My Solitaire Leg 1 – Overcoming adversity
As the title suggests the first leg of this epic race was no picnic, and one that proved difficult to prepare for and visualise. For 9 months I had been preparing and talking to veterans of the race attempting to get a gist what was in store for me, words could never do it justice. I am however going to make the effort to describe to you what most of the experienced racers called the hardest leg in Solitaire history.
It was hard because of the unreliable wind, it was hard because of the unforgiving tide and it was hard because it had no mercy.
The weeks building up didn’t provide many hours to rest and bank sleep, instead I had to attend endless briefings and safety talks, make last minute adjustments and pass the boat through the scrupulous regulations. There was an excited atmosphere that filled the race village and pontoons for the grand depart as the harbour walls and passage way out to sea where lined with people clapping and cheering. I couldn’t help but smile as I drove my boat out to open water and prepared for the oncoming race in the warm weather. The initial light winds proved challenging for the first few hours as we finished the inshore section and headed across the channel to our first turning mark. I happily held an upper mid fleet position into night one and prepared myself for the big forecasted winds.
It got dark as we crossed the shipping lanes and there where difficult choices to be made with which sail to hoist, in this commotion I had a very close call with a tanker that looked to take a large division to avoid this mass of Figaros sailing fast in what was now 25 knots of wind. On top of the building breeze and sea state a mixture of what I think was nerves and a disgusting freeze dried meal had me on the edge of vomiting, which wasn’t ideal. I rounded the cardinal mark Owers off the Isle of White at about 2am to start the 190 mile stretch to Wolf Rock at Land’s End.
I was now sailing upwind in 25- 30 knots with huge waves covering the boat and myself. I remember looking at the bow of the boat as it bucked up and down with every other wave showering the big genoa that I was about to change for the smaller sail. I grabbed the solent sail from below and popped a couple of sweets in my mouth in preparation for the big change. Hoisting the sail took a lot longer because of a small breakage in the sail and I was thankful for the harness that kept me attached to the boat while the rest of me was air born. I got through that night on what felt like pure adrenaline and I loved it, top speeds and big waves from dusk till dawn.
The wind dropped slowly through that second day and the rain clouds passed to produce some well-deserved sunshine. The fleet was tight around Start Point as we sailed slowly through the rocks to shelter from the tide and it was a lot of fun, the 39 boats remained close throughout night 2. However in the morning of day 3 the wind became very unstable and extremely frustrating which was the beginning of the end for me, I got caught on the wrong side of a wind shift and was left with very little options, I was trying my absolutely hardest to capitalise on the tricky conditions but I was punished.
The Lizard Point, a close headland to my favourite town of Falmouth in Cornwall, decided not to let me pass. The wind was now close to zero but the boats around me still managed to drift towards the next mark. In the last of the wind I decided to put a couple of last tacks in, however in my last tack I lost momentum of the boat. I didn’t regain forward motion for 4 hours. I watched the boats near the back catch up and sail right past me, I felt helpless and hard done by, and it was not fair. I went through every emotion I had that afternoon, it was like the 5 stages of grief. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. I had lost contact with the fleet and was hit with tides that only wanted to push me back; I was now hours behind the boats I should have been racing against.
There was very little wind on Day 4 but the sun forgivingly came out and my boat became an expensive drying rack for all my clothes and sails. Everything was now very tranquil, there was less pressure, less boats and everything was quite. I was very thankful to have Concise 10 the big MOD 70 trimaran stop by that day as it was motoring passed, Rich Mason was on board who had completed a Solitaire two years previous and was very supportive. I spent that evening hoisting and dropping my kite as the wind swirled around my boat and clouds of mist drifted over disorientating me and soaking everything. I didn’t manage to get much sleep through night 4 because of this but it was enough to have the energy to catch a few boats during the last 50 miles or so, including Mary Rook.
I crossed the line in 30th position and had lost a horrible amount of hours to the leaders, but the feeling I had was incredible. So much relief and such a sense of achievement to finish I couldn’t help but throw my arms in the air and celebrate, it was here I knew that just to finish this race would be a triumph.