Baltic 500 – Baptism of fire as season opener

Happy to be back on the race course!

With a lot of commitment on the part of the organisation team and with rules to be followed to minimise the risk of corona infection for the participants, it was possible to have the first and for the time being only offshore regatta of the season over Ascension Day. The “Baltic 500” took place in its second edition and led the double-handed crews on a 500sm course from Strande (Kiel) past Copenhagen to Læsø and through the Great Belt back to Strande.

This year, the event was anything but assured due to the Covid entry ban to Denmark until shortly before the start and so the race committee had decided to take three alternative courses along the German coast. The main thing is to sail at all! Sverre Reinke and I had prepared ourselves and the boat in the weeks before as good as possible despite the long time closed harbours, and had done longer training sessions as well as night crossings between Kiel and Rostock. I had also prepared the navigation and the weather forecasts for the three possible courses between Flensburg and Ruegen very carefully in order to get a feeling for the upcoming “Classe Mini” regattas. Since at “Classe Mini” regattas navigation without electronic sea charts and without any electronic device is imperative, the preparation and creation of a road book is even more important.

In the late afternoon of the day before the start, however, I was suddenly informed that we were allowed to sail through Danish waters after all and that we would therefore be on the original course up to Læsø. A great news, the more that due to the weather forecast we otherwise would have been forced for days of tacking manoeuvres. But still: all the navigational preparation had been in vain and the evening session ended much later than planned.

With beautiful sunshine and light winds 34 boats prepared for their start. The main field consisted of ORC-Club boats, but we were there with four Mini 6.50. Beside Martin Gnass and Jan Heinze on the Lonestar/613 and Hasso Hoffmeister and Michael Höfgen on the Husky/746, the Offshore mixed EM-winners 2019 Christian Kargl and Lisa Berger with their Maxi 980 from Austria joined us spontaneously and so we had a second new design at the start. WHOMPER started for the first time with its new orange branding in the colors of Avanade.

30 minutes before the start we suddenly lost all wind data. Failure. This cannot be for real ! This morning everything had worked fine…! So while everyone was relaxed and drifting to the starting line, we had to find the problem quickly. Sverre tried to find the starting line in the hustle and bustle of holiday sailors and regatta participants and I tinkered with the cables below deck. NKE off, change the cable, NKE on again. Then another idea. Change the cable again, reconnect again,… About 10 minutes before the start we had wind data again, but the whole pre-start phase was different than expected. Just before the 1-minute signal and thus narrowly escaped a penalty time, we made it under code 0 to the leeward side of the starting line. One more turn and we were ready to go. Of course our starting position was not optimal, but under code 0 we sailed of well under downwind.

Now it went off into an approximately 24-hour cross. Although we had really nice and relaxed conditions with sunshine and 8-12kn, the Mini 6.50 boats were not fast. It took us some time to really get into the race, so our tactics on the tacking course left a lot to be desired. But we pushed the round bow of the 982 as fast as possible through the small short Baltic wave and tacked on the heels of the two Minis in front. As the wind was longer to the left than predicted, we decided to sail through Fehmarnsund. With light wind, decreasing counter current and no wave we sailed under the bridge shortly before midnight and sailed up to one nautical mile to the other two minis. With increasing wind and waves the rodeo ride started in the second half of the night, to then leave the traffic separation area in front of Gedser to port. Because we still couldn’t get to our track mark on the water despite the predicted turn, four more turns were due and we unfortunately lost a lot of distance to Hasso/Mich and Christian/Lisa. But at the south-east corner of the traffic separation area finally the code 0 finally went up and we picked up speed. A short time later, we rushed under medium spi and when the course became more pointed, we passed the Klintholm cliffs under Code 5. Shortly after reaching a new speed record of 18,08kn the Spi suddenly slipped through the closed clamp and the Code 5 was hanging halfway in the water After a short fight we got it pulled into the cockpit . Because the waves had become really steep and high and the wind had increased to 23-30kn, we decided to sail the increasingly sharp course to the corner of Dragør without a Spi. Even under reefed jib and double reefed main we still surfed towards Copenhagen with a speed of 9-16kn. At the height of the Danish capital, Code 5 went up again in the gusty but much calmer Øresund, we overtook Hasso/Michi and rushed towards Helsingborg with a constant 14kn. The traffic separation area there could be passed surprisingly well with a few jibes despite some freighters, so that we had free water again with starting rain and slowly beginning darkness in front of us.

The next marker was the island Læsø, 80sm north of Helsingborg. For the night, the passage of a cold front with stormy 40kn, in gusts up to 50kn, was announced. We were probably a bit too conservative and took away the Code 5 at 22:00, when the anemometer first approached 30kn in the first real shower gusts. The front was coming with a lot of rain, confused and felt waves coming from all directions, but only 30kn wind in the darkest hours of the night. Normally at this time of the year you don’t have complete darkness in the Baltic Sea, but this night was really pitch black until the front moved away. We couldn’t see anything at all and tried to stay on course despite the high waves. We were always fast on the way and with the first morning twilight the wind decreased. So we approached our northern turning point under a middle and later large spi.

But we couldn’t get the cold out of our bones anymore. This should not change until we reached the finish. The sun could hardly be seen anymore. Everything was wet since Copenhagen, we were freezing cold and even below deck there were condensation clouds when we exhaled. At some point we almost didn’t want to go down to sleep in our wet and cold cave. But sleep was very hard to think about anyway. A dozing or even a short nodding off with confused dreams was possible, but the noise and the movements of the boat were simply infernal. After a last sprint under code 5 along the north side of Læsø we went up to the wind. 180sm of upwind course to Kiel was now before us, always with cross strokes. The announced light wind showed up for only one hour until thunderstorms and a very gusty back of the front accompanied us. Bum, bum, bum, bum, bum, bum,… Despite the land cover we had enough waves to crash into the wave valleys regularly and the wind kept us on our toes with 18-30kn. We left the jib reefed out, but the main was set in the second reef most of the time. As soon as the wind cleared a little bit to about 70° TWA, we quickly sailed our 11kn, but most of the time during upwind course we just made 6-7kn was. It was a long way back, which went to our reserves. No break, no warm up, nothing dries. At least we had warm food three times a day, if you count the warm muesli.

In the meantime we had noticed that in the stormy night a rudder fitting had broken at Christian/Lisa’s boat and they had to give up the race, but still could make their way back to Kiel. Martin/Jan had also had to give up early because of a broken spit tree. So we were now leading the ranking of the Minis. But we could not be really happy about that.

The last day had it all over again. Sverre had to fight with latent seasickness and couldn’t get a warm meal down. In the night we had to do some crosscuts at 28kn and steep waves and unfortunately we had to sail out of a bay of Zealand on the height of Samsø against the west turn, but then we could finally reach the Great Belt Bridge. The 30sm along Langeland we stayed close under land. Thus the wind was still extremely gusty, but the wave was more bearable and we had hardly any counter current. WHOMPER had done really extremely well until then. Especially compared to the other minis, nothing really broke and even if you think the mast has to come down with every crash into the wave valley, it still defied the short Baltic Sea wave. Still in the cover of Langeland our wind instruments started to show wrong data again. A view into the mast showed that it was not a cable error this time: the complete wind transmitter had detached itself from the mast together with the mounting plate and hit now in 12m height, only hanging on its cable, everything short and small. Five minutes later the cable had torn and the wind transmitter had miraculously gotten stuck in one of the spif traps. Sverre carefully manoeuvred it down the spifall , depending on the boat’s movements past the spreader and backstay. When it slid down the last few meters to the deck along the jib, a brave grab was still necessary and we had rescued him. Although it did not survive the drama completely unscathed, it can probably at least be repaired.

So we had to fly blind for the last 30sm to Kiel. During the day and high on the wind it was relatively easy to steer and even the long waves behind the island coverage were steered with ease. Two more tacks and three hours to go, then we could approach Kiel lighthouse. Around 20:30 on Sunday evening we crossed the finish line at Kleverberg-Ost. Finally! It could not have gone on much longer like this. We were relieved and glad to warm up and put on dry clothes. The last few meters we were towed into the harbour by a motorboat of Strander Yacht Club, regatta organizer Cord Hall checked out on our well-being and friends happened to be in Strande with their yacht and welcomed us in the otherwise rather deserted harbour.

What a race! The Baltic Sea really demands everything from a Mini 6.50 sailor – due to the cold, relatively narrow courses and above all this extremely short wave perhaps even more than the Atlantic. Nevertheless, we are happy to have mastered the race and are looking forward to the next training days despite the strains. A big thank you to the organizing team of the Yacht Club Strande as well as to the Avanade and all other supporters!

Lina and Sverre