Mini Transat 2015 · Dominik Lenk

The Second (And Third) Leg

The second leg. Or rather the leg that people mean when you talk about the Mini Transat. A summary about 17 days on the Atlantic and a restart in Mindelo.

Geschafft! After 19 days, 23 hours, 43 minutes and 13 seconds the spinnakers comes down for the last time.

I flew back to Lanzarote ten days before the start of the second leg. I had packed the repaired fuel cell after having brought it back to the manufacturer in Germany.

After the first legt the boat was in a surprisingly good condition. Except for the fuel cell all that needed to be fixed after 1400 miles was a little bit of chafe on the bobstay. That the boat needed so little work was great, however, at the same time also slightly disconcerting.

Therefore, I kept an eye on the weather for the last ten days. Slowly but surely, it became obvious that the start of the second leg would be in lots of wind and therefore the exact opposite to that of the first leg. Especially the first 24 hours would be demanding as the wind shadow of the canaries could cause extensive no-wind areas and brutal acceleration zones.

The night before start was far from ideal. I stayed up late and got up early; the nerves got to me. In the morning I had a look at the latest weather forecasts. The race organisation had put a last minute rule in place that we were to leave Fuerteventura to the west. This made the navigation a little easier as we no longer had to sail through the islands, but it also turned the first few days into a pure drag race.

After the start I flew towards Africa under a double-reefed mainsail and medium spi. Every once in a while I could hear other boats broadcasting their breakages over the VHF. Torn spinnakers, broken bowsprits or autopilots that stopped working. Luckily everything worked fine on my boat: The speed was right, the autopilot was working and I could see other (more modern) protos on the AIS all around me. In short, I was exactly where I wanted to be and keeping up.

After midnight I gybed in front of the African coast. In less than 12 hours I had sailed more than 150 miles. Awesome!

In the early hours the wind started to decrease. We were now only sailing with 10 to 12 knots. Unfortunately, the waves stayed and buried the bow in one of them. The one behind caught up with me and flooded the cockpit, didn’t stop there and kept rolling right down the hatch.

Immediately, everything switched itself off: Toplight, instruments, compass light and autopilot. Less than one second later everything rebooted itself. Was I lucky? I jumped through the hatchway and started bailing 200 to 300 liters of water. Some had also sloshed over the barricade into the stern: The fuel cell was now under water. (Which was probably the reason for the shock that went through the entire electric system.)

Waiting until sunrise—my reaction to loosing the fuel cell. Again. (in German)

I tried to repair the fuel cell for most of the next day. This needed to happen as fast as possible as I only had electricity until some time that night. So I took the cell apart and dried the individual parts with toilet paper and left them out in the sun. Unfortunately, unsuccessfully, as some of the resistors on the main chip had been fried.

At this point I was 250 miles away from the Canaries. That translated to two days of beating if I headed back for repairs, probably more if the no wind area came down from the north as forecast. Add the mandatory 12 hours for a repair and another 2 days for the way back to make around 5 days to get to the point where I was now. So I decided to keep sailing towards the Cape Verdes. Worst case I could stop there.

The next problem was that I had not slept since the start (and not really that much the night before). After 36 hours in the race I was 40 miles behind the leaders and made the first big mistake due to sleep deprivation. It took me three hours to get both the spinnaker and bowsprit back onboard after I had more or less wrapped them around the keel.

Afterwards I tied everything up on deck and went to sleep in the cockpit. Without an autopilot the boat was left sailing on a broad reach into a direction I didn’t want to go, but after almost two days without sleep it was more than necessary.

Two hours later (still in the dark) I started hooking the bowsprit fork back into the pivot on the bow. Thankfully there was still enough of it left as it broke partially when it went under the boat. With broadside waves and no autopilot this again took several hours.

For the first time I was happy to have had some many autopilot problems during my qualification races. At least I now knew how to keep sailing without one. With a slightly oversheeted spinnaker and an eased mainsail I was able to keep going in a straight line for roughly ten minutes at a time. Enough to start sowing the foot of my big spinnaker. Unfortunately, the waves dictated the course. For now I was heading west instead of south.

Around ten o’clock in the morning both the bowsprit and the big spi were repaired allowing me to gybe back south towards the wind shift that everyone was aiming for. At the same time the sun was coming out and I had high hopes of collecting enough solar power to power at least the GPS and the toplight.

Of course, there was nowhere near enough power for the autopilot. And to make things worse, this would be the last sunny day. On a cloudy day the solar cell would provide me with only about 10A per day. Without even switching the autopilot on, that was around 4 hours of sailing with instruments.

While I had played with the idea of attempting the crossing on solar power alone, I now knew for sure that I needed to stop on the Cape Verdes.

Before I could even get close to the islands the bowsprit fork slipped once more. This time I needed to sew the medium spinnaker afterwards. Even worse, I lost my replacement GPS overboard about 70 miles before the islands. The main GPS was still there of course, but at this point I couldn’t even get the cabin light to switch on using my exhausted batteries.

So I took my last known position and sailed a course straight for the islands. Directly downwind, it was everything but fast and the rolling and yawing left me afraid that I would fall asleep while steering. Even half an hour could be enough to not see the Islands. I had managed to sleep for a little bit two nights ago, but was far from well rested.

Absurdly my watch (whose pin cell I had changed before the start) had also stopped working less than a day ago. That meant that using the sextant to navigate was also out of the question. While it is no problem at all to sail 70 miles on dead reckoning (which we practiced often enough during channel races at university) it did make me feel a little uneasy.

20 miles before the island I did manage to get one of the batteries working again. One GPS fix later I knew that I was on the right track and that I would reach Mindelo late in the evening. So I tried radioing the harbour to ask if the could have an electrician on standby or maybe even if they could prepare a generator.

Instead another mini replied who was also sailing to Mindelo, probably less than 10 miles behind me. Another 3 minis were already in the harbour, docked right next to a Class 40 from the Transat Jaques Vabre. The vibe was pretty bad; by the time I arrived three boats had already give up.

However, it was these boats that helped me out in continuing my race: Alberto Bona from lent me his fuel cell for the last 2000 miles of the race. Benoit Hantzperg from YCA Dhumeaux Secours Populaire gave me his spare GPS and watch. The only condition for both was that I would go to sleep for the night.

The fuel cell is charging and the big spi is also almost ready again.

17 hours later the medium spinnaker was fixed and the new fuel cell hooked up. I waited another hour to check whether the batteries were charging and then left. Within 1.5 hours I sailed the 20 miles to the next island, only to find out that the fuel cell was once again not charging the batteries.

Had the batteries discharged too much? The reason could only be that the trip to Mindelo had put them under too much strain and a 5A charge was not enough to top them up. Or it could be a faulty connection. Two possibilities and I did not know which one was responsible. So I turned around!

Out of all the boats in this years Transat, I must have been the only one that had to beat upwind. Thanks to a no-wind zone behind the islands the journey back to Mindelo took almost 4 times as long, leaving enough time for self-pity and anger. By the time I arrived around midnight, I was prepared to throw everything away and take a plane home.

Together with the engineer of another yacht I was able to check the charging system the next morning. We discovered that the fault was merely a small connector that had also been submerged the night after the start. (Unfortunately, it took the 20 miles to the next island to corrode enough to fail completely.) Since the connector was not available on the island I enlisted the help of a local yacht service, who recycled/repaired it using a wild mix of acid and solder.

A couple of days after Mindelo: Finally! This is what I ordered thinking of the Transat.

I was happy to get going, but by the time I left Mindelo for the second time my mood had finally hit rock bottom. If I had kept going the first time, I would have had a chance of catching the last few protos. Now all that was left of the race was the adventure, which is a harsh realisation after more than two years worth of preparation.

Nevertheless, I was logging pretty good 24 hour distances. The first night I overtook a 50 foot catamaran: Wild surfing through the night, just like the start in Lanzarote.

The next few days repeated themselves: Muesli in the morning, weather and navigation at 12:00 UTC. Over midday I tried to stay below deck and get some sleep, at least until the sun disappeared behind the mainsail again. Throughout the afternoon until sundown I would steer by hand to then catch another nap.

One or two hours after sunset the first squalls would hit. They often brought 30 to 45 knots of wind and predicting them was difficult. The stars would disappear, the wind increased and only a few seconds later you could find your mast in the water. Sometimes the only solution would be to take the spinnaker down and stay on deck, starring into the darkness, trying to make out the clouds.

After a while I became braver and decided to leave up the spinnaker. If you survived the first minute, the gusts would generally only hit 32 knots and that was sailable, even under spinnaker. The only problem was that one could not always predict the wind direction under the cloud, which send me north at least once. Warm regards from Odysseus.

If you judged a squall the wrong way, you would pay by sewing your spinnaker afterwards. I fixed all three spinnakers about twenty times in total. Most repairs were small, but some took considerable time, like the one when I had to sew the entire foot of the big spinnaker by hand.

Even a tiny bit of weed would slow the boat as much as two knots. (in German)

The next big time waster were the algae. The whole Atlantic was covered with the stuff. Somewhere in the middle, I was taking it off the rudders every 15 minutes. Twice it also got stuck in the keel rotating pivot, which forced me to dive under the boat. The first time I did this during the day, the second time just after dusk. Strange feeling!

Even stranger was arriving in Guadeloupe. The last three days had left me with little wind and I was getting impatient. On one hand I knew that I gained 350 miles on the last prototype and had overtaken another 6 series boats since Mindelo; on the other hand I was extremely disappointed to have finished the race this way.

This meant that I crossed the finish line more or less in silence. Being towed into the harbour, I saw the long line of boats that had already arrived. A little later I moored and was completely caught out: People! After ten or more days without seeing anyone, suddenly seeing that many people comes as quite a shock. Three minutes later I already went for a bath in the harbour. Tradition, or so I am told.

What now? By now I am back in Germany for several weeks. To stomach the second leg took some time, especially because the first video that I looked at after the finish showed me crying on deck after the fuel cell had died. After that I shelved everything for a while. The amazing welcome in Guadeloupe helped.

Will I do the race again? I do not know. And if yes, then only on a new proto. With a chance to sail into the top three.