Part 2: Irina Gracheva Takes on the Mini-Transat

Irina Gracheva, the first Russian woman participating in the transatlantic race Mini-Transat

The second leg of Mini-Transat started on the 2nd November at 2:08 pm (WET) from Las Palmas to Martinique. Irina will be sailing a total of 2,700 miles across the Atlantic.

During the first leg, Irina encountered some problems which included reparation work on her boat after landing in Gran Canaria. Thankfully, her and her boat are ready for the next stage of the adventure!

***

“Around 300 miles before the finish, I found water seeping into the boat…”

Irina, congratulations on the successful completion of the first stage! How was the race overall? Was there something new that you revealed, or did you encounter exactly what you expected and what you were preparing for?

Thank you for your congratulations! As for reality and expectations this, after all, was not my first such a long race done alone. Last year at the preparation stage, I took part in the regatta Les Sables-d’Olonne — Azores and back and that was two times 1,300 miles. It took me 13 days to complete the first part of the distance, so I already have the experience of a long stay in the ocean. However, not everything has turned out to be as smooth sailing this time.

The first bump was at the beginning of the race when, unexpectedly, I got very seasick! For the first two days I felt awful and, whilst seasickness isn’t new to me, the waves in Biscay were generated by a cyclone that’d hit the area in the days prior – this is what caused me discomfort. Because of this, I missed the opportunity to compete for tactical advantage at the first stage of this race but, two days later, I was feeling much better.

I waited for strong tailwinds near the Portuguese coast knowing from personal experience that I could carry a full sail, but I had to steer myself instead of opting for autopilot. When sailing, it’s impossible to entrust the boat to autopilot when the sail (or spinnaker) is in use as it makes the boat prone to broaching, or near-toppling over. Instead, you can go without rest and carry full sails or lose speed by reducing the area of the sails and turning autopilot on.

Despite the wind reaching 30 knots in gusts, the boat was calm and carried out a complete sail confidently – phew! There was a segment of the route coming up, just beyond Cape Finisterre, where wind increases were expected; although the boat performed well, I had to switch completely to manual control and went without rest for more than 20 hours, working constantly with sails and steering.

Whilst it may not seem like much, we were several days into the journey and there were several more ahead…

How do you manage to find the time to rest in race conditions?

Unlike with a car, you cannot simply pull over to rest. In fact, the option to stop is non-existent! I can however reduce the sails area, put autopilot on and go to sleep. Once you’ve been awake working constantly for hours, you know that you’ll be able to rest easy knowing the weather is better ahead and this is what keeps me going. Whilst working long hours is physically exhausting, it’s also mentally exhausting but I know the importance of speed in competitions and that, when you give it your best and commit yourself to the race doing everything you can, you can push your limits and go even more. Especially for solo sailors, it’s very important to listen to your body and do what’s best for you.

Did you manage to avoid serious technical problems?

Not quite! Around 300 miles before the finish, I found that water was seeping into the boat. It turned out that it penetrated the hull through the crack in the transom. There was still a long way to go, so I had to decide what to do; push through by repairing the boat on-the-go or go to the shore for repairs. In my opinion, stopping would have been a huge waste of time so I increased the load on the front sails and shortened the main sail all whilst DIY repairing the boat. The homemade supports held on by pure friction, but it worked! I reached the finish line. Despite expecting to lag behind my rivals substantially, it turned out I’d only lost a couple of miles.

Do you feel more confident making repairs in the future?

Yes, I understand what I’ve got to do however will avoid making these repairs myself in the future – it’s better to let the professionals do their job!

Several boats in the Mini-Transat faced problems with the transom. Why is this?

Boats are likely to encounter problems on races like these, it just so happened many were in the same place! Other issues encountered included electrics, power cells and many finished without autopilots!

The route you sailed is long; how often were you in visual contact with other participants?

Constantly! There was always someone within five miles. This is not surprising, since all participants had the same strategy. In my previous regatta to the Azores, there were many routes so we all went in different directions and for a week I saw no one.

What information about your position and the position of rivals do you have in the race?

We do not know exactly how everyone is doing — we can only speculate. By radio, we receive data about our place and the place of our rivals which is determined by the distance to the finish line but this information doesn’t allow you to judge where exactly everyone is located. My tip is to navigate as it gives you an idea of how successful your decisions are in relation to your closest rivals.

What, in addition to repairs, have you done before the start of the second stage?

I have had a good rest! Since I ended up in the Canary Islands, I visited Tenerife and I’ve also had some time to prepare for the Transatlantic.