I have been pretty busy these last couple of days dealing with problems in my little corner of the world and now as I take up the keyboard again it's hard to know where to start.
Firstly, congratulations to Armel and Alex for an incredible race. They have been pushing and trying to out fox each other in a personal grudge match since they made a break for it South Atlantic on the way down. Two of the fastest boats in the fleet helmed by two of the most experienced skippers (third Vendee for Armel, fourth for Alex) and the result has been spectacular with speed records broken and a new record set for the circumnavigation. I remember chasing Steinlager II in our cruising boat down the New Zealand coast when they won the leg of the Whitbread (now the Volvo Ocean Race) and thinking how special it must have been for the kiwi sailors to dominate on the world stage while sliding down their back yards. I hope that Armel had the same sensation when passing all the familiar rocks and headlands of the Brittany coastline on his way to victory in Les Sables.
Back in the race I have finished with the Argentine coast instead of the Brittany coast and will soon be facing off against a thousand miles of upwind in light and shifty conditions. In comparison to the straight tracks of my competitors who have already passed through, I have had to gybe and tack regularly to wiggle my way between too much wind, and big zones of not enough. The pace of manœuvres will likely accelerate as I need to gain miles eastwards but will be blocked by big bubbles of shifty high pressure zones with light winds. "Light and shite" as sailors say!
As much as I dislike light wind sailing, I'll sign up for a double serving after my recent scare in strong upwind conditions. You will have seen my little video from today showing how unpleasant it was sailing upwind in 20 knots so imagine the scene in 40! The swell grew and bunched up sharply so that the boat fell off each crest with a terrible crash that sent tremors running from the top of the mast through the highly tensioned rigging cables down to the slender keel fin and back again so that it felt like I was living in a constant car crash with the associated screaching, banging and howling. All of this did no favours for my automatic pilot that gave up in the middle of it so with night falling and the wind peaking at 40 knots I was hand steering in the cockpit while trying to talk on a waterproof sat phone to come up with a solution. And you thought that your workspace was a challenge!
I started the race with two parallel pilots and as various elements have failed I have been switching out various wind sensors, compasses and speed sensors to keep in the race. I have now stolen the basic compass from the backup pilot for the primary pilot and am finally on the most basic, but robust, setup available. The importance of the automatic pilot cannot be overstated because we skippers only steer about 10 percent of the time as it's the only task on board that we can delegate to someone else and we need to trim and change sails, navigate, do maintenance and finally eat and sleep! To find oneself without pilot is a disaster as I was reminded when the lights went out again in 40 kts. In order to stabilize the boat and go inside to become Mr. Electrician I had to bear away from the wind, prepare the lines in the cockpit and then furl away the J3 jib while steering with the helm between my knees! A hard job at night on a bouncy sea when it's blowing hard and an experience that while we're solo sailors we're only really alone when the lights go out!