To finish first, first you must finish.
The weather systems this time of year for the English Channel start thousands of miles away, in the moist, warm gulf states of the USA. They start as rising air coming off of warm ground, creating modest low pressure systems that get pulled to the east and north as they start to build. They typically track the eastern seaboard, picking up energy and moisture from the Gulf Stream if they get far enough off the coast. And they often combine with similar systems originating in the plains states and Canada when they reach the latitudes where the Gulf Stream begins its big turn to the east.
From there, those systems make their own transatlantic passage, often riding the Gulf Stream that lends energy to the journey. With the Azores high to the south keeping the lows pinned above the 40thparallel, and with Jet Stream pushing them along from behind, they reach Europe right at the mouth of the English Channel full of potent power.
It’s those lows that the Route du Rhum fleet will often cast off into, with plenty of rain, howling Westerlies and Northerlies, with waves that have built to fearsome size as they have rolled across the Atlantic and then been shortened into square, short boat-breakers as they cross over the continental shelf about 100 miles off shore. The first days of the race take the fleet past Brittany, then over the top of the Bay of Biscay. Giving way to the fierce conditions by footing off a bit is its own special disaster, as it means you gradually get embayed, forced south into the Bay of Biscay with no chance of escape, eventually pushed up on the hostile lee shore of Spain or forced to turn and run to Lorient. This leaves the fleet left to beat their way into the conditions, rising up each of the monster waves that come its way and then falling off the back side of those same waves, to come to a slamming halt when the boat reaches the surface of the water again and ends its short flight. This continues for 700 miles or more, until you can finally reach the corner of Spain and start moving south as well as west.
The motion is horrendous, and it puts strain on boat and sailor. More than anything else, it tests your preparation. The violence lays bare any weakness, and it’s the weak bits that break which will spell the end of your race. A mast that shatters, a fitting that fails, a sail that tears, instruments that short, or skippers who get injured. The number and type of race-ending, or even life-ending, catastrophes are only limited by one’s imagination. Routinely, a quarter of the fleet in this race will end up dropping out in the first 5 days and it’s almost always something that failed under the test of the Bay of Biscay.
Preparation is absolutely critical to improving your odds at surviving the physical beating that is all too typical in the first third of the race. The race organizers make an effort to force that awareness on the skippers by requiring not just a 1200 mile solo qualifier for the race, but also that 10% of that qualifier be done upwind in wind that is in excess of Force 5 (20 knots). The stark reality, however, is that as time grows short and wallets get thin, skippers cut corners when it comes to prep, crossing their fingers that this will be an edition of the race that somehow avoids the storms of Fall, storms that routinely reach Force 7 or even Force 8.
For Dragon, every mile of the past 10 years has been an exercise in figuring out what worked. What equipment and gear that could withstand the rigors of offshore miles and what failed in the face of the loads, vibration, salt and UV that are the realities of Class40 sailing. Endless half-brained ideas were put the test, and most ended up being discarded. I shamelessly copied the best ideas I saw my competitors using, and gratefully accepted the advice of those smarter and more experienced than I. I have been known to over engineer a glass of water, but complexity introduces more points of failure and I slowly learned to streamline and simplify every system, every process and every solution. Equipment that did not make the cut was ruthlessly banished to my barn, a graveyard of no-longer-loved toys. Mile by mile, race by race, year by year Dragon evolved into a beast that was able to take on whatever the ocean threw at her.
But even the best equipped boat or the most thoughtfully designed solution will weaken with time and exposure to the elements. Dragon is no different, and the fact that I have accumulated over 20,000 miles in the past three years made that potential for failure all the more likely. So her prep for this year’s Route du Rhum began back in August of 2017, when I brought her to Maine Yacht Center.
We took the boat apart. Literally stripped to a bare hull, removing every single nut, bolt, every piece of hardware and electronics, every length of wire. She was shorn of every last adornment, naked as the day she was born in 2008. Then, reduced to her core, we put her back together. New hardware, new electronics, new wiring, new deck paint. A new engine allowed us to eliminate the sail drive and replace it with a more conventional prop shaft which both reduced and lowered weight placement as well as reduced drag. An entirely new cabin arrangement made the stacking of gear more ergonomic as well as reduced weight. She emerged from the shed in November 2018 both refreshed and faster.
Over 3000 miles of sailing in 2018 has allowed me shake the bugs out and helped confirm the value of the go-fast changes we made in 2017. My February qualifier saw winds that just tipped the scales of Force 8 when they gusted to the low 40 knot range and blew over 35 knots on the nose for 24 hours. That kind of punishment lent confidence that the boat and I could handle the Bay of Biscay in November.
After the Atlantic Cup wrapped up in June, we went into the final prep. The guys at Maine Yacht Center fixed several small issues, while Mark Washeim of Doyle Sails built me a new set of sails custom designed for the expected conditions, as well as putting together a set of repair materials and trained me in using them. I also worked with Gorilla Rigging to refresh all the running rigging, replaced the socks on all the constrictor clutches, cleaned all the winches and swapped out any hardware such as the auto pilot ram or the water ballast pump that was still working well but that would ruin the race if it failed. The mini-refit also provided a window to go through all of the race requirements and make sure that the boat was ready to withstand what will be an intense level of scrutiny that is the normal part of this race.
I would say that she is going to start this race as well prepped as the day she launched, but the reality is that she has advanced exponentially since that day. She is better sorted, better equipped and in better condition now than she has been at any point. If I fail, it’s is not going to be because the boat failed.