In the early evening of 02 October 2012 I completed my first Mini 650 (Mini Transat) single handed race in Valencia Spain. The fleet would experiencing a range of conditions racing around the Island of Ibiza in Spain in winds from 0 to 18kts. The Mini Air 2012 Valencia Round the Islands Race was quite a mentally and physically challenging race, and sleep deprivation was a major player in the performance of yachts and skippers. This race was best described as a three day one man disco with no sleep and a lot of excitement.
This would be my first Mini Transat 650 race, and I was lucky enough to be sailing the new RG650 which has been built as a series class boat. There are two divisions of Mini Transat 650 boats. There are the prototypes which are built entirely of carbon fibre, with larger sails, canting keels, and canards, and there are the series boats which are built of fibreglass and aluminium. To classify as a series boat, they must be in full production, and so a minimum of 10 boats need to have been built before it can be classed as a series boat. The RG650 I am sailing is designed as a series boat, and my boat is number 2 out of the mould. But, because the RG650 is so new, boats are still in production and they are currently building hull number 5, so a further 5 boats need to be built for it to be classed as a series boat. Hence, for the Air 2012, though I would be pacing myself against the other series boats during the race, I was officially entered in the prototype class, even though I am sailing a series boat.
The Air 2012 was planned to start on the 28th of October, however incredible storms swept over Spain, causing incredible damage to local roads and buildings. Due to the hight winds and large swells the race was postponed until the morning of the 30th. At 0900 on the 30th we had a skippers briefing and got the green light to depart the dock. Final preparations were made as a couple of RHIBS pulled the MIni 650s off the dock. Light winds meant that all the boats were slow to make the start line so the race was further postponed until 1140. I have wanted to sail a Mini Transat since I saw my first mini in 2004, so finally, after days of waiting (or years of waiting in my case) the fleet lined up at the start line. The gun went and the RG650 I was racing picked up speed quickly as I crossed the line in a good position next to the committee boat.
By the time we reached the top mark 1nm to windward I was in 3rd place overall and the brand new ARGO’s were close behind, and ecstatic with the performance of the RG650. I noticed some more wind to the right hand side of the course, and started to carefully edge close to it, making sure I did not loose too much speed against my closest competitors the two Argo yachts. As I made it to the wind ahead of most of the fleet I was able to set my light weight kite and head to the second mast of the course that lay off an isolated danger mark 8nm down the coast. In the light airs, the prototype boats were a lot faster, but even with the greater speed of the all carbon boats, I managed to round the second mark at the top end of the fleet as we made course for the island of Ibiza.
Having only sailed Mini class yachts a few times, and being my first race I held off deciding on my sail selection and carefully watched the other yachts in the fleet make their decision. I noticed that al the other boats were hoisting their code zero’s and so I prepared mine for a hoist also. Unfortunately as the sail was being hoisted the halyard got caught and, somehow untied itself from the head of the sail, and I lost the halyard up the mast. I could not believe this was happening to me in my first race. This was a massive human error, and I could not afford to make such mistakes in this experienced fleet.
While trying to work out how to climb the mast while sailing solo to retrieve the halyard I lost valuable ground on the other yachts, and before too long I was at the back of the fleet, and still without a code zero halyard. I lowered the jib, and used the jib halyard instead for the hoist, and finally I was able to match speed with the other yachts. The rest of the first night we saw very light winds and choppy conditions with a lot of residual swell left over from the storm. Light upwind choppy conditions are not ideal for the RG650, as it is designed as a powerful reaching and running boat (these are the predominate conditions for a trans Atlantic mini transat), and has a very full bow compared to the other series boat. Though the boat was struggling to keep speed, I played the shifts and worked my way to windward through the night, keeping a careful eye on the lights of the other mini’s in the fleet, that had seemed to divide into two groups, one going right and one going left. I decided the left of the course looked better, though starboard tack was a slower tack because we were punching into more swell.
Gradually I began to loose track of the other lights of boats in the fleet, and by morning I thought I was completely out the back door. To my surprise, as the sun rose on day two of racing, I was surrounded by other mini’s. As the sun lifted above the horizon the wind veered and I hoisted my biggest light weight spinnaker and increased speed against the other yachts dramatically. I managed to make up some valuable places through the morning. As the fleet neared the North east tip of Ibiza the wind dropped off completely and almost the entire fleet bunched together in a massive windless hole. There was only a short delay before the wind backed to the West, and we began to beat our way around the back of Ibiza towards Formentera.
To avoid the chop and try to get a lift off the northern shore of Ibiza, I tacked inshore and made some fantastic miles on the rest of the fleet, working my way up to fourth place overall. We rounded Formentera as the sun was setting, and I managed to tack just ahead of my closest rival on one of the Argo boats. The speed of the RG was better than that of the Argo, and as the sun set I pulled ahead, leaving Ibiza and the other yachts behind. It had been a fantastic day, and with some awesome tunes on my ipod that was kindly donated by Dani, I rocked on sailing the home stretch back to Valencia in a mood that could only be described as ecstatic! The night was pitched black, the wind was increasing to 18kts, the RG650 was plaining away as we surfed on a tight reach.. Life does not get much better than that!
The next morning we began sailing into the bay of Valencia. I had the Argo to the north of me under a loose cover, and only a couple of prototype mini’s ahead of me. Though I did not know where the rest of the fleet was, I knew I was in a good position. The clouds above however did not look as promising, and it appeared there was a hight pressure system sitting right over Valencia, and as I sailed on the wind began to reduced. As the wind dropped back to 4kts, so did my mood. I was tired and had not slept for two days. The adrenalin was no longer pumping through my system. I suddenly realised that I had made a fundamental mistake. I had seen the clouds indicating a high pressure system, and hence no wind, but it had not registered in my tired brain. I should have tacked towards the shore to avoid the windless hole that I was now sitting in, but I was so focused on covering the Argo, the correct tactics had not registered. I sat becalmed and watched the Argo sail off in more wind to the North as the clouds above me dispersed along with all traces of wind. Only the chop and swell from the wind the night before remained, and every time the boat started to get going, it was quickly slammed to a stop by a wave. All I wanted to do was to get some sleep, but the auto helm could not cope with the conditions as it had worked its way loose again, as the old problem that I thought I had fixed re-developed. Every time I considered sleep, a puff of wind would get me going again. If I slept I could loose valuable miles on the other boats, but if I did not sleep my brain would continue to be dysfunctional.
The sun rose higher and beat down upon me, with no wind it was a struggle to stay awake. I could see boats behind me catching up and sailing around the large wind hole that I was sitting in. there was only 60nm of the race remaining, but at 2kts of boat speed, I calculated that this would take 30hours….. not a good thought! Finally a light sea breeze began to develop, and up went the light weight spinnaker. I picked my way across the course, sailing from one puff of wind to another, carefully keeping an eye on the other boats that began to surround me to try to maintain a tactical advantage. Each boat seemed to have a different wind direction, and each boat had opted for a different sail selection. Being new to the mini 650 class I found this fascinating, and took note of the best sail combinations to use in these conditions.
Speed increased to 4,6 and then 8 kts as the afternoon went on and the wind increased. My spirits lifted as we began surfing down some small waves, and thought I was incredibly fatigued I was having a ball. Occasionally I would dose off at the helm, and then wake up seconds later to the boat going off course. Only 20nm to go, I had to maintain focus and keep on top of the other boats if I wanted to do well in this race. At 20nm to go I thought I should be able to see Valencia. I checked the chart and confirmed my nav was correct and the instruments were not playing up. 10nm to go and the sun neared the horizon. I still could not see Valencia. I checked the nav again. Almost 60 hours without sleep and things were getting a little confusing. I realised that the finish line that they had verbally briefed us at the start was not the same as the finish waypoint in the sailing instructions. As the sun set and dust fell, the other boats around me disappeared. I could not go below and check the AIS as the boat would not hold course with the kite up in these conditions and I did not want to risk wrapping the kite or loosing speed. I tried to radio the race committee on the nominated VHF channel, but a fisherman was chatting away in spanish and would not leave the radio alone for a second to allow me to break in and call the committee. I tried the committee on a few other channels without success. I decided to follow the nav plan that I had put into the GPS. Every knot of speed was vital to reach the finish in good time. As the sun had set I knew it was only a matter of time before the wind would drop off and we would be left drifting in the ocean.
Finally the wind dropped off completely. I was only miles from my final waypoint, so close to the finish, so close to getting some sleep! The kite collapsed and I was left drifting towards the final waypoint at two knots. As I rounded the final waypoint that according to the sailing instructions should have been the finish, I headed back to the Valencia harbour and the verbally briefed finishing position. There were a few other boats around me, and everybody looked exhausted. Again I tried to contact the race committee on the VHF to confirm the finish and let them know that I was nearby, but the fisherman continued to talk away to himself. Finally at approximately 2100 I crossed the finish line. Exhausted after over 61 hours with no sleep, I dropped the sails and waited for the RHIB to tow me into harbour. The feeling of exhaustion was mixed with an ecstatic thrill and sense of achievement. I had completed my first 300nm qualification race, and my first race in a Mini 650, and I had performed above my initial expectations, bringing home a result of 6th place overall and 3nd place against the other series boats.
Lessons learnt from this race – get more sleep – tactical mistakes cost a lot more than sailing the boat slow for a few hours a day! I have now re-designed the auto help and a new component is being engineered in the shop as we speak, so hopefully that problem will be solved for my next race in Barcelona starting on the 19th of October.
So if you are passionate about sailing, and like the sound of a one man three day music festival with no sleep (and no music once the ipod runs out of battery) and don’t mind getting beaten up occasionally by natures elements then perhaps mini sailing is for you too! The last few days has been some of the most enjoyable racing I have ever experienced. Mini racing is not just about the boats, its about the people, the achievement, the excitement, the thrills, the spills, and basically being crazy enough to consider racing across the Atlantic in a 21 foot boat! My first qualification race is not complete, and now I only have 600nm of racing to go, and a 1000nm qualification passage and with a bit of help from INSERT SPONSORS NAME HERE I will be racing in the 2013 Mini Transat Race! I am now an official Addict of Class Mini!
Details of how you can sponsor Richard Hewson in the 2013 Mini Transat Race or the Global Ocean Race can be obtained by following the sponsorship link at the top of the page. Please feel free to contact Richard by emailng him at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like any further details or would like Richard to organise a presentation for you and/or your company.
The RG 650 No 816 back at the dock at the end of the Mini Air Around the Islands Race 2012 – note auto helm part removed to be re-designed! Also not the difference between the RG650 which is designed as a series boat, and the yellow fully carbon prototype boat next to it.
Half the fleet lined up at the dock in Valencia after the finish of the Mini Air 2012. The RG 650 that I was racing is number 816.