April Newsletter – The course to success

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It's April, I am on a one month countdown to my first ever IMOCA race and the days are relentlessly charging by.


Preparing to race this monster 60ft boat, single handed for the first time is a huge challenge no matter which way you consider it. I do have experience preparing for other campaigns to draw on but this project has taken every ounce of my knowledge, ability, self belief and sheer bloody mindedness to pull together. There is no defined path to follow, I am not part of a development squad, I have not yet secured a title sponsor so do not have a team of professionals to take the load. There is no step by step guide to making this happen, I am mapping it out to suit me and my circumstances. My brain is always juggling several issues at once; I think inside, I must look like those children's quizzes on the back of a cereal box, where you follow the jumbled up string to find out what's at the end.  It's unique and it's individually tailored to me, my circumstances, budget, the weather and many other variables and it is the very definition of what agile project management should be.

Putting this programme together has required a lot of thought and a clear understanding of the difference between my long and short term objectives can and should be. I've needed to adapt and to adjust my focus as well as my expectations. I have needed to think creatively, to meter out my time and energy and to rely heavily on friends, volunteers and supporters to help me arrive at each one of my short term goals. 

With the help of my short handed sailing friends, Superbigou is starting to feel like home

With the help of my short handed sailing friends, Superbigou is starting to feel like home

Firstly let's consider my sailing objectives. When it comes to racing a boat like this alone across an ocean there can be no substitute for experience. In my ideal world I would be spending every day afloat with a coach, but as this is not possible I have devised a schedule to help me fast track my early learnings.

As I have many year's of ocean experience behind me (albeit in smaller boats), over these first few months I've focussing on building the physical basics of this new boat in day sailing rather than long passages. This has included manoeuvres, sail changes, boat speed, reefing and making those early inevitable mistakes so I won't ever make them again. To fast track this process I enlisted the help of a group of British short-handed sailors, none of them have experience on IMOCA's but between us we have sailed many miles double handed and solo - they have been a safe pair of hands, a sounding board for ideas and a physical back up when things go wrong. Of course ultimately I need to prepare to sail alone but sharing these early excursions with a likeminded crew has enabled me to learn through their experiences, it's more than doubled the rate at which I have acquired knowledge and given me confidence to ramp it up more quickly than if I was alone. Every time I come in from a session I write down what we have collectively learned, the problems we have made, the subtle things we have changed. Over time my technique is improving and the mistakes are dwindling every time we go out.

My focus for this first race is simply to learn to sail the boat safely and without damaging myself or the equipment. I need to master the basics, to have each manoeuvre well planned in my head to know what could go wrong and how to deal with it. To ensure my body and my mind are ready to take this beast of a boat out to sea for 200 miles in May. This is the first phase in a three phase approach, once my first race is complete I will move on to phase two which will be learning to push and will take me through to the TJV at the end of this year. Phase three will be during 2020 and this is when I will be seeking to perfect my skills and eliminate mistakes.

Jeremy really doesn't enjoy helping me learn to sail

Jeremy really doesn't enjoy helping me learn to sail

The girls give up a Saturday to service some winches

The girls give up a Saturday to service some winches

Alongside the sailing there has been the programme of boat preparation. This itself has two streams of work; one is to ensure the boat is rules compliant and will be signed off as an IMOCA class yacht before racing in May, the other is to assess, maintain and if necessary replace all working parts of the boat so it won't let me down when it really matters.

We started with a job list - the things that obviously would need doing either through routine maintenance or because we could see they were wrong. Then every time I sail the job list will grow as we uncover new areas for attention or put things that have not been touched for a while under load and they show the strain.
It would be easy to get sucked into a programme of purely sailing or maintenance and the balance between the two has to be well thought out. I cannot to put off maintenance if it will lead to great damage when sailing and there are some jobs which put the boat out of action for sailing days on end. So initially I scheduled a programme of three days a week sailing, two days maintenance and two days working on our funding plan. Once again volunteers have been the back bone of my work force, giving up their time and skills to help this campaign happen. Working on Superbigou alone is time inefficient; due to the size of the boat to carry out a job such as checking an electrical connection can take more than double it's normal length - imagine turning on a switch, crawling 40ft through the boat, checking voltage, crawling back - it's so much simpler with an extra pair of hands. Friends have supported in the evenings, helping me to lift life rafts, climb the mast or simply operate a switch. I would be nowhere without friends.

As the race is approaching the job lists are becoming more tuned - I have the must do's and the nice to have's. Over the next couple of weeks we must finish the purchase and installation of all safety kit required, paint the deck to show my new racing numbers, finish installation and commissioning of satellite communication systems and anitfoul the rudders and keel in flouescent orange.

What a lucky lady I am!

What a lucky lady I am!

And then of course there is my fitness, both physical and mental - it would be so easy to burn out before the first gun goes. Physically I am blending some hardcore cardio - running and biking - with three days a week weight training. The objective more than anything is to reduce the risk of injury. I am still building my fitness again after breaking my pelvis just over a year ago so my physical programme also includes half an hour of exercises per day to strengthen a still weak right hip.

Mentally it can be a challenge, the feeling of being overwhelmed, not only by the job list but by the enormity of the whole project is lurking around every corner, alongside the eternal worries over funding. The reality is that we area doing incredibly well - something amazing happens everyday. This campaign is rolling and I will be on that start line in May in good shape and ready to race. I manage day to day by focussing on the short term goals and making them happen. These are all stepping stones in the right direction and so long as a long term strategy concentrating my focus on the short term is keeping me sane. Over the last month I have had two of our most experienced British ocean racing sailors reach out and offer advice; it's been a great phycological boost to hear their advice and know that this path has been trodden before. When things start to feel imposing I get out for some exercise and a bit of self reflection - a short run around the block and some real focus on what I am doing and why never ceases to put my fears back in their box.  

So onwards we go - this journey is incredible we have already achieved so much and I can't believe that just one month from today I will be on a start line, preparing to race a 60ft IMOCA 2000 miles around the Atlantic on my own.

Thank you for sharing my journey - please forward my newsletter to any of your friends that might be inspired.

Pip