I Left My Sanity in Northern France

The doublehanded Mini Fastnet can be sheer madness, but Team Acadia's Clay Burkhalter's comes through with his sanity intact, and with a spot in his next Mini-Transat campaign qualifier. www.teamacadia.org

Well, with the Mini Fastnet four days behind me, I have had time to rest and reflect on the race. The good news is now I am qualified for the Azores race, which starts on July 30. The Mini Fastnet also ended at least with a positive trend as we worked our way from 69th position after rounding Fastnet Rock to 28th at the finish. I would rate the Mini Fastnet as the most difficult sailboat race I have ever done… in the Mini class. I have the feeling there may be more in store (though even Isabelle commented that the conditions were the worst she had seen in her three seasons of racing). At least a couple of times I wondered why I had not taken all of the money invested in this project and purchased the Lumpy Lanes Bowling Alley in some place like Pawtucket, R.I. There was lots of current, 60 percent of the race was light air… the rest, a 270 mile upwind port-tack fetch almost to the coast of France, in 20-knot winds and confused seas, and finally variable winds from all directions for the last 40 miles into the finish. I now understand why there are only a few of us sailors in the class in our 40s and 50s… Minis tend to find any physical weakness that you have. After being postponed, the race started on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in about 8 knots of wind. There were two general recalls (99 boats on the line), on both of those starts we took the pin end of the line and had clear air and we were moving fast. For the third start, the committee hoisted a black flag (major time penalty as opposed to being thrown out of the race). We were the second boat from the pin on a pin-end favored start. We approached the southern shore of Douarnenez Bay in a northwest breeze and started tacking up the coast, headed going in, lifted coming out. We crossed tacks with the some of the top sailors in the class, working our way into first or second place. We then worked our way across to the Northern side of the bay where we had to round a point and tack our way up to the English Channel. As we crossed the bay, a 30 degree right shift came in and those boats that went right off the line, or part way up the beat, were now fairly far in the lead. It looked as though we were in about 30th as we came in about 3 miles from the buoy we had to honor. Fortunately, many on the right had overstood as the wind continued to veer, so we managed to get back into the teens at the mark. It was then about a 30-mile upwind leg, honoring some marks in a channel between the mainland and some small offshore islands, basically tacking up along the mainland, first to avoid the current and then to take advantage of it changing inshore first. By the time we departed France and entered the Channel, we seemed to be in good position, though the fleet was spread widely east and west (boats decided to break off their short tacks up the coast at different places). We all headed on starboard tack…100 miles upwind to Wolf Rock, located between Land's End, England, and the Scilly Islands. During the night, winds dropped from 10 to 15 knots down to drifting conditions. We tried the Code 0, which got the boat moving slightly, though no pointing ability. We shifted back and forth a number of times between this sail and the jib. Sometimes we would pass boats, then they would pass us, and at times, we were not sure if the lights we were looking at were indeed the same boat that was there before. By morning the breeze filled into around 8 knots and as we approached to within about 40 miles of Wolf Rock, we started tacking on the shifts, trying to work our way East and get up current for what we thought would be our approximate rounding time. We crossed tacks with some of the top boats in the class, like Sam Manuard sailing on one of his designs, Adria Mobil. As we got to about 8 miles from Wolf Rock, we were perhaps 500 meters behind Credit Agricole, one of the better boats in the class, so we knew were doing well. Then the current shifted and the wind went screwy. We soon found our own private hole where we proceeded to do three 360-degree circles…we were stuck there for 30 minutes. Boats approaching from both the right and left were able to see this rather bizarre scene and tack away our just follow the wind line that went right around us, no more than 100 meters away. By the time we rounded Wolf Rock, were we around 30th, though there were still many good boats behind us, some that ended up in the top 10. It was then a fast reach to the Seven Stones Lightship (10 miles away), and then bearing off for Fastnet Rock, located near the southern coast of Ireland, 150 miles to the west/northwest. Initially, it was a fast spinnaker reach in about 12 knots, but then it died and came aft, though we managed to keep 4-5 knots of boat speed through the night. We choose to go south of the rhumb line, following the advice of a weather router who said this was the best way to avoid light winds on the rhumb line and north of it associated with a high pressure system. We were not very successful at receiving radio weather forecasts, so we were not clear if the high was moving. Eventually the wind went flat. We spent 12 hours, hoisting different spinnakers as some small puff from any direction wandered by, upwind, downwind, reaching, nothing. We drifted along with about 10 other boats, all using the same router or got similar advice…we hoped the fleet to the north was also becalmed. The following morning (Wednesday), we had slowly moved past those near us, the wind filled in slightly from the northwest (now upwind for the last 40 miles to Fastnet!) and the fog rolled in. We had no idea how we were doing, but were soon to find out when we heard the first boat radio that they were rounding the Rock, 39 miles ahead…for the next 10 hours, as we slowly approached on an upwind course, it was a steady stream of calls coming in as boats rounded. Fastnet finally came into view, it took us three hours to cover the last 8 miles, and we basically drifted around the place in current (which is very imposing in light winds, I can only imagine in a gale). We then parked for the next 12 hours, 200 to 300 meters from Fastnet, staring at the place. By then, the tracking system on the boat (I would later find out) had us listed in 69th place. In the morning (Thursday) the breeze finally arrived, filling in from the east, 8-10 for a few hours and then finally building to around 20. We had full cant on the keel, water ballast tanks full, three 5-gallon jerry jugs of water lashed to the lifelines and all of the gear below stacked to windward behind nets (stacking - moving of all the gear - is a big deal on these boats and the top sailors take it very seriously, especially Isabelle). We were pointing and moving fast, 6.5 knots in confused seas. We passed a few boats near us, two were series and one proto…we did not see any more boats for 36 hours (hazy-fog). It was a rough ride, pounding along, every third wave covering the boat (and us) with a wall of water…it was cold, boots were full of water, we were soaked inside our follies, everything is wet below, water constantly in the bilges. I had dry clothes, though not much good under wet gear. Nowhere to sleep, everything is stacked to windward and in the only place on the boat with no structural frames - I find myself curling up, half on some wet sail, half on the keelbox; we switch steering every hour because it is hard to handle it for any longer, I find myself dozing at best, not sleeping. We keep this up for about one and half days, and as we get to within 40 miles of the finish, the winds go light again. I had a sense that we had done well on this leg as 8 a.m. position reports came in… it sounded as though many boats were to the south and west of us (further offshore from the finish). We started tacking for the coast, which eventually turned into a no air run, back to a light air reach, then drifting upwind, on and on. We got close enough to hear the seventh place boat cross the line (about 30 miles ahead)…as we approached, we listened to each finisher and figured we had moved up significantly, it was in the end 28th. The performance of the boat seemed good (though needs some fine tuning in certain conditions), the end result was due to tactical errors and getting further behind by sitting in holes as the leaders moved on. Sailing with Isabelle, I was also able to witness the intensity that the top sailors in the class maintain…she was relentless about changing sails, stacking of gear, whatever it took, no matter how tired or how far behind we were. I am headed back to the U.S. for two weeks to work on some business issues, and then back over here July 1 to start preparing for the Azores Race, which starts from Les Sables, France. This race is a 2,520 solo race with 72 boats on the line. The race goes from Les Sables to Horta, in the Azores (1,270 miles), stops for one week, then 1270 miles back to Les Sables.