March Newsletter – Where There's A Boat There's Drama
I thought a long time before deciding to sail Superbigou single handedly 250 miles back from France to my home port of Poole. There were many reason's not to do it - the long dark February nights, the fact this solo trip would be the first offshore sailing the boat had done since it finished the Vendee Globe, but I knew this was a challenge I needed to face head on. It proved to be a trip that would test me to the core.
On Monday morning I woke up with gnawing pains in my stomach, I couldn't eat, my mind was whirling with nagging doubts I'd kept at bay since taking over this 60ft IMOCA yacht. The problem with negative thoughts is that once you let one of them take hold, the rest come marching along to join. I rapidly became overwhelmed, not just by the delivery but by the enormous scale of what I have taken on. What if I couldn't handle this 60ft monster alone, What if I damage the boat or the rig on the way across, What if the autopilot stops working, What if none of my sponsorship pitches are successful, What if I fail?
Driving to the port that morning I felt utterly alone. I questioned why I was doing this to myself. Why did I have to pick a challenge that was so big? What on earth makes me think I have got what it takes to compete in a Vendee Globe? I wanted to dissolve into thin air, for all this pressure to just disappear. All of a sudden it all just seemed too much for one person to deal with. Was it time to call time?
Stepping on to the boat I knew that backing out now would be letting my demons get the better of me. The boat was in good shape - we had checked every inch of it, there was a good weather window, I knew the stretch of water well - understood the challenges and would sail within my limitations, I also knew (deep down) I could handle this boat and had enough skill to sail safely home alone. I thought about everything I have achieved in my life to date. I made my decision to take this big step forward - after all if I had to sail this boat solo sometime so why not now?
There was little wind when I left the harbour, the conditions could not have been better. I would be motoring for the first eight hours, before the breeze filled in from the South, to blow me across the channel to Poole. I needed to make a reasonable speed to arrive late in the afternoon and ahead of a front that would bring stronger winds and poor visibility.
Once the sails were up I set the autopilot on a course up the coast, then individually checked everyone of the boats compartments - crawling through bulkheads, inspecting with a torch, then rushing back on deck to check all was well.
After one hour I finally found some peace. Everything was ok - there was nothing left to inspect. I celebrated with my first cup of tea.
The night was uneventful - a little foggy at times, but the radar worked well and I was super vigilant for the small fishing boats that appeared periodically out of the murk. The wind was late coming and I motored for over ten hours, making reasonable time and all the while relaxing into the task at hand. I reached the Chenal du Four (which separates the island of Ushant from mainland France) around two in the morning, the tide pushed me through and the wind filled in. Finally we could start to sail.
Sailing Superbigou is remarkable; it's strong, powerful and graceful, it's responsive and energetic, it is a boat that was built for the open ocean and I can't wait to unlock it's full potential.
Even under a conservative sail plan the boat was cruising comfortably at 15 knots, I was overtaking commercial ships and giving the dolphins a proper work out. All of my doubts blew away in the wind - sure the physical aspects of sailing a 60ft boat alone are going to be a challenge but technically it is simple and strong and I am more than up to being the skipper. The boat felt strong and secure.
As my confidence grew I shook out a reef and soon we were surfing regularly at 20 knots, I took it in turns with the autopilot to drive the boat. Loving every wave and marvelling at house easily the speed seemed to come. In the times I was not steering, I methodically checked the whole boat for signs of potential problems, I made copious amounts of tea and even managed two 15 minute naps. The boat was starting to feel like home.
After 14 hours crossing the English Channel, the shores of Dorset appeared ahead. The wind had already started to increase and was now gusting up to 25 knots, the visibility was dropping and I decided to prepare for my arrival early, just to be ready. I dropped the main with six miles to go, took the head board off the track and started the engine to ensure it it was running well for my final approach. Still making nine knots under jib alone, the engine running well, I went to get fenders from below decks as I would have little room once in the Poole Fairway channel.
With two miles to go my engine spluttered and died. A chill passed over me. I went below and restarted it, only for it to cut out again after 30s. I checked fuel levels, there was plenty. I bled the engine, restarted, engine died.
This was rapidly turning into a nightmare. I was on a lee shore (the wind was blowing me into danger), I did not have the time or space to get the huge mainsail headboard back onto the track and re hoist, the wind was increasing and dark was descending. I had no idea how well this boat could beat under jib alone and escaping from a lee shore in over 20 knots of wind was really not the place to find out.
I knew I needed more time to think through my problem - the weather would be bad all night but light winds again in the morning. I could not make an unassisted approach into Poole Habour without and engine. I could get in there fine as the wind was blowing me that way fast but once in the entrance I would have absolutely no way of stopping. The worst case scenario would see me heading back out into the English Channel, to sit it out in open water until the morning brought better conditions. This would have to be my fall back option but first I needed to know the boat could head back upwind, before it was too late and I had no room left.
I spun Superbigou round into the breeze, the rain was driving into my face, we heeled over hard and I wound the jib sheet as tight as I could then tried to steer a course back out to sea. Slowly we edged away from the shore, my heart was thumping in my chest and I was willing us to make every metre of sea room. As I learned to control the boat in gusts of wind our progress became better. We started to claw our way back out to sea and at least I now knew we would be safe, I had time to make a plan.
In times of crisis you always need a friend with a good head, in this case I had two. One being Charles who helped me to diagnose the engine fuel supply had been blocked by some debris dislodged from our bouncy sail across. Friend two was Ash who calmly helped to make a plan to get my boat safely into the harbour, understanding that a night out in the English Channel was definitely not my preferred option.
We decided I would sail into the harbour and pick up a buoy at the entrance, Ash would come out with the brilliant Sea Start in a RIB to meet me half way down the channel and assist in stopping the boat once I was in and helping tie up to the buoy. The Poole Harbour commissioners had identified a buoy with plenty of depth and room where we could safely spend the night.
I hung around beating up and down in horrible conditions, waiting for the call that my shore team were ready. With that notice I put my bow down and started speeding for the harbour entrance. Even with my sails rolled away the Superbigou was still doing seven knots downwind. Half way down the channel a RIB appeared out of the gloom and Ash jumped onboard with a characteristic flash of his teeth in a smile. It was great to know help was at hand and we readied the boat with tow lines for the RIB. Entering the harbour I was nervous. We had to get this right or there was no where to go. I swung the helm to bring Superbigou up into the wind. The boat slowed to a stop, started to drift backwards towards the shore, then the RIB, took the strain, towing us forwards towards the buoy, with me steering and Ash leaning down to secure us. We picked up the buoy and I wobbled forward, my legs shaking with the Adrenaline. I could not have picked a worst scenario for my first solo landfall in this beast of a boat. But the worst did happen and we found a way through. My forethought to prepare early for my landfall allowed me time to discover, diagnose and solve a problem that potentially could have led to catastrophe. The boat handled well in difficult conditions and I kept my cool never once imagining there was no way out of my problem. I am of course hugely grateful to Ash and Pete from Sea Start who came out in the lashing rain to help me safely into the harbour.
I could never have predicted the engine problems that occurred - it had after all been running for ten hours already without missing a beat - but I faced the worst and proved to myself I am capable. I have the knowledge and the skills to deal with the problems that will inevitably be thrown at me over the next two years and I know why I have entered the Vendee Globe race - it's because I am ready!