Mini Transat 2015 · Dominik Lenk

Mini Transat Leg 1

The first leg of the Mini Transat Iles de Guadeloupe started on the 19th of September. For the last 10 days before the start all competitors were towed inside the inner harbour of Douarnenez, which nobody was allowed to leave before the start. Security checks took up the first few days; after that the race village opened its doors to the public. Most skippers were still tinkering away, but all in all this transat was looking very prepared. A lot of boats simply stayed locked for the last couple of days. But if you met the skipper in question, it quickly became obvious that things were changing: Still friendly as always, but much more abrupt. Many realised only now that they had in fact qualified for the race and would sail across the Atlantic in a couple of days.

The 90° test the week before the start

The same was true for me: While the first week of all final preparations could be filled with many small jobs, the boat was simply finished as soon as the last one started. The new sails fit perfectly, the autopilot was humming along and all the electrics including solar panel and fuel cell had been tested. To be sure that everything was ready suddenly felt a little strange.

The morning before the start

For the last three days there was nothing left to do other than keeping an eye on the weather and making a plan for the beginning of the race. The forecast was for little to now wind initially. This would be very relexed for the start, but could quickly tear on ones nerves. My routing, courtesy of Predictwind, had be sail west as fast as I could in order to punch through a front and hitch a ride south towards Portugal.

The evening before the start I thankfully realised that my barometer was more than 40hPa to low. On the way to the store it gave up completely.

The day of the start all competitors moved their boat back to the outer harbour, where I also hooked up the new barometer. For the shift after the front this could proved vital.

During the last few hours we all had to stay on our boats for some last-minute random checks of safety material. Like most, I wanted to get out there and wasn’t really feeling like emptying all my bags again, but I am sure there was a reason for the checks.

In the meantime helicopters were swirling about above our heads, cameramen were running around looking for their next scene and an array of speakers was continuously broadcasting that this was a “real” solo race, that we would be “entirely” alone and that the race could be “very” dangerous. Thanks, you’re not really helping.

Départ de la Mini Transat [REPLAY] por la1ere

I had a mediocre start but tacked away from the fleet after the first mark to find clear wind. This payed off massively and I left the bay somewhere in the top fifteen. During the first night the wind decreased until finally all of us were becalmed next to each other.

ABout the weather tactic: Whoever was far enough west would get the wind first. They also had to sail more distance. At the Raz de Seine I decided to sail as deep as possible as long as I could stay south of the leading boats that were sailing directly west.

Late in the afternoon of the first day, I realised that my fuel cell was not charging my batteries.According to the error message the methanol tank was empty, which was clearly not true. I decided not to sail back to Douarnenez—I was more than 120 miles away by thsi point and would have had to beat back. I thought that the line from the methanol tank to the fuel cell was blocked to I tried removing the blockage by shaking or pressing on the tank. Neither worked.

So I took a more southerly option to stop in A Coruña before rounding Cape Finisterre. Like this I would sail the least extra distance. At the same time I would reach the favourable front much later, essentially ignoring all of my routing.

The other option would be to keep sailing with just the solar panel, however, I had trouble keeping my toplight on at night on the way to A Coruña. There just wasn’t enough sun. Also the pilot would need much more electricity in the fresh downwind conditions on the Portuguese coast. Sailing in those for five days without any sleep was simply stupid. (Later I heard that someone else’s fuel cell died as well, however, only after Lissabon—effectively making his nearest stop Lanzarote. He kept going for the last two days without any sleep.)

After two days I moored in A Coruña at 14:30 UTC. This meant that I would only be allowed to leave at 2:30. Every technical stop has to be at least 12 hours and all stops combined are only allowed to be 72 hours. Any more, and you are disqualified. (Also from the second leg.)

I started by calling the race director and telling him my problem, announcing that I would leave again after 12 hours. If I couldn’t fix the problem in that time, I wouldn’t be able to fix it in 72 hours either. Worst case, I could charge my batteries and sail from harbour to harbour, docking about every two days. The most important was stay under and preserve my 72 hours to be be able to start in the second leg.

Together with the harbourmaster I started calling various fuel cell dealers. They offered sending the fuel cell to Germany, which was definitely not possible within 72 hours. Their second suggestion was shaking the fuel canister. (What do you think I have been doing for the last two days?)

After two hours of troubleshooting I was standing in the harbour office again. Still wearing oilies, probably slightly smelly. A radio was playing Spanish music somewhere in the background and everything seemed slightly unreal. Two years of racing and now this. Especially because I had tested the fuel cell less than a week ago.

So the harbourmaster started calling more people: “I have this guy here, he’s doing a regatta. He’s standing here with a broken grey box and he has twelve hours to repair it. It makes electricity. With methanol. Heard of it? Shake it? Yes, he tried that. Who? Yes, I’ll try {insert name here}.” I listened to this several times until we got desperate and she started calling her neighbours. Finally we thought of a local Spanish guy living in the harbour. He showed up less than 20 minutes later and took me a shopping tour in his car around A Coruña.

Yellow, too heavy, too big, too loud. But it makes electricity

10 minutes before closing we ran into the third shop and bought a small (huge) generator. 10 liters of gas should be enough to get me to Lanzarote. Unfortunately, the generator was far too powerful and most of the power would be wasted. And of course, a solid 20kg block was about the last thing that you wanted flying around on a mini. But it was a good solution to let me finish this leg without having to stop or worry about electricity.

By now it was nine o’clock in the evening—seven hours until I had to leave the harbour again. We decided to take a look at the fuel cell, ignoring the giant “Do not open” sticker. And after opening the outer shell it was very easy to see why the fuel cell wasn’t working. The contacts for the pump that was forcing the methanol through the system had corroded. So we took the pump apart as well and replaced the cabling.

One hour later the pump was happily humming along and charging the batteries. Theoretically I could have repaired the cell at seas, assuming of course I had dared to open the box that one shouldn’t open in a sleep deprived state, only to then start forming new contacts with solder.

With five hours left I caught some sleep and left A Coruña on time at 2:30. Less than a mile later I caught a fishing buoy and untangled its line for half an hour. A little later, the wind died and I spent the next sixteen hours drifting towards Finisterre.

All in all, my stop cost me around 350 miles on the leaders. First the westerly routing, then the actual stop and the calm due to being to far inland.

Near Cape Finisterre the wind filled in again and I overtook several cruising boats, whose crew started piling on deck to watch a boat half their size overtake them with most of the hull out of the water. The combination big spi and one reef in the main is a wonderful combination. By sunset I was continuously doing more than 11 knots.

And this is pretty much how the next three days continued. During the day the wind decreased, after sunset it increased by five knots. At 150° to the wind I was sailing quite far from the Portuguese coast, but by now the daily weather broadcast over SSB was understandable and I was sure that this was the fastest route.

Looking back I probably gybed a little early, but I was sailing fast and had more than enough power for the autopilot, since both the fuel cell and the generator were doing their job. The trick was in knowing what was faster: Me or the autopilot.

I knew from the daily ranking that I was about 400 miles behind the leaders. The calm spot near Finisterre had tipped me over the edge, but now everything was fine again. I had nothing to lose, was sailing my own course and was slowly catching the back end of the series fleet. I broached regularly but for me that only proved that I was sailing on the edge and fast

Halfway to Lanzarote there a was a eclipse of the moon. I did not know about this at the time and probably strung together two twenty minute naps at the time. I shrugged off the fact that the moon was decreasing and then increasing again and explained it by a lack of sleep. (And yes, after yet another 20 minutes of sleep all was back to normal.)

Talking about 20 minutes of sleep: This is based on the time that a big ship takes from the horizon, where you just cannot see it, to being right next to you. Since 20 minute naps are OK for a day or two, but not for longer, one tends to string a series of naps together. 40 to 45 minutes are roughly one complete sleep cycle and can me managed for extended periods of time like an ocean race. Nevertheless, I often had rather strange thoughts after waking up: Amongst others I remembered that I really needed to call someone back, until I remembered that I had neither a phone on board, nor that nobody could have called me during the last week.

Slightly more worrying: I searched the boat for my missing coskipper and feared that he had gone overboard while I was asleep. I probably write “BTW: You are sailing alone” on my hatch from the inside for the next leg, because even if you are sure that you started the race by yourself, that strange feeling lingers on for quite a while.

On the last gybe to Lanzarote I was racing a containership. Sometimes it would overtake me, sometimes I overtook it. All in all, we sailed approximately 50 miles next to each other, which was slightly annoying as sleeping was now impossible.

Arriving in Lanzarote

I arrived in Arrecife on the 29th of September around three in the morning. My position in the fleet was obviously pretty bad—my pitstop had seen to that. However, I am eleventh in the seperate 24 hour distance ranking with 220 miles, which shows that the boat can be pushed. No worries for the second leg. But for now the most important thing is making sure that the fuel cell will work for the second leg.

The start of the second leg is on 31st of october at 11 Uhr UTC. You can find the tracker at http://www.minitransat-ilesdeguadeloupe.fr/cartographie?lang=en