Mini Transat 2015 · Dominik Lenk

1000 Mile Qualifier

I was happy when I arrived in Douarnenez after 10 days of sailing. The last couple of days had been hard—slamming upwind for the last 200 miles under two reefs and small jib. Every time the boat fell down another wave crest I was left hanging midair above the boat. Hanging on to something on deck is easy; down below it is another matter entirely, especially when one tries to fall asleep for 15 minutes.

Of course I was also proud that I completed my 1000 mile qualifier. But mostly happy that I instinctively knew that I was coping much better than I had feared. Most people step of the boat after their qualifier, leaving it and the though of a Transat behind for at least a week or two. The original fascination with sailing tends to come back after a while, but for the most part you tend to just head straight for the shower. Instead, I was just really looking forward to the next race.

To qualify for the Mini Transat every competitor needs to sail a single-handed 1000 mile qualifier.

My trip started in La Trinité, two days after the Mini en Mai. I had repaired my autopilot and was confident that I could complete the course reasonably quickly.

The first leg led me to Coningbeg buoy in front of Ireland; by the way also the only buoy that I know, which has a Twitter account. For 100 miles, I sailed alongside Nikki onboard 741, who was delivering her boat to Douarnenez and also lent me her spare autopilot in case mine would fail again.

After she turned right into the bay of Douarnenez, I quickly realised what the reason for the qualifier is. It is something entirely different to sail against and next to other people during a coastal race than to see nothing but water for days on end. I said “See you in a couple of days” on the VHF, to which she jokingly told me that I’ll probably need more than just a couple of days, especially after the last 1½ days had been an extremely light upwind slog.

Somewhere in front of Ushant. That's the trouble with pictures on the water—they tend to look the mostly same in different shades of blue.

But now I had wind and felt very good about the boat. I tacked offshore and watched Douarnenez disappear behind me. The autopilot was humming happily and I was managing very well with my 20 minute naps.

Directly next to Ushant the calms overtook me again and I spent the rest of the day drifting around near one of the most impressive collections of lighthouses that I know. One of the skippers that I previously sailed the Fastnet with used to say that they just build another lighthouse when the bulb fails.

The next morning I passed the Scillies, still beating against the wind. Around midday I was able to hoist the Code 0 heading for Ireland. The Irish Sea was behaving itself up to now: Grey in grey, but mostly boring. I sailed up to Coningbeg in the middle of the night after solving some trouble with one of my rudders. 500 meters before the buoy, I collided with something, breaking the kickup mechanism and effectively disabling the rudder. Cursing (very loudly) I fixed it in place again, threading a line through several fittings that were being submerged with every wave rolling in from behind. Rounding a buoy without a rudder is just not feasible.

Just in time for my rounding the wind turned. I continued back to France on the other tack—but beating upwind yet again, a course that Minis are definitely are not made for.

Another 15 minutes later the wind increased so quickly leaving me no time to put in enough reefs. Unfortunately, spotting looming black clouds in the dark is almost impossible. After some surprise, I managed to tie two reefs into the mainsail before crawling onto the foredeck to do the same with the jib. In the end I just took it down completely, as it was disintegrating before my eyes.

While I was thinking about a third reef, the wind instruments died at 35 knots. A couple of seconds later the autopilot switched itself on and tacked the boat. An alarm told me that I had apparently gone overboard—something that was clearly not true. The old IT wisdom came to mind: Have you tried switching it off and on again? This killed the alarm, but also left my autopilot crippled.

All my previous problems with the autopilot races had been “caused” by a lack of experience on how to fix them. But by now I knew how to tackle the problem and headed down below to switch out some fuses and reinitialise the system. Or so I thought: The error message “Too many collisions on the bus” continued to mock me for the rest of the trip. Who was colliding with whom? And why now and not two days earlier?

14. May 7:23 UTC: The logbook reads “All hell broke loose last night”. I was drifting before the coast of Ireland with two reefs in the main and without a jib. The front had passed and now there was no wind. All that remained was the swell, leaving me to check all cable connections while fighting very hard not to puke onto them.

I was suspecting that the front had damaged my wind instruments so I disconnected them. No result. After a while I had disconnected most of the cables on board. I spent the entire day down below after having pointed the boat into the right direction again, but failed to find the problem. For the first time I was happy that I was still beating, as it allowed me to tie off the helm with a good old-fashioned piece of rope.

The Irish Sea in all its grey glory.
The first version of the attachment for the backup pilot. Doesn't look very solid, in fact it is anything but, but it worked remarkably well.

Even though the rope-job worked, I installed the replacement autopilot that I took along. The first version relied heavily on duck tape and zip ties, the second version looked more confidence inspiring.

I kept checking the electrics all the way back the French coast. To be honest, there wasn’t much else to do other than slowly eating through my provisions. By the time I passed Douarnenez for the second time, morale had reached a new low. If I wanted I could turn left and be in a nice comfy harbour by the end of the day. After all I still had half of the trip ahead of me and the autopilot didn’t work.

While the replacement pilot did work, it drove the boat like a drunk lunatic. When the wind turned aft for the first time in 600 miles I could only steer by hand if I wanted to hoist the spinnaker. Anything else and I would have sailed into a chinese gybe every three minutes. After a while I found a compromise and hoisted the Code 0, which the pilot could manage most of the time. In the end this trip wasn’t about speed but about arriving in once piece.

Realising this raised spirits somewhat. After Rochebone I headed up and was surfing down big atlantic waves at 10 knots for the first time on this trip. Big smiles all around. At least until La Rochelle where I parked in a no-wind zone again for several hours. But even that didn’t dampen my mood; after all it was the last corner before heading “home” to Douarnenez.

OK, I have to admit: The last leg wasn’t that great, upwind with two reefs in the main and one in the jib, with a tacking angle close to 120° …

At this time I also found out that my AIS wasn’t working anymore—in fact it hadn’t been sending out my position since Ireland. (I only noticed because of a slightly panic-stricken SMS from my mother that got delivered as I sailed towards La Rochelle.) Not great! But, hey almost home, nothing can stop me now …

In front of Les Sables d’Olonne I managed to shake off my masthead light, something that was only topped by losing all electronics altogether 24 hours later. One wave broke the mast seal, the next flooded the 12 volt inverter directly below.

But I would arrive, even if I had to juggle batteries back and forth from a flashlight to the handheld GPS

It is amazing to see how many small things influence mood onboard. A lull has you going up the wall, slightly better speed leaves you sleepless and euphoric. A little defiance, warm food and a willingness to celebrate every small success make a huge difference.

After 10 days and 12 hours I arrived in Douarnenez and lied myself down on the pontoon for 2 hours. A shower followed quickly. Unfortunately, there were quite a few items to repair like the electric system and the autopilot. The sails have also seen better days and will probably need to be patched up before the Transat.

The next race will be the Mini Fastnet, double-handed from Douarnenez around Fastnet Rock in front of Ireland and back. This will be the last test before the Transat in September, except for some training in the weeks before of course.