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Extract from Chapter 9:

The 1999 Mini Transat

……….. Daylight revealed a marvellous yet humbling sight. We were sailing under full gale-force conditions. The sea was rough and confused, with large waves towering over us. At this stage we were still making reasonable progress. I had never assumed the Mini Transat was going to be easy, and the choice of tactics was to play an important role in the events that followed. We were sailing into the wind and waves. The wind was coming from the south-west, directly where we wanted to go. I had two options: head inshore or point the bow offshore towards the west.

I knew the right decision was to head out to the west and into the seemingly desolate Atlantic. By heading further out to sea we would benefit from being closer to the frontal boundary of the weather system. The wind would eventually shift from south-westerly to a more favourable north-westerly direction. Out to the western side of the race track we would be closest to that shift in wind direction and feel the benefits sooner than anyone sticking close inshore in the Bay of Biscay.

Also, by heading out to sea, we would cross over the continental shelf, where the sea floor suddenly drops from being relatively shallow to thousands of metres deep. Outside the shelf on the open ocean, waves would be much less confused and more manageable for a small boat like English Braids. By contrast, being closer inshore, locked into the Bay of Biscay, my options would be limited and the seas would be treacherous. Heading west was the best and safest option.

I was starting to worry about the mainsail. We were sailing with just a small part of the sail hoisted but the harsh conditions were taking their toll. Some of the batten-ends, the plastic fittings that retain the stiff fibreglass battens into the sail, were obviously not up to the job in this weather. Several had broken, allowing the battens to work themselves out of the pockets. There was also damage to the trailing edge of the sail at the head. The fabric stitching was coming apart because of the continual flogging the sail had endured as almost every wave laid us over on our side.

I had spent the whole night on deck keeping English Braids on her feet and it was time to go below to put a fix on the soggy Admiralty chart and make a cup of well-earned tea. I hadn’t ventured into the cabin during the night because of the large amount of commercial shipping in the area: visible by their navigation lights cutting through the darkness, these vessels were quite an intimidating presence. Putting an accurate fix on the chart below decks in those conditions could take up to fifteen minutes, plenty of time for a tanker to steam over the horizon and run us down.

Climbing into the cabin, it took a couple of seconds for me to take in the chaos. The violent motion of the boat had turned the cabin into a complete mess, with equipment strewn everywhere. There was several inches of water sloshing across the cabin floor too, though that’s not unusual in these conditions with this type of boat. Everything was soaked, and to make matters worse my single-burner stove and kettle had been destroyed. There would be no hot food or drinks until we reached the Canaries. Just about the only thing that was intact was my Dictaphone, which I had stuck to a bulkhead with Velcro.

The view out of the companionway hatch into the cockpit looked impressive from below decks. Large waves with frothy white crests were sweeping past our little boat. It was an ideal opportunity to shoot some video and take a few photos. I knew I would be giving plenty of seminars after the race and this was just the kind of footage I needed to inspire an audience.

The noise of the hull pounding across the wave crests would amplify the drama. I pressed ‘record’ on the Dictaphone, and with my knees wedged on the cabin floor, set about describing the first night of the race while, putting a quick fix on the chart. We were making reasonable progress, given the circumstances, but Cape Finisterre at the southernmost tip of the Bay of Biscay seemed a long way away and was almost off the corner of the chart.

We had several hundred miles to cover before we could escape the claws of Biscay. The first night had been pretty full on and I was knackered. There was nothing I could do but dig deep and suck it up, a phrase my games teacher had used at Fyling Hall during particularly tough rugby matches.“Just suck it up, lads,” he would say. His words gave me inspiration.

The weather was relentless and it took more than three days to cross the ferocious Bay of Biscay. English Braids was responding with everything she had to climb over the now huge seas. The situation on board by day three was pretty diabolical. The constant pounding and exposure to the elements was taking its toll on both the boat and on me. Pretty much everything below was broken or saturated. The camcorder I’d used to capture some breathtaking footage had been destroyed by the violent motion and was lost in the rising amount of water in the cabin. The generator that I relied on to replenish the batteries was also swamped and would not start. I was very tired but could still feel the adrenaline pumping through my body. We still had the mast intact and were making progress, albeit slowly, towards our goal. Mentally, I felt solid as a rock. Giving up was not an option.

I hadn’t seen any other boats since the first night at sea. Looking out across the huge, mind-numbing waves I could have been forgiven for thinking I was the only person left on the planet. Then, suddenly out of nowhere, I caught a glimpse of another boat. It was unmistakably a Mini. She was about a hundred yards away and crossing behind us. I only saw her for a moment as the tiny boat leapt off the top of a wave like a coiled spring. The fluorescent orange of her storm sails caught my eye, making the boat just visible in the moment she popped up on the crest. In an instant she was gone, sliding down into the trough. The waves were so huge I couldn’t even see the top of her mast as she disappeared. I was not the only one caught in this cauldron of turmoil, after all.

We were way out of sight of land and off the continental shelf, but by the third day the seas were still enormous. The race rules at the time banned any kind of wind instruments, but I could tell from the sea state and the wind whistling through the rigging that the wind speed had been regularly gusting to fifty knots, severe gale force nine.

I spared a thought for anyone who had taken the inshore course option and headed into Biscay. I had no idea where the rest of the fleet was, but anyone inshore would undoubtedly be in grave danger…………………….

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