The AIR Valencia was supposed to be the first qualifier for the race next year. But after two days and three hours I finished in second place against newer boats and much more experiences skippers.
Around 300 nautical miles would lead us from Valencia around Columbretes Islands, Ibiza and Formentera and back to Valencia. The weather forecast was obscure at best—an area of thunderstorms was on its way but should hit to the north of our course area.
Several hours after the start the fleet was still lying close together. Two modern protos fought out their own personal drag race to windward, but the rest of the fleet fell nicely into line behind me. Unfortunately, I couldn’t compete with the height that these two were sailing, at least not with the same speed. (Double daggerboards do make a difference.)
Just before Columbretes I latched onto two very good shifts and cut the distance to the leaders again. By this time it was dark but the thunderstorm a couple miles north lit up the deck and sails occasionally.
I had tried to sleep for ten minutes after the first tack. Of course that didn’t work—it was much too early, there was too much adrenalin. By the time I got close to the islands I was getting tired, but lightning hitting the water near the horizon quickly ruled out sleeping.
After rounding Columbretes the wind had gone quiet and simply could not escape from the islands or the thunderstorm looming to windward. At the same time the toplights of the two leaders were slipping away …
The leg to Ibiza was a proper power reach. Small sails and a very wet point of sail. I assumed that I was lying in third. Every once in a while another sail would show up to leeward, but there was no way to make out which boat it belonged to.
Just before Tagomago the thunderstorm overtook me. I have never seen this much rain. Three meter tall waves were smoothed out instantly; Ibiza, just a couple of hundred meters away, disappeared behind a wall of water. I decided to not hoist the spinnaker and gybed away from the island, as I simply could not see the headland anymore that I was supposed to round.
Another mini got caught in the same shower: A shroud broke and the mast came down. One of the two support boats towed him to a harbour on Ibiza.
Once the thunderstorm blew over the wind died. Again. Around sunset I drifted past Formenterra and started to make my way up the coast of Ibiza. Another thunderstorm slipped past but wind stayed flaky.
During the night yet more thunderstorms started to surround me. Lightning hit the water to the north and west of me, Ibiza was to to the east and going back to the south was really not what I wanted to do. Besides, there was no wind to go anywhere and I had to fight very hard to talk the boat out of its constant pirouettes. So I picked a cloud in roughly the right direction under which I hadn’t seen lightning for a while and tried to edge towards it.
By the time I got near, I realised the slightly smoky, burnt smell. Nevertheless, I got through fine and was now on the mainland side of this massive storm hairball that kept me on my toes for two nights. All those nightly tacks between the centres and the final push-through had widened the gap to the next boat to more than 10 miles.
I almost managed to fuck this lead up on the last six miles. Valencia was close, very close and I surfed my way towards the smell of after-race bocadillos when a big, black something rolled towards me against the wind. I took the spinnaker down—a very wise move as it turned out.
While gathering the sail cloth in the cockpit, the boat sailed a 360° circle. Under autopilot. Without tacking or gybing!
2 seconds of silence. Then the squall hit. From 13 to 0 to 42 knots of wind within seconds. Touchdown. The mast hit the water and I watched my keel get lifted into the air while trying to keep hold of the now vertical deck.
Something similar happened the first night after rounding Columbretes islands, but not quite as extreme. This time easing the sails did not work anymore and I pulled down everything I could get my hands on. I was still thinking about the storm jib when suddenly it was all over again. Unfortunately, the boat was now drifting sideways, making rehoisting the mainsail extremely difficult. All in all, this last cloud set me back by an hour.
I arrived in Valencia around sunset. The motorboat that was supposed to tow me into the harbour was not there and I made my way past the breakwater under sail. I took this to mean that another mini was being towed and thought I’d be in fourth or fifth place, especially after my fiasco just before the finish.
The truth was that I was simply not being expected. My unplanned stop had lowered my average speed for the last hour enough to make everyone believe that I was still on my way. The tow arrived just as I turned into the harbour, picked me up and told me that I had come in second.
Looking back; outstanding! The boats before and behind me were 10 years newer and most skippers had much more experience sailing minis than me. Unfortunately, repeating this trick will be much harder during the qualifier in Barcelona as the course there favours pure boatspeed instead of tactics. But I know now that the potential is clearly there. Onwards …