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Nat's Nasty Night

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  • Nat's Nasty Night

    Leg 1 - a rough night

    I take out some taboule and proceed with eating my dinner - the fleet has rounded the mark G I am still miles away from which is quite disheartening - I really took a hit in the Gironde. I also know that we will have some heavy weather and the directive I got was 'after you round BXA and you are on your way to the most windward mark of the course, once the wind is up around 20, drop down to your Solent (aka jib). I will just monitor. I am able to fly the kite to mark G so I do. Things quiet down and the wind is now down which make for serene conditions.

    I can't help thinking that I am the most spoiled sailor to think that this is a crappy situation. I sail by the Cordouan lighthouse, absolutely majestic standing on a sand bank right out of the Gironde. The current is changing direction so I am staying in deep water to avoid the already adverse current by the beach in shallower waters.

    Below some photos taken of the boats ahead of me - courtesy of the Solitaire Urgo Le Figaro

    After 'G', it is upwind but after BXA it is down to Rochebonne. I set up the kite - the wind speed is medium. The wind does gradually increase but there is no sign of the rain or anything that I can see - as I am under spinnaker. I switch over to the Solent in anticipation of the coming storm. I also tighten up the outer shrouds to pin the mast down hard every 4 knots of increased wind as told.

    When the wind picks up above 20 knots, assuming that things will now move quickly, I take the kite down. A mistake as it will take another two hours for things to worsen and I end up basically widening greatly the distance with the fleet as they are all surfing at 12 knots and I am going mostly 8. Also a mistake because I would have had a ton of fun...but I do not know how fast things move and I was worried about having the kite up in 30 knot wind, suddenly moving forward and heavy swell. After all the Bay of Biscay does have a bit of a name.

    The wind does pick up but has not yet moved to the NW as planned - it is still SW but it is steadily increasing - I can also see the depression ie the big set of clouds moving in my direction so things are starting to happen. I go down below to put on my dry suit and I notice that there was a call on the Iridium phone. I call back as I know that the only people who have the number of the phone are race direction, medical or some other official person.

    This was Race Direction and I am now speaking with the race director who tells me plainly that the conditions are much heavier than originally planned. They are a few miles ahead and they are seeing over 40 knots - and the wind is supposed to move forward which would put me on a beat. He also said that the mark was in shallow waters in the already shallow part of the Bay of Biscay and that the waves would be steep - tacking the boat in over 40 knots would be tricky. And if you miss, you end up on rocks since the mark does protect/mark a rocky area where you do not want to go. He also said the worst of the storm would be crossing my path and be AFTER most of the fleet would have gone through.

    So his recommendation was to go directly to Gijon. He estimated that there would be only 30 knot winds on my route that way...

    I knew he was right as this was the safe and seamanship-wise decision to make. Deliberately heading into a storm on the Bay of Biscay was not a good idea. I now checked the wind indicator and it was already at 40 knots - so clearly I wasn't going to 'have only 30 knots'. I then assumed that I would also probably have more than he thought I would have on the path of the worst of the storm.

    I battled with the decision for a few long minutes - the voice was reason was telling me 'don't be stupid and take the safer route.' the voice of competition and natural drive was telling me 'you have traveled 10,000 miles and waited for 10 years to do this, don't give up now. You love sailing solo offshore, keep going'.

    Ultimately, what decided me a voice coming out of nowhere you told me 'you don't negotiate with the ocean. You listen and you act accordingly. Remember that these are the rules of safe passage.' This is the voice I listened to.

    I hung up the phone - I couldn't bring myself to say that this was the decision that I had made. But I pushed the tiller and headed upwind in the direction of Gijon. I knew that at some point I would have to tack when the wind would shift to NW.

    I nearly cried of disappointment but quite quickly just went into action mode. I rolled up the signs on the side of the boat to reduce windage - I also took a reef as I assumed that the wind would increase as the rain would hit and the heart of the storm develop.

    I kept going in about 40 knots, steady (picture here taken before I took the reef in) - the boat was flying. The situation still saw fairly calm seas.

    Things changed then very quickly - the wind went up to 50 knots and the sea went berserk in no time flat - normally there is quite a bit of delay for the sea to become that bad but I guess not in the Bay of Biscay. I had eaten well, I had taken water in the cockpit. The waves started to crash on deck - I closed the door to protect the inside of the boat and my nose and eyes were the only things you could see peer through my suit. I was safely attached to the boat. I chose not to go forward to put a storm jib given the sea state and breaking waves against the deck. I figured I would take a second reef instead as locked inside the shrouds and against the mast is a fairly safe position compared to the foredeck.

    I didn't figure out how to get the pilot to work as the waves were basically pushing the boat all over the friggin' place and the pilot would end up quitting. There might have been a way - perhaps without pilot and just using the sails.

    The race director had asked me to stay in touch with the Race Direction on land so we spoke on the phone - the reception underneath the clouds was really bad. The message was 'you'd have only 30 knots' - well I had 45 steady and gusts up to 50 every 2 minutes so clearly that wasn't quite true. Around midnight you'll need to tack. That did turn out to be true as the wind shifted roughly at that time.

    I used the technique my router had told me to tack the boat (when there is a lot of wind and you try to tack, your boat just stops and can't turn, or you need to do a very wide turn to do so). With the ballasts, I transferred the ballasts but kept the 'movable ballasts' aka bags where they were to basically stabilize the boat for the tack. I had to try three times to tack and finally got the boat on the other side. The steady wind moved up to 47 knots. I needed some respite and I estimated that I was at least 80 to 100 miles away from the coast (I couldn't use my nav as I was too wet and didn't want to damage the computer) and that downwind it would be easier to use the pilot and a bit dryer. I also wondered that since the storm was traveling north east if I could travel south east and get to calmer water faster. I decided to try that theory for a couple of hours.

    I turns downwind but ended up traveling east instead. The boat was more stable but I worried too much about gybing accidently since the waves were so big, breaking and erratic. If that had happened, there was a real risk of the mast coming down or the boom breaking, neither was a good perspective and would have complicated the situation quite a bit.

    I started to surf and quite enjoyed it - it was much more fun than beating into the waves - I figured I had at least 1-2 hours of safe of this - unfortunately I didn't think of warning anyone and they started to worry that I had lost my mind and was about to crash onto land back in Arcachon.

    The theory of running in front of the storm was actually a bad one - I probably ended up staying with it longer - it was much more fun to surf but ultimately was not taking me anywhere near Gijon. The boat was going 19-20 knots - it was totally crazy and not something sustainable.

    I put the boat on a reach and let the main out to take a second reef. The sail was shaking violently. I heard the faint ring of the satellite phone and went down below (which involved taking the full door out so a huge pain) - the race director had tried to call me 12 times. Shit. I spoke to him but said I didn't have much time because my main sail was suffering quite a bit. I confirmed I was going back to Gijon and reassured him as to my state and the state of the boat.

    I took the second reef in (a bit complicated as the hooks for the reef were a bit short so I had to use a dyneema piece of line and tie the tack of the mainsail that way. I went back upwind in the direction of Gijon, basically beating into what was by now mostly 50 knot winds...So much for the mile 25-30 I was supposed to see. The boat was actually quite balanced with the ballast and the bags. I could drive it fairly normally except for the waves.

    By then the rain is falling steadily and I can see basically ahead at two boat length. The night is pitch dark since I am in the heart of some sort of storm system with what appears to be black clouds.

    One wave rolled across the cockpit and scotched me against the lifeline - I felt about a ton of water oppressing my chest and preventing my breathing for several seconds which felt like minutes. I remember thinking 'well, we shall see...' That same waves ripped out the MOB pole from the cockpit. I noticed after it left the cockpit and I crawled to the back of the boat moving around carefully, pushed about the cockpit by waves that would continuously break over the deck and grab one side of it. I brought back on board what I thought was the entirety of the pole (which had opened and spilled over) and as best as I could secured it back on deck.

    The waves at that time were about 20-25 feet - and I was sailing right across the edge of the continental shelf.

    The wind didn't really abate to medium speeds until mid morning and then the wind did die completely for a couple of hours. I slept during that time and as I wasn't racing anymore, turned the engine one.

    The land-based support did confirm that as I would advance in time and in distance the wind would abate. It became so at about 8-9am in the morning. I had spend over 10 hours in gale force winds. The wind went down to 40 knots and stayed there for another 4 or 5 hours. Then down to 35 and amazingly the wind felt super super light.

    I was not expecting this kind of a welcome - arriving pretty much last and having abandoned the leg. I realized that 20% of the fleet had abandoned the leg and that many had technical problems - totally ripped headsails, broken spreaders, etc...

    This must have been one of the toughest night I ever spent at sea - yet the boat seems to have hardly notice the blow...
    " I just found out my nest egg has salmonella" Photo Gallery

  • #2
    Nathalie wins the Suzuki Tenacious Award (1,000 euro)!


    (photo courtesy of La Solitaire )

    Cool video about the award:

    She has started the final leg (Concarneau to Dieppe) and is realizing her life long dream.
    [FONT=Comic Sans MS]Peace Out, Bags[/FONT]


    • #3


      • #4
        Follow Nathalie on her fourth and final leg of La Solitaire:
        [FONT=Comic Sans MS]Peace Out, Bags[/FONT]