Maps and Minis!

Why ocean sailors have to be good at thinking on their feet: Conrad Colman on Spirit of Hungary remembers a day lost at sea... 

Emails from the boats APR 9, 2015 14:25

Ship’s log April 9th

What would you do if you were all by yourself in a strange land without a map? No cell service to call up Google maps, no “phone a friend” option and no chance of a friendly stranger passing by to help out? A few years ago, passing through the Cape Verde Islands I got to try out this scenario for myself.

I was racing in my first solo transatlantic race, the Mini Transat in 2009 from France to Brazil. New on the circuit and eager to catch up, I sped through the preparation and only had time to sail the boat for a few months instead of years like my competitors. Since jumping in the deep end, I learned some of the dark arts of solo sailing and prepared the boat myself, from designing and making my own sails to learning how to spray antifouling paint. After the start in France and a short stopover in Madeira, the fleet headed for Brazil via the channels in between the Canary Islands and the Cape Verdes. Having made it through these island chains I folded my local charts and looked for the Atlantic Ocean chart but found only another local chart, this one for the approaches to Salvador Harbour in Brazil!

To rip off a dozen pop songs, my heart skipped a beat and my knees felt weak. I turned the inside of the boat upside down looking for my chart but recalled to my dismay that the last time I had seen it was on the dash of my car! I was literally lost at sea, out of radio range with my friends and already the sanctuary of the islands lay far behind me. Then it occurred to me, that in the middle of nowhere was actually the best place in the world to not have a map. I wasn’t hunting an obscure shop in the the winding back alleys of an unknown town or running to meet a friend at a new bar. I had only to take care of the small archipelago of St Peter and Paul that lay on the route to Brazil and all would be good.

However, a map of Brazil would be useful because my strategy for the weather required staying a certain number of miles off the coast to avoid local effects so I set to work to craft my own one. In addition to the charts for navigation we were required to carry a list of all the light houses on the Brazilian coast and I discovered to my relief that the information for each one listed not only the flashing sequence and the lighthouse keeper’s breakfast preferences but also its position. I flipped one of my other charts over, drew up a grid for latitude and longitude, plotted the lighthouses and – hey presto! – sat looking at the coastline I needed. I added little palm trees and beach scenes to provide suitable motivation and returned to making my little boat go as fast as possible towards my artistically drawn destination.

This story has a happy ending but it could have been otherwise. But this not a story about maps and beaches, but about resiliency. I love ocean racing because thinking on your feet and coming up with unexpected solutions can make the difference between cutting the finish line or going home early. Yes, we were forced to stop in New Zealand to fix a keel bolt but we avoided several other potential stops with some quick thinking. We rewired the keel control system instead of pulling into Cape Town, used a water pump to charge the engine battery, common garden hose to stop the mast from breaking and saved the wind instruments with popsicle sticks and sticky tape.

Learning on the go and under huge pressure of time, I made lots of mistakes during my first racing campaign but learned valuable life lessons. So, with the first Mini race on the Atlantic calendar starting in my new home town of Lorient this weekend, I salute the skippers heading out to sea on their speedy little bathtubs. But be careful guys and girls, you never know where it might lead you to go. Just don’t forget your maps!