Leg 2 – Surfing to Spain

| Hugh Brayshaw

After the success of leg 1, I was running on a high throughout the stopover in Saint-Briuec, lots of positive messages online and compliments from the other skippers. It wasn’t the best stopover for me regards sleeping, unfortunately. When I finish a leg I like to eat, shower and then sleep for about 14 hours or until I naturally wake up. It is one of the best feelings. This time, however, I was up after just two hours to move the boat onto the official pontoons, and for the next few days before leg two I didn’t ever manage a full natural sleep. Despite my many attempts.

                                  The annoying docking process at Saint-Brieuc

Race day started much earlier than I would have liked, I was in the first group out of the lock and back into the sea. I ended up dropping the anchor and sleeping for a couple more hours to kill some time before the start. This isn’t my ideal way to start a race, but as sailors, we just have to deal with these things in the Solitaire. The second leg would see us sail an inshore loop off Saint-Brieuc then to head west along the coast of France and south across the Bay of Biscay, around the infamous Cape Finisterre and finally into the bay to finish at Portosin.

                                   Ropes everywhere during the inshore course

We started with beautiful sunshine and a nice 12-knot breeze fully powering up our boats which made the inshore course pretty intense. I made it around cleanly and enjoyed the close action in the wind. Unfortunately, as forecasted the wind dropped off throughout the day, by the early hours of day two we struggled to hold our kites as we crawled against the tide along the north French coast. We were once again sailing in and over the rocks which meant very little sleep through night one. Working hard I managed to work my way up the fleet into a strong 8th position by morning.

                Sunsets with a tightly packed fleet moving slowly under spinnaker

That second day was one of the hardest and most stressful days at sea. The night was exhausting trying to keep the kite flying and the boat moving in very light winds, we now had some wind but against the tide again and so very close to rocks. The room for mistakes was tiny and the process of checking the computer and keeping on course was endless. On top of this there was a massive amount of seaweed in the water which was a nightmare and sapped any energy I had left. Every skipper was on their toes steering the boat around the big patches of floating, slimy speed traps. Sometimes there was no avoiding it, I would frantically run to the rudders and remove the weed I could before running forward to the bow and throwing a rope under the boat working it down the hull to the keel in the hope of encouraging any weed off.

                     Lots of tide, lots of weed and lots of rocks around NW France

After hours of heart racing nerves keeping my boat safe but fast I got scared about a gap I was hoping to fit through and diverted losing some distance and setting me on course for the big tactical mistake of the race. Essentially there were two tactics to navigate the last bits of land before the wide-open space of the Bay of Biscay. To follow France round to the south down the ‘Chanel du Four’ before heading out west or going directly west past the island Ushant. I was pointing for the island and I expected the wind to be stronger out in the west first which would be an advantage. The leg leader along with a few other very good and experienced boats were heading in that direction too. The decision was made.

The fleet split and I could see the other boats GPS position on the computer screen. They were going about 2 knots faster and directly to Spain. I checked my position, checked my speed and checked them again. They were killing us, and it hurt so badly because I knew the big coin toss of the race had gone badly wrong.

                              The fleet sailing downwind in the building breeze

I did what I could to position myself nicely for what was about to be 36 hours of continuously fast sailing downwind across a wavy Biscay. It didn’t take long before the wind got up to 20+ knots, this made the Figaro very lively as it surfed down endless waves reaching speeds of 18, 19 and sometimes 20 knots. Trying to get the auto-pilot set up to control the boat while I slept was difficult, the waves were messy and threw the boat around in all directions. I struggled to sleep and night two was very lively, so I spent most of it once again at the helm.

                           Plenty of white caps in the middle of the Bay of Biscay

The wind continued to pick up into day three as I burnt through the miles to the finish and approached the corner of Spain. I had been told the wind at Cape Finisterre would be double of whatever we had out at sea, which was now 29-31 knots. 60 knots is seriously mental. I had also made a terrible job at the few gybes I had to do, wrapping the spinnaker around anything and everything as it flapped in the waves. This resulted in me clipped to the bow and wrestling with the sails to unwrap whatever mess I had created. In one situation I was trying to sleep on the floor down below and woke up to the auto-pilot making some screeching noises and felt the boat leaning into a gybe. The boat gybed itself with a bang as I clambered up the steps and my boat was suddenly completely horizontal with the masthead touching the water. I hung on tightly and looked in disbelieve at the mess and how I would get out of it. I wrestled the boat, the wind, the waves, the sheets and the sails to get the boat flat and gybed back onto its proper course. A further 20 minutes passed as I unwrapped the aftermath and got the boat back on course. On reflection, it was a miracle that neither me or the boat was damaged in any way.

                                     Working out a horrible twist in the kite

Another highlight of this leg was meeting my very first whale which nearly ended in one of us getting seriously injured. Many of the waves I was surfing down were breaking, leaving some beautiful clear blue water behind it. As I was surfing very quickly down these waves I saw a strange fin sticking up out of this beautiful blue water, and then I saw the dark grey body attached to it surfacing. The visible body was about the same length as my boat, 33ft. While swearing, I frantically pulled the tiller towards me to go what I thought was behind it. The whale looked to have swum a little faster too because I was sure my keel was about to be lodged in its side. It was not how I expected to see my first whale and my heart didn’t stop racing for about half an hour. Matching what I saw to Google I think it was a beaked whale.

                                Beautiful breaking waves in the middle of the sea

As I approached the Cape I was tired but prepared for the mega winds that I was about to encounter. I had a smaller spinnaker up, more water on deck and my pockets filled with snacks. My experience in this area was very limited being around just once before on a delivery. Darkness fell as I got to the point where I expected the wind to be at its strongest. If anything, it was less, 25 knots down from 30 and a long way from the storm I had prepared for. I was back up with the big kite and away with the expectations for the final stretch along the Spanish coast screaming along in the now flat water and trying to catch up on the time I had lost. In the end, I hadn’t lost too much time on the other boats but there was a definite gap after the fleet split off France. I was happy with my speed across the Bay of Biscay and my determination to keep pushing even through exhaustion. I finished in 22nd for this leg, once again I raced under new conditions and learnt a lot. Valuable lessons to be taken into leg 3 that would have us racing back around Finisterre towards Saint Gilles, France.

                               Another finish in the dark with a face of exhaustion


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