The ideal wind at the start of the SITraN charity race did not last long, and the fleet slowed down in the light breeze with an increasing number of calms in it. But the race rules allowed us to use our engines, due to the heavily loaded schedule waiting for us in Les Sables-d’Olonne (hereafter “LSO”). Subjectively speaking, Puffin was the most beautiful boat in the fleet, and also the most seaworthy, due to the 3-yearlong rebuild. However, due to her dimensions she was also the slowest one.
Another setback while we were motoring was Puffin’s new, undersized prop. Her original 3-blade fixed prop was properly sized for coastal cruising in tidal currents, but I had replaced it with a smaller feathering prop for the race. This is advantageous in long-distance offshore sailing, but slowed our progress significantly this time. Susie passed us on the same tack as we were stalled while motoring. The real disadvantage of the undersized prop was the way it delayed catching the favorable currents at the narrow channels and tidal coastline.
We arrived at LSO as the third boat, but our official ranking slid far back after declaring the engine hours. In spite of that, the enthusiastic French welcome saved our joy. And the frosting on the cake was that my wife (who I had not seen for two months) and my friend who had driven from Hungary also arrived. There was no time for rest, as the July 1 start was less than 2 weeks away, and the interim was loaded with mandatory programs. There were skipper meetings, press conferences, interviews, and all kinds of social events, but the backbone of my work schedule was prepping Puffin to pass the safety inspection. After successfully passing the safety inspection, the provisional entrants would receive the “Green Card,” which made them each an Official Entrant in GGR 2018.
The GGR Sailing Instruction and requirements had changed constantly over the previous three years, as I have mentioned in my previous blogs. The latest changes at that point were mainly safety related, and were focusing uniquely on the skippers’ rescue. This was most visible in the increased quantity of the required survival/rescue gear, as well as communication equipment that I could not get earlier (just there in France right before the start) due to lack of funds. I looked with envy at Jean-Luc’s boat, which was protected by underwater foil (preventing fouling)—focusing on competitiveness, since he had the green card already thanks to his generous sponsors.
Similarly, the well-sponsored Susie (DHL), who received the green card soon after our arrival to LSO, was rarely seen around her boat. She was probably able to concentrate on the routing, weather, and communication that would become important after the start. Well, the skippers with shoestring budgets had a different agenda, and I was in that group, unfortunately.
My team manager Ian had to fly home on June 18, and so Puffin’s work team shrunk to three. Eva and Vili dealt mainly with the shopping, walking countless miles between marine stores and shops in the hot weather. I worked on the boat as much as I could, during the breaks in organized events and after hours.
There was plenty to do. I had to replace the damaged spreader, which required new mast tuning as its followup. The fuel tank had to be completely emptied, and then filled up to the race-regulated quantity. I had to replace the temporary batteries and troubleshoot the overcharging problem. But my main concern—besides the safety inspection—was the wind vane fiasco.
The steadiness of my wind vane was still unreliable, in that it was not able to hold the chosen point of sail. So I was waiting for its designer and manufacturer, Peter, as if he were the Messiah. Peter and his wife drove from Hamburg with their wagon heavily loaded with spare parts and replacement wind vanes. His four other sponsored skippers and I welcomed them warmly. All of us were keen on going for a sea trial with the wind vane. Antoine’s boat was chosen for the sea trial, which we scheduled for an ideally windy day.
Unfortunately, the sea trial was cancelled for unknown reasons, though I had pushed everything aside to make myself available. I met Peter personally for the first time and we were bonding quickly while working together (our previous communication had been mainly online). Every day he dedicated himself to a different sponsored boat and worked like crazy in the increasingly hot weather (without a hat, despite my warning, and he got heat stroke by the end of the week).
Peter loved his wind vane as his child, and inspected its installation on all of his sponsored boats. He brought complete spare part kits for us, and even spare units. He worked the most on Puffin, probably since he was supplying the GGR-requested emergency rudder for her, as well. I moved Puffin on the other side of our floating dock, facing with the transom to the dock, for easier installation.
Peter was happy with my wind vane installation, but thought that my steering wheel adapter installation was faulty. There were two disks working as a disk brake, with one of them secured to the steering wheel with three U-bolts. I had not shortened the U-bolts after the installation, and the disks could not close completely, faltering their engagement (reducing their braking effect). Peter’s reasoning sounded logical; we cut the U-bolts shorter and reinstalled the wheel drum. I was still eager to test its reliability. We left the port in relatively fair wind, which soon weakened and stalled, unfortunately. We had to motor back, without having had a real load test on the wheel clutch.
Luck was not on my side during the green card preparation either. The batteries previously ordered in the UK had not arrived, and I spent hours daily trying to track them. With English and French assistance, we were finally able to locate the delivery truck in a parking lot 50 km away from our port.
But my satellite phone saga overtook even the battery shipping hassle. I had ordered the GGR-requested satellite phones in the U.S. before my departure from New York. Unfortunately, our test calls within the U.S. failed immediately. The U.S. company assumed that the problem was SIM-card related, and promised me a replacement SIM card in Bermuda (my only stopover on the way to the UK). I never received the new SIM card from the U.S. company, but I received the official GGR SIM card in Falmouth. That one did not work either, and I arrived in France with nonoperative satellite phones. I had no choice but to order a new pair of satellite phones—from the UK this time in order to accelerate the shipping process.
Their delivery was express, indeed, but the testing again ended with complete failure and frustration. I had to order a third new pair of satellite phones, which was possible thanks to the support of my Hungarian fans and donors (my friend Vili ran a fundraising campaign in Hungary and brought the collected cash in person to LSO). The problem was finally located by the UK company when I returned the defective phones to them. The onboard satellite phone charger had damaged the connector on the phones during charging, and their warranty did not cover this type of damage (the onboard charger had been supplied by the U.S. company and installed by a professional marine technician).
It is difficult to describe the level of frustration caused by this detour, but the financial loss was concrete in the amount of $8,000. The closer we got to the date of the start, the more stressful the days became. The lack of sufficient progress and sleep drained me both physically and mentally. The direct victims of my impatient nervousness were Evi and Vili; Ian was the lucky one who had taken off early. But Ian did not let me down, returning with his family after convincing them to spend their summer vacation nearby so that he would be able to help us complete the race prep.
The work on the boat and sometimes on the dock was “on stage,” since our race village was open to the public for most of the day. Our preparation was a nonstop show for the vacationing tourists, but a lot of the visitors were sailing fans who had come to LSO just to watch our race prep and to witness the start. Most of them were experienced, seasoned sailors, and they made helpful comments and suggestions when needed. They warned me about the poor quality and value of the emergency boarding ladder we had purchased in the local marine store. I politely reassured them that it was purely for show (for the safety inspection), and not intended for a real emergency. Well, they were proven right later on when I wanted to use it at the Equator…
Puffin’s first inspection was scheduled for June 21, and it was not successful due to several missing items (see attached defect list). Consequently, I was not very keen on participating in the local sailing race on the 23rd due to my other priorities. But it was mandatory for the skippers, and it also turned out to be beneficial for me, as I learned later.
The life of Les Sables-d’Olonne has been intricately connected to the sea from its foundation. LSO is an important commercial and fishing harbor of the region, and its population loves and respects the seafarers. Their welcoming of the GGR race staff and teams had been outstanding, their hospitality and support in our race preparation unsurpassable, so the GGR staff and skippers joined the local fishermen’s traditional sailboat race as a small token of our appreciation.
The racecourse for the small fishing sailboats was a loop a couple of miles long, parallel with the city beach. Eighteen boats were skippered by the GGR sailors and crewed by each boat owner and his buddy (2-man crew). The condition of the boats varied, reflecting each owner’s care and/or financial situation. By my usual luck, I got into one of the most worn ones. The sheets (head sail and main) were completely frayed, and I had to constantly push the tiller backwards to keep it in its receiver during our sailing. But the biggest problem was the language barrier; my crew did not speak a word in English, and I was French-illiterate. We got to the starting line late and from the wrong direction, sailing on opposite tack from the rest of the fleet.
But we were equally enthusiastic, consistently moving ahead in the race and managing to finish in third place. The joint participation in this annual regatta strengthened our connection with the locals even more, and gave me a much-needed emotional boost.
The first three days of our last week before the start were designated to the skippers as a break from local events. But it meant hard work on board Puffin due to the lack of the green card. I am normally a regular diary (or logbook) writer, but the tempo of this period shrunk my notes to single words of reference.
Puffin received the green card almost in the last minute on June 29. I became a wreck and an official entrant at the same time.
Our team gathered in a nearby restaurant to celebrate our “graduation,” and for our last supper. My young friend Robert (with whom I had entered together into this race project in 2015), with the visible signs of a 20-hourlong journey on his face, showed up and made our team complete. My close friend and supporter Bernie, the guardian of Salammbo (my first circumnavigator boat), even flew in from the U.S. with his son to join us.
This would be my last dinner in a restaurant for at least 8-9 months, but I could not pay attention to the meal. I was exhausted in every way, but tried to be cheerful. Bragging a little, I passed around my gift from WEMPE—a rather expensive mechanical watch (approved by the race regulations) that would serve as my spare chronometer. As final proof of my bad luck, the crown of this masterpiece became inoperative in the hands of Ian, who had wanted to set the accurate time for me. I could not decide which was more painful: feeling sorry for my friend’s remorse, or the loss of the spare chronometer (an important item in celestial navigation).
Fortunately, I did not have time for self-pity; I had to focus on my wife’s safe return home, besides the race start. She had to drive with Vili back to Hungary, with a worn and overpacked wagon (loaded with Puffin’s surplus stuff) before her return to the U.S. So, my last day before the start was spent sorting out the items to leave behind and talking over our household responsibilities for the coming year. There was no time for race-related weather routing or hooking up with prospective HAM buddies.
On July 1, 2018 at 09.45 LT, my friends untied Puffin’s mooring lines. Covering my tears with sunglasses, I balanced one leg on board and pushed Puffin away from the dock, not sure about my next step on land…
To be continued…