the two tanks and then opening the hatch and putting the bilge pump inside to pump out, that or reversing the piping to pump out. I’ve also got a problem with pointing upwind, so I need to play a bit more with the mast and differing rakes.

With just under 4 months to the start of the Transat, and qualification completed I’ve got plenty of time to get out and practise. Even though it feels like time is flying at quadruple speed…!

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GO APE! SUPPORTING ADVENTURE: NIKKI CURWEN’S TRANSATLANTIC VOYAGE

Sportswoman. Sailor. Adventurer.
However you describe Nikki Curwen, her resumé is pretty impressive, which is why we’re proud to announce that we are the lead sponsor for Nikki’s 2015 transatlantic voyage.

This year Nikki will take on challenge after challenge before competing – solo – in the gruelling Mini Transat expedition.

Covering over 4,000 miles, Nikki will race across the Atlantic taking on 84 competitors all vying for the prestigious first place.

What’s more…the Mini Transat is pure back-to-basics sailing. That means no communication and only a basic GPS and paper charts for navigation. If that’s not living life adventurously we don’t know what is!

Why are we getting involved?
It’s true, single-handedly crossing the Atlantic is a far stretch from the leafy hangouts we love exploring, but we take pride in supporting those that are committed to keeping the adventure in adventure.

Speaking about the upcoming expedition, Nikki told us;

“The Transat for me, although a competitive race, it is mostly about the adventure and the challenge. I love sailing and I’m always looking for the next thing to push me that bit further. The boats are incredibly responsive, they almost feel alive. They’re so small you can really feel the power and witness it first hand. When I was a little kid, maybe 7 years old – I made a bet with my older sister that we would sail across the Atlantic before we flew. I can honestly say I’ve kept my deal and this year will be my first time across the pond. In a tiny little 6.5m boat, by myself!!”

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“In order to enter the Transat you have to qualify by completing 1,000 miles of races as well as a 1000 mile non stop solo passage. The race is over subscribed and unfortunately not all can go. Once you have completed your qualification miles you can join the entry list. Having had my boat a year now, I’ve already qualified and signed up with my entry confirmed for this September.”

What’s next for Nikki?
Having just completed the Lorient BSM this weekend, a 150 mile double handed race, Nikki’s lined up a further five races before taking on the Mini Transat in September this year. She’ll take on the Pornichet Select, the Mini En Mai, MAP, and Mini Fastnet – clocking up over 1,000 additional miles.

In the coming months we’ll be following Nikki’s journey as she takes on the unimaginable challenges of solo sailing. Next week, check out our exclusive Q&A as we find out what it takes to become an offshore sailor.