UK Mini Fastnet Race

May 22, 2013 posted by admin

May 22, 2013

The UK Mini Fastnet Race is simple.  Start in Plymouth England…. keep Eddystone, the Fastnet Rock, Conninberg Light and Lands’ End to your right, and then head back to Plymouth.


Teehee!  Not so simple my friend!  In the middle of all of that is the Irish Sea.  Here is where the Atlantic Ocean and the English Channel battle it out with the prevailing low pressure systems from the north and collide, making for some incredible seas, weather and temperature conditions.  Last year at the start of the UK Mini Fastnet race we anticipated gale force winds, massive square waves and bone chilling temperatures going upwind all around the race track.  This year’s UK Mini Fastnet race was shaping up to be only slightly less epic.  We watched the weather patterns and grib files all week.  The day before the race started, the race organizers decided to send us counter clockwise around the course to make life a little more bearable, but we were still looking at almost 400 miles of upwind slamming in confused seas, 6 to 8 degree temperatures overnight, rain, minimal sunshine and loads and loads of slamming around in a 21 foot triangle!  The dress code for the race started with a base of thermals, base layers and multiple fleece layers, finishing with a full on dry suit, booties, bellaclava, face mask, toque, head lamp and inflatable lifejacket.  Then, if you really needed it, you could get into your thermal protection TPS survival suit!

Andrew and I were armed and ready to conquer the race that beat us last year!  This was also my final event required to complete to become fully qualified for the 2013 Mini Transat race.  After four years of training and completing qualifying events, this was the final item to stroke off the list, and one of the bigger ones on my bucket list!  So, with grib files loaded and routing and weather strategies planned, Andrew and I headed out to the start line.  The boat was running well and everything was set to go.  Five minutes, four minutes, one minute….GO!  And we were off!  A quick windward leeward sausage course and we were on our way out of Plymouth Sound, past the warships and the massive breakwater and on our way to Eddystone Rock and that damn Irish Sea.  As we rounded Eddystone we could see one of our competitors off to the north….well off the rhumbline with their main luffing like mad!  What’s happened to Yellow Fin?  Then we heard the call on the radio.  “Race Control, Race Control….Yellow Fin, Yellow Fin…..We are retiring from the race and heading back to Plymouth.  Tom’s taken a bit of a tumble and dislocated his knee.”  Turns out that while trying to move “the stack”, Tom’s leg got caught in the keel well and when the boat went left his knee went right.  Fortunately, the boat went left again and popped the knee back in place, but the damage was done and they were out.

A little further up the track was my great friend Nikki on the Artemis boat.  Nikki and Lizzy were putting in a reef as the wind steadily built.  In the process of yanking on lines and tying things in, the unused reef line laced itself around the carbon tiller and then tightened up….BOOM! The carbon exploded and there was tiller shrapnel everywhere!  They were out now as well.  As the seas built we plugged our way forward to Lands’ End.  Upwind in a mini is one of the most unenjoyably, uncomfortable and incredibly painful experiences you can ever imagine, and Andrew’s equilibrium was starting to loose the fight with his inner ear.  He was getting sick.  Andrew is a great racer, but if you haven’t spent time in the ocean, your stomach just isn’t going to be ready for it.  Andrew’s frequent runs to the low side started.  No matter how sick he got though, he was there to do whatever work needed doing!  At one point we were on the bow tying in a reef in the jib.  Andrew on the high side turned to be sick to leeward and found he was staring me straight in the face.  Luckily for me he opted to puke to windward instead and christen the side deck, staunchions and all down the side of the hull, rather than christen me!  After a day or so of being sick and heading to Conninberg, we decided to drug Andrew and get him sorted.

The final run into Conninberg would be a small mental victory.  Conninberg was our most northern latitude.  After we got around, then our latitude would start coming down again as we made our way to Fastnet and then back to Plymouth.  The final stages to Conninberg would not be without entertainment though.  Every time a wave slides across the bow of a mini, it finds its way down the sidedeck and explodes like a water cannon on everything in the cockpit….including the GPS which was hinged out in the companionway so that the helmsmen could see it while driving.  Apparently there are only so many waves a GPS can  handle before it packs it in and the screen freezes!  No problem, we’ll deploy the back up hand held unit.  Turn it on and…… wouldn’t acquire satellites or change pages!  The back up to the backup was in our survival container, and as a result of a time penalty to open it, we were looking for another option.  Then I remembered.  Our brand new fantastic AIS has waypoint capabilities.  Slowly I started to plug in the waypoints.  This generated us a latitude and longitude.  The frozen GPS was still displaying “track”, so we could see if we were caught in current and which way to compensate.  Alrighty then,  good to carry on in to the steadily dying breeze.  As we arrived to Conninberg, we slipped around it just as the wind calmed.  Once around, we pointed our bow in the right direction and hoped for the best.  There was absolutely no wind and we had to make sure that we didn’t back up around Conninberg or we’d have to go around it again!  My other great friend in this race was Katrina.  Interestingly enough we both ended up at Conninberg about the same time.  It was nice to have someone to chat with while we waited for the wind to fill in.  Our radio chats were often laced with intriguing conversation around which slop in a bag freeze dried food seemed the most exciting for lunch, who won the latest game of Go Fish, or which sweeties stash had been broken into most recently.  The fact is though, that we were both worried about two things.  The more we drifted, the more the leaders got ahead.  There was another low up ahead that the CoastGuard was warning of.  The leaders were going to catch into it and take off but possibly be caught in force 8 gale winds.  This would either leave us behind, or slam us hard also. Once the lead boat crossed the finish line, we had 48 hours to cross or the gate would be closed.  Need to keep pushing!  If I didn’t finish this race, then the last four years of massive campaigning effort would all be lost.  I had no other race available to me to complete my qualifications!  Keep pushing!  Finally the wind started to fill in.  Bit by bit we were fetching the next headland.  Then the weather forecast became clear.  Force 8 gale force winds….hail and deep deep seas!  Yuck!  At the next weather update though, there was an ammendement to the forecast.  The low had shifted…but where?  Not being locals, we didn’t know the geography.  Time to call up the Coastguard and find out.  After a very polite and quick conversation with Rosslare Coastguard, we learned that the low infact was now locked into the west coast of Ireland.  We might see some heavy stuff around the Fastnet rock, but the south coast was now a little safer!  PHEW!  We were howeaver armed and ready.

As the wind built to 27 and 30 knots, the storm jib was bent on and a second reef put in the main.  We were a little underpowered, but very very stable and good to go.  The main objective here was to finish, keep the boat intact and keep us both onboard.  What we didn’t know was that just a few miles ahead of us near Cork, the fleet was getting fully walloped with 45 knots of wind on the nose.  Jake’s  insanely fast off the wind prototype was being crushed in the wave action.  Another prototype was suffering from electronics failures and mentally struggling with the conditions.  Both of these boats pulled in to Ireland as well.  Jake would not finish the race.  The other proto would carry on a day later in the more favourable new winds.  We were be saved from this pain by being just on the back side of the low and only having to punch our way through 25-30 knots of wind.  Slowly we made our way to the Fastnet Rock.  The weather moved on and gave us a little reprieve.  As I laid in the cockpit floor I could smell something.  Now normally, after a few days at sea, you can anticipate a few interesting smells onboard.  But this one was different.  Something wasn’t right about it and it wasn’t coming from Andrew or I.  Had we just passed a fishing boat obscured from the AIS?  What was that smell???  A second later Andrew sat up from down below and said “ do you smell that”.  Instantly we both knew what it was.  It was a familiar smell of melting plastic and copper wire starting to burn into a ball of toxic flames!  Something electrical was on fire!  Instantly we were both up and digging through the boat to look for the source.  The two worst things that can happen on a boat are either hitting an unidentified floating object (UFO), or a fire.  A fire onboard will double in size every 7 seconds.  You get one shot at putting it out and then you’re trying to save and launch the liferaft.  We had to find the source very very quickly!  Was it the GPS?  The unit had become badly corroded with salt and maybe it was shorting out?  We sniffed around.  No, not the GPS.  The smell was getting stronger.  Right, start working through all of the large bundles of electrical and look and smell for smoke.  Facing aft, I couldn’t see anything coming from the computer heads.  As I scanned my eyes across the displays on the bulkheads, no smoke was to be seen, but the smell was building!  My scan continued to the port side of the boat and up to the batteries.  SMOKE!  Right at battery number one!  This was not good, but fortunate that we found the source.  Right beside battery number one, firmly mounted in the bulkhead was my new little battery meter.  My effort had been to mount the unit where it wouldn’t get damaged and the wiring would be protected.  Unfortunately, when I looked down at the wiring, I could see that the entire back of the unit was green with corrosion and the two positive leads off of it had infact bridged and become one with the ground.  We had to kill the power instantly.  Andrew grabbed the tiller and I switched off the main.  We had now gained a few more seconds before the wiring could spark up in flames, but the combustion potential had to be extinguished!  I reached in with my multi knife and clipped the wires on the meter and waited and watched.  The smoke started to dissipate.  Now I was holding two live positive wires running directly to the master switch and a ground that couldn’t touch anything for risk of completing the circuit..  With a second quick clip, I shortened the ground and one of the positives all to different lengths and then tied them back.  This was not the environment to be digging into the main switch and disassembling wiring, so a quick fix was going to have to do for the moment.  Fire had been averted and we were good to carry on.  Back to navigation, back to pressing the boat and back to getting around that Fastnet Rock!

As the sun came up we started our approach to the rock.  The heavy wind had lifted and we were fetching our guard mark quite nicely.  The weather forecasts were easing a little, but we were still diligent and keept a good head about the weather around us.  As we made our way past the rock, we got to experience the rock in good form.  The coastline at the rock has very high cliffs.  Just as Andrew and I were getting ready to take a little photo shot, a puff of 25 knots came through with some rain and fogh.  It kept us on our toes for the whole rounding as the puffs would come through and then slide off, then come through again and slide off.  We expected nothing less from our introduction to the rock. But once we were around, we were on the home stretch!  We were heading for Plymouth!  WOOHOO!  Nothing but the Irish Sea between us and home now!

During the nights (and often the days), we often chatted with our friends Katrina and Oli on Katrina’s boat.  We didn’t chat much with the other competitors, but on occasion there was an opportunity.  That night, we heard a call on the radio that sounded somewhat like our friends on the Polish boat, but the call was very unclear.  I hailed Katrina to see if she had overheard and she had not.  Ok then, if it’s important, they’ll call back.  About twenty minutes later the radio crackled into life again.  “One Girl’s Ocean, One Girl’s Ocean….this is Vanguard, Vanguard”.  Hmmmm, who is Vanguard?  The AIS hadn’t sounded an alarm, but let’s have a look at the TV (as it had become known) to see what’s going on.  Well we could perfectly see Vanguard.  They were past us and on their way out to see but only at 3 knots.  I hailed back to Vanguard.  After a brief conversation he said “I have a five mile cable out the back.  I don’t think you will clear”.  UGH!  At this point, the AIS finished populating it’s data and infact this vessel was listed as Restricted Ability to Manoeuvre.  We were closing range on a five mile long cable and we wouldn’t be able to lift our skirt to cross it.  He did a quick calculation and we paralleled his course (taking us away from home unfortunately), for about two miles, before he was able to hail us back and give us the all clear.  In the meantime, Katrina was catching up!

The final run past the Scilly Islands and the Lizard light were going to be a real push.  Rumour had it that the first production boat had crossed the line on Thursday morning.  We then had 48 hours to get across the line, and the forecast was going to get very very light over the next 48 hours.  As we pushed our boat toward the Scillies, I started to work out the tidal gates.  It was going to be very very important to be able to get as close to the Islands and the shoreline as possible, but safely.  We could reduce the amount of tide we were going to push by getting very close to the shoreline.  We could also possibly pick up a little shoreline breeze where those who went out would get caught in a convergence zone.  BUT, we had to be very very careful not to run out of wind and drift into rocks with the tide, were we couldn’t set an anchor.  The last time we would see Katrina and Oli would be at the Scillies.  We headed in with a favourable current lifting us into the shoreline while we held a close hauled course, and Katrina went out looking for wind and stronger currents to take her to Plymouth.  We started this with almost zero separation between the boats.  As they headed out our range increased to 4-5 miles and she was behind.  Next up….Plymouth sound breakwater!  Slowly we plucked our way in.  A few times we were becalmed.  Once we were stuck in a bit of an adverse current, but not for long and we hoped that the adverse current deeper in the channel was constantly giving the other boats a negative VMG.  Fifty miles to go.  Forty miles to go.  The wind got lighter.  15 knots…..12 knots…..10 knots….6 knots….  We were closing range on the finish line, but had we made it in time for the cutoff?  Would we get to Plymouth and totally run out of wind, and watch Katrina sail up from the outside with a little night breeze?  It would be what it would be, but we would continue to push the boat as much as we could.  Entering Plymouth sound is always an interesting sight at night.  The shoreline is light up with the downtown lights of the city and the giant Ferris wheel.    In the sound there are often massive war ships on manoeuvres  or sitting at anchor waiting for orders.  As you tack your way up the sound to the finish line, they become interesting navigation obstacles….especially when the wind completely fades out to nothing.  Slowly Andrew and I turned our bow up the sound.  We could see the war ships.  We could see the lights guiding us up the channel to safety and we could see how flat and glassy the water was for the next two miles to our finish line.  Cross your fingers and hope we can get there without the tide easing us back and without being completely stalled off of the finish line until the morning breezes come in.  Then the radio crackled to life again as the race committee acknowledged our entry into the harbour and that they were on station for the finish.  Quietly our rib came alongside in the last few hundred feet to the line.  We could hear our friends up on the clubhouse patio anxiously waiting to blow the horn.  Then we could hear it.  “They’re almost there….just a few more metres…..five, four, three, two, one….BEEP!  And we crossed the finish line!  We weren’t first and we weren’t last, but through it all we managed to keep things moving.  We were one of only seven boats to finish the race of the seventeen that started, and I was now fully qualified for the 2013 Mini Transat Race!  The rib came alongside and hip towed us in to the basin where our great friends were on the dock desperately waiting to see us in.  At this point, we didn’t know how many boats had abandoned or what exactly had happened to who, but there was Tom and Sandy from Yellow Fin with Tom’s new crutches, Nikki and Lizzy well armed with a congratulatory bottle of red wine and their abandonment tiller story, and Katrina….who only managed to get in an hour ahead of us and in fact was still in her drysuit!

We very much earned our fourth place finish.  I’m very proud of Andrew for managing through all the tough tough moments without having the benefit of training for the past 3 months in open oceans, and having to tolerate me telling him what to do!  I’m very proud of our ability to work together as a team throughout the whole event.  From the moment Andrew stepped off of the plane to the moment he stepped back on, we were a team. Thank you to all of our amazing supporters and partners.  This kind of crazy action is only ever possible because of a massive amount of work on many many peoples’ parts.  The team at One Girl’s Ocean Challenge can be very proud of their last four years and getting a Canadian boat to the start line of a gruelling race.  We have triumphed were many others have not succeeded.  OGOC will be the third Canadian boat ever to compete in the 40 year long running Mini Transat Race and I will be the first Canadian woman ever to compete in the Mini Transat.  Now it’s back to business as usual.  Back to France and then back to Canada to get ready for the start in October!

4 Responses to “UK Mini Fastnet Race”

  1. Jon Wigley Says:

    Truly an epic adventure! You are one tough sailor.

  2. Ann Kay Says:

    OMG!!! Diane – my heart was in my mouth!!! Way to go – I think we have a story here…

  3. Dave Hamburger Says:

    Great race, well sailed and well told.
    Now how about a gopro on the sternrail with a live webfeed?

  4. admin Says:

    That would be awesome! I have a gopro for the stern rail…unfortunately Ikeep forgetting to turn it on! Plus it’s often facing my back. It needs a pole mount. The live feed part unfortunately is beyond class rules. It would require a live connection to the world and we are required to be completely cut off. In the meantime though, I got a little bit of the sailing in the UK Solent race and I’m just finishing up the editing. 🙂

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