SAS en Baie de Morlaix – hard-earned qualification for The Mini Transat

It was the first Class Mini regatta on my now one year old Wevo 6.5, the first class regatta in France after the lock down and the very first big comparison with other minis. Due to the Corona pandemic the original course to the Azores was unfortunately not possible, so the organisers in Les Sables d’Olonne, together with the port of Roscoff, have come up with an alternative programme. 1500nm in three legs, singlehandes, crossing the Bay of Biscay and the Channel. A really tough race!

Leg 1: a 200nm loop from Les Sables d’Olonne – the first calm zones

As you would expect from the weather forecast, the regatta opener was a real mental test. Nothing but calm or light wind in sight. Unfortunately I was one of the last boats to be towed out to the starting line and just arrived there with the starting signal. Not optimal. But surprisingly I managed a great start for all photographers as the most windward boat. The whole thing on the leeward side of the line would have been even better, but at least I was over the line at the starting signal.

I soon realised that I had only sailed very little in light wind and that I was still missing the comparison to other minis. I had also not yet been able to collect enough polar data, the best angle to the wind depending on the wind speed. So I sailed upwind in the prevailing 8 knots of wind to the plateau Rochebonne, 30nm before Les Sables d’Olonne, unfortunately quite at the back oft he fleet. But at some point I got the hang of it better and I had found my way into this solo race. At a snail’s pace we moved under code 0 and the next morning under big spi towards Belle Île. During the day the wind even increased to 12-14kn and while we sailed downwind VMG with a handful of minis around us, I could finally enjoy sailing. For the second night an absolute calm was announced because a high pressure wedge was supposed to push itself over us. When I had passed the NW corner of Belle Île, the wind decreased to 2-5 knots just in time for sunset and came right from behind on the way to the next waypoint, the Birvideaux lighthouse. In addition, there was an approximately 1.5m high swell, caused by a low far out on the Atlantic, from the side. Absolutely worst conditions! The sails do not stand still, they just beat and you approach your destination incredibly slowly. Around midnight I finally passed the lighthouse, now I had to drift somehow between Belle Île and Quiberon. The sea was as smooth as glass and the current at this point should not be underestimated. It was clear that this was going to be a long night without sleep… While many minis had already dropped anchor to avoid landing on the rocks or drifting backwards, I managed to drift all the time with at least one knot of speed over ground in the right direction. I kept close to Belle Île, where there was less current. At dawn a light breeze came up, but it was immediately choked by a huge bank of fog. So watch out and steer yourself for another two hours more until the eastern corner of the island slowly began to show, 6-8kn wind came up and more and more minis were peeling out of the fog. Code 0 up and off we went to Île d’Yeu. Until we crossed the finish line shortly after nightfall I could only make up a few theoretical places in the series ranking, but at least we were granted some more nice sailing lessons under big spinnaker. A 41st place (out of 55) in the series ranking would have been absolutely not what I expected, but I was satisfied with my tactics, the moments of sail changes and manoeuvres. And even though I didn’t sleep much, I made the most of the moments when you could sleep. I wanted to take that as a feeling with me into the second leg.

Leg 2: 470nm from Les Sables d’Olonne to Roscoff – low wind poker and no more wind data

The beginning of the second leg was like a bad repetition of the first one. A perfect start, then sailed into the back midfield due to a lack of trim know-how and a small collision with another boat. The course took us under the bridge of the Île de Ré and into the calm. During the following complete calm zones, there were at least six, I was able to maintain more or less my position. On the water it was unfortunately only moving at a snail’s pace, it was really enough to drive you crazy. Sometimes under big spi, sometimes under Code 0, then again only with jib the miles we slowly made our way in direction of the traffic separation area of Ouessant.

The smallest etmal on the way was about 40nm… After a sunny day with no wind, rain and misty weather were announced for the rest of the race. For all those who, like me, were only on the road with solar panels, it was time to save electricity power.

I positioned myself relatively far west in the fleet, because from there the much longed-for new wind should start sometime. And it came. Not only with 20, but directly with 25-30 knots. In addition, there was a really confused wave off the rocky western tip of Brittany. During a tack I must have come to the main switch while stacking weights below deck, so that suddenly all displays were black. One hand on the tiller, the other hand on the electricity panel to turn everything on again. But the wind data was still missing after a few minutes. So off again and on again. Still nothing. What a bummer! And this in the middle of the traffic separation area where we had wind for the only time during this leg. Think for a moment. No wind data, no autopilot. Ok, I still had the compass course. So the pilot can steer, even if it is not as accurate on long courses as steering according to the wind angle and it will be adventurous under spi. Even with 3m waves and 25 knots of wind it didn’t work very well. All right, then I continued to steer by hand until we passed the traffic separation area and could bear away a bit. Five hours later I finally changed the course, turned the pilot on and closed my eyes. Only under jib and double reefed main we raced through the night, often faster than the boats around me.

At dawn, as we approached Wolf Rock off the English coast, the wind fell asleep completely. The fleet was together again, restart. Under Code 0 I drove really well and overtook many boats, steering only with a look on the jib and the Windex. But two miles before the lighthouse I must have come into a strange current, so that I could hardly get our waypoint, while boats half a mile upwind of me were still sailing under big spi. Frustrated and tired, I rounded the impressive but not very beautiful Wolf Rock as one of the last boats of the big group. 100nm separated us from the finish line in Roscoff. Big spi up and off we went. The wind increased slowly and the course became more pointed. After several attempts under autopilot I unfortunately had to stop the experiment and stayed at the helm. In the meantime it was going really well and I was riding a constant 10 knots speed. “Just steer through 10 hours, then I’m there”, I tried to cheer myself up. Five hours later, after having dozed off at the helm several times, I realised that it couldn’t go on like this. So I pulled down the spi, set my Code 0 – and slept. After a few 20-minutes naps and a warm meal I was able to continue steering. About 10nm before Roscoff, it was already 3 a.m., a huge fog bank caught up with me and then the announced high pressure system. On top oft hat, there was a huge mass of algae around rudders and keel. The last nautical miles became a real torture: it took me not less than 7 hours for the last 3 miles! A finish that crowned this terrible stage and brought me to the edge of despair.

Leg 3: 500nm from Roscoff to Les Sables d’Olonne – cold front-calm-cold front-rudder break

After the start had been postponed for a few days due to a low pressure system with 6m waves in the English Channel, we now started into a shortened third and last leg. At the edge of the bay of Morlaix the wave crests were still really impressive, but soon the wind died down to 9-11kn and the wave was also controllable with about 2m height. Upwind, the fleet headed for the already known traffic separation area of Ouessant. Although I steered a lot by hand (I had wind data and a working autopilot again) and trimmed the sails, I still had problems to make the boat fast and doing pointing as soon as the wind dropped below 10 knots. So unfortunately I lost a lot of places again. But as we entered a cold front, wind and waves soon increased. Contrary to the routings, we had to tack around the whole traffic separation area. In the meantime the wind had risen to 18-25 knots and we unfortunately had the current against us for a long time, so we approached the waypoint with a cruel VMG of 1 knot. But the worst thing about it was that all the boats that had already rounded it could bear off a bit and speeded away. So very quickly distances come together that you just can’t catch up with anymore.

The front came with gusts up to 32 knots and a really impressive sea. With a reefed jib and double reefed main, Whomper and I weathered it well, even though life on a mini in such conditions is super hard. Everything was wet, I stayed in my dry suit from the start until the third day of the regatta, eating or sleeping was difficult or nearly impossible. The wind stayed gusty even after that and especially the wave stayed with us for a long time, but in the afternoon after the front passage the wind had changed direction and I set the Code 5. The boat speed stayed all night long at an average of 10 knots. At some point I switched to the medium spi as the wind decreased further. Unfortunately the autopilot again caused some problems, although this time different ones, but it showed a wrong rudder angle and therefore didn’t steer exactly anymore. I continued to steer a lot by hand and was naturally overtired. I thought I could sleep in the lighter breeze and recover, but far from it. 8nm before our southern turning point, the buoy BXA in front of the Gironde river (Bordeaux), I had to gybe downwind with only 5 konts wind and the remaining swell. 5 hours later I rounded the buoy and continued my way upwind towards Île d’Yeu. So there it was, the calm zone of this leg. We were already experienced in managing that from the two previuous legs… It was not until the next morning that the wind picked up again as the next cold front approached. A few nice hours followed, first under big spi in 10 knots of wind, then under Code 5 at 20 knots and a course that became more and more pointed. But in these conditions my boat is in top form! We overtook three boats and in good spirits I rounded Île d’Yeu with a lead of one mile. Now it was only 20nm to the finish line. The second front reached me in the afternoon with 25-28kn of wind and 2m wave exactly from the side. But I had reefed in time and was in a good mood. We would arrive even faster to the finish line! At a TWA of 80° we were speeding towards Les Sables d’Olonne with an impressive 9-10 knots when I suddenly heard a clacking noise from the stern. The lower rudder fitting of my windward rudder was broken! I immediately took the jib down and tried to secure the rudder in position with ropes. After all, it was only 10nm to the finish. But it soon became clear that this was not an option with this wave. I managed to pull the rudder blade into the cockpit and continued with one rudder. Not a good feeling with the rocky coast only 3nm to leeward… The last mile to the finish line had to be sailed on the other bow. I only had the windward rudder and the autopilot was jammed below deck, so I was hardly manoeuvrable. A motorboat of the race committee accompanied me in case I drifted off. But I made it to the finish! A bit overwhelmed by this emotional finish and the exhaustion of the past days, I was dragged in through the Vendée Globe Canal. This ultra hard regatta was done!