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Irish Sailor Pamela Lee Meets Extreme Challenge of Midwinter Atlantic Crossing

26th December 2021
The Transat Jacques Vabre Class40 winner Redman has been in mid-Atlantic December storms with Pamela Lee of Greystones
The Transat Jacques Vabre Class40 winner Redman has been in mid-Atlantic December storms with Pamela Lee of Greystones

With the three named Atlantic storms of Arwen, Barra and Corrie already logged and leaving behind trails of varying degrees of disruption in Northwest Europe, we in Ireland don’t need to be told that the winter of 2021-2022 has been registering as hyper-active in terms of adverse weather.

But at least for those of us snug ashore, most houses in Ireland are built to successfully withstand such conditions. Then too, increasingly sophisticated weather analysis and improved methods of predicting and accurately warning of the approach and track of such storms have made it a matter of taking timely precautions and remaining indoors if at all possible.

So what must it be like to find yourself in a sailing boat far out in the open North Atlantic – albeit in its more southern portion – when such winter weather starts to develop around you, and there’s no getting away from it?

Pamela Lee of Greystones is one of Ireland’s most dedicated offshore sailors. In 2021, her most recent success had been on November 19th in Genoa, taking second overall at the finish in a fleet of ten boats in the two-handed Nastro Rosa Race round Italy race (started at Venice) for Figaro 3s. But then as winter closed in on Europe, the approach of December found her in the Caribbean, in Martinique awaiting the finish of the Transat Jacques Vabre, as she’d been giving the dream commission of bringing one of the hottest boats, the Mach 40 Redman, back home to France.

Redman in “The Happy Place”, wind well free and making many knots - but still the spray flies everywhere.Redman in “The Happy Place”, wind well free and making many knots - but still the spray flies everywhere.

It was an opportunity not to be missed, as the Class40 has already committed to the 2022 Round Ireland Race in June, and in Martinique Redman was crowned as winner of Class40. So even though it would be mid-December, with average conditions they could hope to be back in La Trinite on France’s Biscay coast in time for everyone to be home for Christmas. But conditions weren’t to be quite normal. Pamela Lee takes up the story:

THE ATLANTIC IN WINTER

Around noon on Midwinter’s Day, Tuesday 21st of December, a slightly bedraggled crew of three French men and an Irish girl finally pulled into the Marina at Horta, Ilha do Faial, in the Azores. Although an originally unintended pit-stop on our way from Martinique to La Trinité while bringing the Class40 161 Redman back home after her victory in the Transat Jacques Vabre, we were pretty relieved to chuck the line to the very helpful - although masked-and-gloved - marina manager.

The trip from the Caribbean had taken us 12 days, much longer than anticipated on a boat that should comfortably average above 12 knots boat speed. A few factors played into the delay, not least that we spent 48 hours under only the Tormentin J3, which is essentially a bright orange storm sail, while we hunkered down waiting for the three massive low pressures to pass over us, and hoping that we’d stay upright while waves smashed over the top of the hull.

Where will it all go….? Provisioning a two-man boat for a crew of four presents special challenges.Where will it all go….? Provisioning a two-man boat for a crew of four presents special challenges.

Early stages in Caribbean conditionsEarly stages in Caribbean conditions

Unfortunately, prior to this, we had also suffered a small tear on the J1, and during the storms the same on the upper leech of the main sail, all of which contributed to a small window of wind angle and strength in which we could get anywhere near hitting our polar percentages.

This said, we still managed to squeeze in some incredible sailing and I really got a chance to witness this winning Mach 40.4 JPS Production at some of her best showings. And at some of her worst showings too, for the limits-pushing scow hull shape – to optimise waterline length and hull volume within the 40ft LOA limit – can be teeth-shattering to take to windward in a steep sea.

North Atlantic grey day, but great going….they managed 27 knots in one speed burst.North Atlantic grey day, but great going….they managed 27 knots in one speed burst.

You needed to get fully under the low-headroom cockpit shelter when the spray sheeted over like a hail of bulletsYou needed to get fully under the low-headroom cockpit shelter when the spray sheeted over like a hail of bullets

SPEED OF 27 KNOTS

On the plus side, at one point we topped out our boat speed on 27 knots SOG. TJV winner Antoine Carpentier (with Spain’s Pablo Santurde Del Arco as co-skipper) claims to have achieved 29 knots in the sprint westward, so we weren’t too far off. But whether we achieved this through sailing prowess, or should rather give credit to the exceptionally large wave that we happened to be surfing down at the time, well, that’s another question……..

For as you’d expect, with the scow bow hull shape, this interesting racing machine comes to life when off the wind – as soon as you can get the Gennaker up, you are in a happy place. While still in the Caribbean, we had some incredible sailing from Martinique up to St. Marten, with almost 24 hours averaging over 20 knots SOG in those wonderful trade winds.

A gap between the storms, with a selfie for Pam as Redman makes smooth progress under autohelmA gap between the storms, with a selfie for Pam as Redman makes smooth progress under autohelm

Yet even with the scow bow, it was still wet - very wet. The cockpit shelter is actually surprisingly low to minimise resistance in what is a very serious racing machine, so unless you are really tucked in underneath it you are getting a good dowsing on a regular basis. Similarly, on the helm, you are sitting abaft the cover and pretty much out in the elements. Although not really necessary in the Caribbean trade temperatures, dry smocks are a must onboard.

We had a few more wonderful runs with the Gennaker and some lovely sailing with the big Spinnaker, but as is the case with trying to get back across the Atlantic at this time of year, we were faced with a larger proportion of upwind angles to contend with. This boat, as with many, was not built for upwind, but the slamming or ‘Tappé’ as the French call it, is on another level when you try to attack the swell in any sort of unfavourable angle.

Life goes on – sail repairs and cooking under way in the cramped night-lit accommodation.Life goes on – sail repairs and cooking under way in the cramped night-lit accommodation.

For this reason, we spent the first third of the trip heading due East, and even sometimes Sou’east before we could finally wrap around the outside of a system and gain a favourable angle Northwards, though it did feel like Morocco might be the best pitstop option for a while, and we were glad to make the Azores on Tuesday this week to let further storm systems go through before (we hope) heading on for La Trinite on Sunday (December 26th)

This was my eighth time crossing the Atlantic, as through my career so far I’ve done it in a varied number of boats in both directions. This trip was motivated purely by gaining as much experience, on the water in the Class40 as possible, and what better boat to do this on than leader of the class and the winner of the TJV?

When a negative result is a positive – COVID tests rewarded with lemon tartsWhen a negative result is a positive – COVID tests rewarded with lemon tarts

Horta at last. Who would have thought a washing line could be such a beautiful sight?Horta at last. Who would have thought a washing line could be such a beautiful sight?

It has definitely been the most challenging of the trips so far (and we haven’t even finished yet, as I’m writing this from Horta on Christmas Eve). So even though I knew what I was signing up for, the contrast between leaving the warmth of the Caribbean and sailing towards the North Atlantic in December is dramatic and almost comical. Similarly, the intensity and speed of the weather systems that we had to navigate through was a different story and for me, it was an excellent opportunity to get back into ocean weather system analysis after two years mostly of coastal racing in France and Italy.

My role onboard is Watch Leader and second to the skipper Arnaud Aubry, so my goal of learning the boat and gaining useful miles onboard has certainly been achieved so far. Although not without its hardship including probably the biggest sea state I’ve experienced to date, not to mention sharing a bucket facility with three French guys and missing an intended Christmas at home, these feel like small prices for the bigger picture goal, and sometimes in offshore sailing, it’s good to be forced out of your comfort zone, just to remind yourself that even at the low points, you still love it – well, I certainly do anyway!

And if you have to miss Christmas at home, the deservedly legendary Peter’s Café Sport in Horta was as ever a home-from-home for Christmas Eve, even if there’s a shut-down from Christmas Day. But all being well, when that comes in we’ll be on our way.

It may not be Greystones for Christmas, but it will do very nicely…… Christmas Eve venue before the latest lockdown was the legendary Peter’s Cafe Sport in Horta.It may not be Greystones for Christmas, but it will do very nicely…… Christmas Eve venue before the latest lockdown was the legendary Peter’s Cafe Sport in Horta.

Published in Offshore
WM Nixon

About The Author

WM Nixon

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William M Nixon has been writing about sailing in Ireland for many years in print and online, and his work has appeared internationally in magazines and books. His own experience ranges from club sailing to international offshore events, and he has cruised extensively under sail, often in his own boats which have ranged in size from an 11ft dinghy to a 35ft cruiser-racer. He has also been involved in the administration of several sailing organisations.

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