In a new blog for Yachts Croatia, Ivica Kostelić writes about his first ocean crossing with a Class 40 sailboat, Optimus Prime, at the Les Sables-Horta regatta
Les Sables-Horta is a two-stage regatta starting in Les Sables d’Olonne, France. The first stage ends in the port of Horta in the Azores, and the second stage sails out from Horta to Les Sables. Total length of the route is just over 2,500 nautical miles.
The regatta Les Sables-Horta is held every two years
This season, the regatta sailed without the stop in Horta, 2,500 miles non-stop. The regatta is held every two years and is reserved for Class 40 boats, only doublehanded crews. This season, a significantly larger number of boats (25) participated than in several previous editions of the regatta, which is traditionally held in July.
Given the summer term, the meteorological situation on the race field is predominantly determined by the relatively stable Azores High. In an ideal scenario, that sailors wish for and that should be expected, one sails in predominantly stable meteorological conditions, profiting from anticyclonic wind circulation.
As a rule, you sail at favorable angles because the wind circulates you from Les Sables along Cape Finisterre to the Azores, and the return is along the western end of the High, which lifts you towards the British Isles and returns to Les Sables through the northern part of Biscay. So, roughly speaking, one sails in the direction of anticyclonic flow, in the ‘sun and glow’.
Bite the bullet and off we go
Well, now … after I, like many, dreamed of this regatta as a summer dream in shorts under a spinnaker, long-term forecasts sowed a glimmer of doubt in me. With each new day, as the regatta approached, doubts turned into the gray of an unwanted reality. Namely, it was increasingly certain that it would not be a classic summer regatta and that we would not need a factor 50 sunscreen …
It seemed that it would be the opposite, that it would be the way we are already used to this season: half-life in foulies under the first, sometimes second reef in the main. I will dream about the blue Adriatic again. But, as usual-it is what it is-‘bite the bullet’ and off we go!
The race had a prologue two days before the official start. Three laps are sailed in a triangle in front of Les Sables d’Olonne. The crews invited the guests on board, everything seems like a joke, but they are sailing seriously. Conditions were beautiful, sunny with 10-15 knots NW. ‘It’s a shame we’re not starting today,’ I thought. My co-skipper Hugo Feydit invited two friends on board, sailors. We sailed well and took 12th place.
Battle for Biscay
On the day of the start it was cloudy, rainy with 15-20 knots of westerly wind. The weather situation was as follows: a Low in Biscay and no one knows where its exact center is. It would be good to bypass that center and make your way towards Cape Finisterre. There we may catch some favorable northerlies after passing of the front, but the next obstacle in the form of a high-pressure belt west of Finisterre is already waiting for us.
It can already be seen that on the way to the Azores we will be hit by a family of cyclones, the first of which could be a nasty one. Azores High is nowhere to be seen, we can leave the shorts and sunscreen behind; a stage of self-punishment awaits us on the way to the Azores.
The organizers decided to make a triangle before letting us into the ocean. It was exciting, we barely avoided damage while fighting with two other boats on a downwind buoy, with spinnakers tangled in each other’s spreaders. What nonsense it would be to rip a spinnaker now! Fortunately, we pulled through without any damage.
On the beat! 80% of all weather routings sent us north, to bypass the Low in Biscay in a wide arc, predicting that center of the Low is in the northern part of the gulf. In that scenario, the northern route would also benefit a few days later, when the boats would find themselves at a more favorable angle to the next depression. But we thought the center of the cyclone is further south and we would not take the northern route.
While almost the entire fleet headed north, we were heading west along with a few other boats and waiting for the wind to turn. The development of the situation proved that we were right. At one point during the first night, we were in 4th position! Boats from the northern group, including favorites, turned west and southwest one by one, giving up the northern route.
Interestingly, the two favorites, ‘Redman’ and ‘Project Ocean’, joined our group very quickly while ‘Credit Mutuel’ persisted on the northern route until morning. They lost a lot of time there, which, as it turned out, they could not make up for the remainder of the race.
On the way to Finisterre, we pass through a cold front on the back of the Low and with plenty of wind north of La Coruna and exited the Bay of Biscay in 11th position. It felt good to take the correct option! Only then we were crossed by fast boats from the northern group.
Digitally semi-literate cavemen
The high-pressure saddle (read: calm) stretched along the north-south axis at a distance of about a hundred miles west of Cape Finisterre and was about 100 miles wide. It had to be decided where we were going to cross this hurdle. We had a problem on board that for reasons unknown to us (because we are digitally semi-literate cavemen) we couldn’t get information about the position and movement of the competition, which is extremely valuable information, especially in transition zones like this.
I called friends and family over the phone, they read positions, and I wrote them on the map – and so several times a day. I knew this was not the optimal solution and this problem bothered us for the remainder of the race.
Transitions are always a lottery and we didn’t do well this time. But either way, the frustrations need to be put aside as the rush continues towards a large cyclone approaching us from the west. It doesn’t seem very deep and we’re trying to comfort ourselves by predicting that it won’t be anything special, but we’re preparing the boat for a mayhem.
Staysail is ready on deck, everything is ready for a quick reefing of the main. The wind is slowly increasing, following the descending curve of the barometer. The wind is favorable, we sail fast. Everyone is trying to get around the cyclone and leave its center to the south. Since no one can say for sure where the center of the cyclone is, everyone is sailing west and waiting for the embrace of the weather phenomenon.
Delinquent behavior of our third crew member
20! – I shouted when the wind first crossed 20 knots. The boat sails fast, at an angle of 70-80 degrees to the true wind. We move from code 0 to the J1, and later to J2. Sea state is just fine. Suddenly the autopilot fails, unprovoked. A broach is never pleasant, especially not in strong winds. We try to turn off the autopilot, but it doesn’t respond. Hugo completely disconnects the autopilot from the power supply and only then can we take control of the rudder.
We tack quickly, we return to the old course. It’s not clear to us what happened to the autopilot, but it failing is certainly not good news, especially given the situation. From now on, someone has to watch out for the delinquent behavior of our third crew member.
I wear ski goggles
Hugo has no offshore experience and it is not easy for him to work on the bow. I see him breaking down, but he manages to find strength and does his job flawlessly. He is a trained Olympic sailor and has a good focus.
40! – wind and rain choked this shout. The wind intensifies as does the rain. I wear ski goggles without which I would be blind. Hugo already has completely bloodshot eyes, there is a gloomy feeling on board. ‘How much stronger will it be?’ and ‘how much more’ are questions that go through my head. The sea is big, but the rudder is light and the boat seems to ignore the chaos around her. She is well trimmed and I only help her a little at the helm.
50! – the wind blows away this word, and it also blows away the wing of the main autopilot pointer at the top of the mast. Hugo jumps into the cabin, shuts off the main and turns on the spare autopilot. The backup autopilot gets information from a smaller windvane at the top of the mast. Racing briefly falls into the background, and I think maybe we should bring the storm jib into the cockpit.
Beating the rough sea
But the wind drops sharply and the rain stops just as abruptly. The climax is over, no doubt about it. Even the sun soon begins to break through the gray. By the end of the day, we were beating the rough sea without any order, which was exhausting. We were in 13th place in the standings.
The wind dropped below 20 knots at night, so we switched from J2 to J1, but we didn’t manage to lower the staysail completely as it remained hoisted halfway. Something got tangled up on the mast, or the halyard cover broke – we couldn’t conclude anything in the dark and since it would be dawn soon, we decided to wait for daylight to try resolving the situation. I knew the problem would not be solved without climbing the mast.
The VHF antenna went crazy
As soon as the wind dropped a little towards 15 knots in the morning, I climbed to the height of the halyard attachment and unhooked the staysail. We tied the halyard to the deck; it was blocked somewhere up the mast. Hugo then climbed to the second spreader and untied the knot that had formed in the staysail halyard. Fortunately, it was just a knot and we will still be able to use the J2. I was worried that we would have to change the halyard, which is a complicated job.
Second member of the cyclone family hit us two days after his predecessor. The wind this time did not exceed 35 knots, but the state of the sea was terrible. This time we were fully upwind and the boat took a beating.
It looked like VHF antenna at the top of the mast had enough. She got loose and began wildly smashing around. It had already shattered the Windex and now only our backup autopilot remained at the top: our consolation and hope. Every once in a while, I looked up in hopes that the antenna would fall off without damaging the autopilot.
Prayers for autopilot
A few prayers later, out of the corner of my eye I caught a VHF antenna falling into the sea downwind behind the boat. I looked up: the autopilot was standing still! I was relieved and knew that, whatever happens now, we could be able to continue racing. We don’t have AIS anymore, but it’s not that important. Some of us had to retire from racing because of the damage to the boats they suffered during these two cyclones.
The rest of the way to the Azores was a disgusting self-punishment for me, upwind in 20-25 knots. We could use the scanty sun to dry our eternally wet clothes to some extent, but gray with occasional rain prevailed. The autopilot continued its disobedience, we called Calliste to try to find a solution to this pressing problem that could become insurmountable once we start sailing downwind.
European Hawaii or black Land of Mordor
Inside the boat is total chaos, clothes in varying degrees of wetness hang on the ropes in a ridiculous illusion that this will help them dry. Since the boat is constantly tilted 20-30 degrees and hitting the waves, everything turns into an effort because you can’t even sit normally. You can only sleep on a reclining bed, so exhausted that you don’t care that you’re wearing wet clothes. A hot lunch or tea is a great consolation in those moments, when you lie down among the stored sails so that you can at least relax for a while.
In front of the Azores we had to go through another, weaker front. I read and heard a lot about that archipelago, in the superlatives about the beauty and greenery in the middle of the ocean. European Hawaii, someone said. Instead of paradise, we were greeted by an ugly, black Land of Mordor covered with low, heavy clouds from which rain dripped into the gray sea driven by a strong wind.
Green garden in the middle of the ocean
In front of Horta, however, the sun was shining, so we got an insight into the unique beauty of the archipelago. Strange green garden in the middle of the ocean, beautifully landscaped, with beautiful and tidy settlements. It looks really unreal. I’m sorry we won’t stop here, I’ll have to visit this place. I call my dear wife and promise that we will go together.
The way back was still easier than the way to the Azores although there was still no opportunity for shorts and sunscreen. We sailed mostly under spinnakers and drove them to their limits. We later learned that many competitors tore up their spinnakers. We went through with minor damage, and some of the damage we were able to repair ourselves. We finally figured out and solved the problem with the autopilot and now it worked flawlessly. The battery in the pilot’s remote control seemed to be so weak that the remote was sometimes shutting down.
Limited monitoring of the competition
The central computer interprets the disappearance of the remote control from the system as a ‘man overboard’ situation and turns the bow into the wind. This is a safety setting in the event of a singlehanded sailor falling overboard. We turned off the remote completely and the autopilot continued to work without a problem.
Life was a lot easier now that we didn’t have to climb a tilted boat all the time. Our limited monitoring of the competition resulted in a further decline in ranking to 17th place. We couldn’t react in time to the moves of our competitors and that got on my nerves.
Scow vs. old design
On the race field, as expected, there was a split in the fleet to scow boats and old designs. Battle raged for the top between ‘Project Ocean’ and ‘Redman’, followed by ‘Credit Mutuel’. The latter managed to set a 24-hour record in the Class 40 with impressive 428,9 nautical miles. We kept within our group and we all had similar average speeds. I improved my personal best on a Class 40 boat with 277 nautical miles in 24 hours and an average speed of 11.5 knots.
The regatta had a grand finale for us. Just before the end of the long and exhausting race, we were caught by a crossing front, a hundred miles from the finish line at night. We held 15th place and fought for positions with three other boats, and we were all within a 15-miles radius. It was necessary to push the gas pedal.
First, I made a mistake when changing the sails and we hoisted a sail which we had to change in half an hour and that is a very exhausting job in the dark, rain and at 25 knots of wind. We saw the navigation lights of the competition approaching us as we hopped around the boat trying to make our way through a maze of ropes.
We finally hoisted the right sail and started the chase when the “lazy jack” on the leeward side of the mainsail broke and two reefs of the main fell to the deck and over the boat’s railing. We had to sort out that mess but this further exhausted us and slowed us down. The competitors passed us. After consolidation, we were able to defend against one attack, but we could not regain the lost positions.
On the famous ‘Vendee Globe’ pontoon
It was hard for me, as a competitor, to lose two positions in the very finish of the race. After 14 days and 18 hours of sailing on the ocean, we crossed the finish line and took 17th place. Winner was ‘Redman’ with skipper Antoine Carpentier, an excellent sailor and even a better guy. The second was ‘Project Ocean’, and the third was ‘Credit Mutuel’.
Numerous competing crews greet us on the famous ‘Vendee Globe’ pontoon. Their hands applaud us, their hands tie our boat, hug us and congratulate us. Here is the code of offshore sailors, unpretentious collegiality and the most sincere respect. We were all in the same trouble, we didn’t see each other, but we were left to each other even though we were opponents on paper. Our common, toughest opponent is the ocean. In the vastness of the ocean, we are primarily humans and only then competitors.
Text and video Ivica Kostelić
Photos Breschi/Sables Horta 2021