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As the tension builds for Ireland's Tom Dolan, the Mini Transat fleet have had a late change of course ahead of tomorrow's Transatlantic start from Gran Canaria.  

Midway between the Bahamas and the Azores, a tropical wave is taking shape as an active storm formation looms say organisers. For the time being, the associated minimum low pressure is not likely to prove dangerous, however the water temperature, which is exceptionally warm for this time of year, is conditioned by a high degree of instability. As such, ultimately, the formation of a tropical storm is a plausible hypothesis.

Grouped around the tables in the racers’ zone in the Vela Latina marina, the solo sailors were all talking about it. As they awaited a decision from Race Management, everyone was guessing the possible outcomes. Indeed, this morning, the routing clearly favoured a route a long way north of the direct course, but one that is potentially on a collision course with the tropical storm in question. Various scenarios were being mooted as to how likely it was that the tropical wave would transform into a deep depression, or even form into a hurricane. 20% probability is an acceptable hypothesis according to some, whilst other reckoned it was still too high.

Detour via Cape Verde
Race Management has since made its decision. Wishing to avoid taking the risk of sending the fleet of 6.50m boats into winds in excess of 45 knots and wild seas, Denis Hugues, in agreement with the organiser, has decided to create a compulsory gate between the islands of Santo Antao, to the north and Sao Vicente to the south. In terms of distance, this equates to a detour of around 200 miles in relation to the direct route, or one long extra day to make Martinique. On the upside comes the guarantee that everyone will be sufficiently far away from the potential centre of the tropical low. In any case, the passage along the channel between the two islands may herald further measures to be imposed upon the Mini sailors should the weather situation deteriorate.

A change of strategy and tone
Of course, the passage via the Cape Verde islands changes the strategic tone somewhat. Some sailors were hoping for a wide open playing field, but now they will be forced into some more refined navigation, where the timing of the gybes is sure to count a lot more than any choices about major options. Indeed, the racers will have to really be on their game to find the right wind angles and be opportunistic on the trade wind route, which is seldom steady. Those who feared they would be playing trains will feel let down. That said, who would choose to hit the road in a car whose brakes had a 20% chance of failing?

Published in Solo Sailing
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Royal Cork's Mark Mansfield, the four time Olympic helmsman, dropped in on Tom Dolan in Las Palmas, Gran Canaria ahead of today's prologue in the second leg of the Mini Transat.

Regular readers will know that solo sailor Dolan, who led the first leg of the race before discovering he had made a course error, has given a sincere account of his first leg trials to readers here.

Full–time sailor Mansfield, who featured on recently, says 'Tom's in good form and raring to get back out there and show what he can do'. 

The race itself restarts on Wednesday with the transatlantic leg.

Published in Tom Dolan

Tom Dolan has had a good rest and recharge after ten and a half tough days at sea during the first stage of the 2017 Mini–Transat. Here he gives a short rundown of how things went with some video from his onboard camera too.

I'm still a bit guilt ridden about making such a stupid mistake at the beginning. Some of you may be wondering exactly what happened: They set up a gate for us to sail through before heading out to sea just to regroup the fleet one last time for photo's, sponsors etc. As the weather for the start was forecast to be foggy they moved the gate at the last minute. They did not tell us in the briefing but simply added it to the amendment to the racing instructions and in the rush of the start and my head being elsewhere I never noticed the line about the start gate.

An hour after the start my buddy Pierre called me on the vhf to say I hadn't passed the gate. This threw me into a daze of confusion as the GPS was telling me that the gate was another 2 miles ahead. As there was very thick fog I hadn't seen the two black buoys that everyone had passed. I knew I was very far left, but had planned it to catch the outgoing tide around Ile d'Oileron, so I actually thought I was doing very well. Once I rushed below and pulled out the amendment to the race instructions I read the line stating it had been moved and my stomach sank.

After two years of preparing for this, the months spent working on the boat, the hours spent on trains to Paris and planes to Dublin, the miles of deliveries between Lorient and Concarneau and the long nights spent squinting in front of the computer screen preparing presentations and proposals and it only took me one hour and one line on a piece of paper to mess it all up.

I then had to sail back towards La Rochelle under spinnaker while the others where en route towards Cape Finistere. Once I had rounded the way-point of where the gate had been (the gate wasn't even there any more!) there were 10 miles between me and the lead group. For the next two days I struggled to sleep due to the guilt mixed with the urge to catch up to the lead group, with whom I have battled all season.,

I thought a lot about everyone who has helped me with this project and about all of those who had made the trip to La Rochelle just for me, how I had let them down and how I wanted to do well for them. The intensity of these first days allowed me to work quickly back up the fleet, but also threw my routine completely off. The important part of this leg was to arrive at Cape Finistere fresh and rested, I had made a good comeback but at a price.

By the time the wind and sea picked up and we passed the TSS, the lack of sleep meant I was completely "In the red" as we say, I didn't know where I was and I started seeing things, I usually manage my sleep very well, but this had thrown it completely off kilter. The fatigue resulted in me taking my foot off the throttle, I struggled to make decisions and it cost me miles.

The first sleep came after the Traffic Separation Scheme, in about 25 + knots screaming down waves at up to 15 knots, I think it was the relief of being away from the coast, clear of the TSS and on flatter sea which allowed me sleep. The boat screamed along as I snored in symphony! Once I woke things started to go better, I had created a massive lateral split taking quite a risk but it paid off, the wind shifted 20° to the right to NE and as I was the furthest west it was Christmas!

The middle part of the race went quite well. We enjoyed typical trade wind sailing, without the squalls and I had managed to work myself from last place up to the top ten. I was back in the match and it was fun, I aimed for a western route as the forecasts were telling us that there would be more wind in the west, as we would round a weak low pressure system over Portugal and have a good angle for the weak NE winds forecast over the Canaries, generated by a Low pressure system over the West African continent.

However the weather for the final part of the race wasn't to be so simple. Two huge but very weak areas of low pressure descended over the Canaries and it was a lottery about who they let through. I found myself in the lead of a group of 5 or 6 boats and things looked good for finishing at least in the top ten, and perhaps not too far from the podium. Two nights in a row we played lottery in the flukey winds and two nights in a row I lost.

The first of these nights I sailed into a hole with no wind, and the following boats just sailed around me (they could see on the AIS that I was stopped.) That night I lost 4 places. Then the next night was the most heart breaking. The same group who had managed to pass me and were just 3 miles to the west of me sailed off at 4 knots while I was stuck at zero, drifting with the current for 6 hours. That night cost me 15 miles. If everyone is stuck in a whole it's okay but when your the only one stuck and your competitors gently sail away it becomes unbearable.

The western route that we had taken meant that we had more ground to cover in what we have named the "Mistoufle", the newly created maritime word for a windless lottery. In the end those who played the eastern card won the gamble.

This is an intense sport, we deal with more highs and more lows, more moments of desolation and elation in three days at sea than we would in a year on land. We must assume our mistakes in their entirety without having anyone to turn to, anyone but ourselves to blame. We all live around a motto to which we turn to in the most difficult of times, "ne rien lacher", or "never give up". It may sound cringey and to be honest it is but the simple fact is that you are on your own, in the middle of the ocean and you have no choice but to continue. And when the time comes that things turn in your favor it is all the more rewarding, and this is the beauty of this sport.

So now it is time to put my brain into goldfish mode, like tennis players do, and to think only of the second leg. To think of it as a new start, a new race and hopefully at the end I will manage to scrape back enough time on the others to achieve the correct result that I hope so much for and I owe to so many of you,

Thank you so much again for the support, I am back in county Meath for a few days rest then back to the Canaries on the 25th.

Published in Tom Dolan

At 00.57.20 this morning UTC, Ireland’s Tom Dolan finally crossed the finish line in Las Palmas in the Canaries in 12th place at the end at the end of a mostly slow 1,350 mile Stage 1 of the Mini-Transat from La Rochelle writes W M Nixon.

Having been at the back of the fleet shortly after the start because of the need to re-trace his steps to round a mark missed in error, he’d worked his way steadily back up through the rankings to be in a best place of 9th in a Production Class of 56 boats. But the final 500 miles of the course from south Portugal have been plagued by calms and some exceptionally severe reversals of fortune, with hard-won gains snatched away by the sudden new appearance of a better breeze in another section of the fleet.

Tom dolan mini transat 2017 1At 00.57.20 this morning UTC, Ireland’s Tom Dolan finally crossed the finish line

At times Ireland’s sole entry found himself at 9th, but equally at others he was back in 19th or worse. While he had been one of the star performers when the fleet was in fresh nor’easters off northwest Spain a week ago, the war of attrition which developed since in light and sometimes non-existent north to northeasterlies for the concluding 500 miles was much less his style.

At the front of the fleet in Las Palmas last night, the Proto Division was won by favourite Ian Lipinski in, but only by 2 minutes from Arthur Leopold Leger in Antal-XPO - Leger had in fact led this race for long periods in a season which has been largely dominated by Lipinski’s bat.

In the Production Class, a new name came to the fore with a win for Valentin Gautier, who took the lead in the final days from steady performer Remi Aubrun, whom he beat by all of 2 hours and 20 minutes last night. Placings were closer thereafter, as Aubrun was only 8 minutes ahead of Clarisse Cremer in third, while Erwan Le Draoulec was just 16 minutes behind in fourth.

Tom Dolan meanwhile was battling for 12th place with Oliver Tesloff and Germain Kerlevo, and he succeeded in beating both of them when he crossed the line just before 0100 hrs this morning. This means that, timewise, the only skipper ahead of him who goes into the second-stage “real” Mini-Transat itself in early November with a really significant time advantage (the final results will be based on the total time for the two legs) is Valentin Gautier, as all boats between 2nd and 14th finished within a five hour slot.

Valentin Gautier’s performance is notable, as the first part of his season had not gone well for him, with non-finishes in two important training races. But as this first leg of the Mini Transat 2017 proceeded, he was increasingly in contention, and in the final stages he was in the situation of either reading the flukey winds to perfection, or being lucky. It helps to be both.

While the top sailors in this special event – maybe twenty in all - are fully-sponsored and on proper salaries from their sponsors, financially speaking Tom Dolan is largely on a wing and a prayer. For all that it is recognized as a major event of international significance, the Mini-Transat has a strong, almost totally French emphasis.

Thus a very Irish farm boy from Meath like Dolan always has a struggle in demonstrating his relevance to the French cultural-sporting and sponsorship scene, while at the same time remaining connected to his supporters back home. It is truly remarkable that he has got as far as he has, and the big one in November – all 2,750 miles of it - now beckons with Tom Dolan reasonably well placed in terms of overall potential.

Published in Tom Dolan
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They’d optimistically talked of “a week and a day” when the 54 solo sailors in the Production Class set out on 1st October in the 1350 miles La Rochelle to Las Palmas Stage 1 of the Mini Transat 2017 writes W M Nixon.

But current leader Valentin Gautier still has 74 miles to sail this morning, and ten days of racing will have soon elapsed. With speeds seldom enough staying above the 5 knot level over these final miles, it continues to be a slow-finishing light-air business as they close in on the capital of the Canary Islands.

The pace may have been slow for the past 24 hours and more. But place changes have been rapid as first one group and then another has been favoured by localised breezes. Ireland’s Tom Dolan, at one stage up in ninth, currently finds himself in 13th with 121 miles still to race, and a current speed of 3.7 knots.

He is indicated as exactly neck-and-neck with 12th-placed Mathieu Lambert and showing the better speed (Lambert is on 3.4 knots), so Dolan may move up a place or two very shortly. But equally he only has a narrow margin ahead of Vedran Kabalin and Germain Kerlevo, both of them skippers of note, so the weary struggle will continue to the very end.

Race tracker here

Published in Tom Dolan

The extensive area of calms and light winds north of the Canary Islands did provide some gratefully-received local zephyrs last night for the Mini-Transat 2017 fleet writes W M Nixon. But although at one stage Ireland’s sole entry Tom Dolan had worked his way up to ninth place in the 56-strong Production Class, this morning a line of favourable breeze has been found by Remi Aubrun, and he leads at 3.9 knots with 150 miles to go, while Dolan has slipped down to 12th and is 30 miles astern, struggling in this morning’s lineup at just 1.1 knots.

But nearer the still-distant finish line, Erwan Le Droulac has found much the best local bite to the breeze, and is shown on 5.6 knots and only 2.4 miles astern of leader Aubrun. Overall, this marks a severe reversal of fortune for several-times-leader Clarisse Cremer, as she has cascaded down to 10th place, less than a mile ahead of Tom Dolan, and is making only 1.2 knots.

At the moment the race is such a lottery that the top priority for the lone skippers is not to finish too far astray on the main bunch. This is because the final placings in the Mini-Transat, after it has been completed with the second stage to the Caribbean, will be based on an accumulation of the elapsed times from Stages 1 & 2.

Nevertheless the fact that Tom Dolan is currently battling with Clarisse Cremer, who at one stage was so clear ahead that she’d a gap on the next boat of 16 miles, shows how astonishingly well the Irish skipper has recovered from his initial place at the back of the fleet a couple of hours after the start at La Rochelle nine days ago.

The prospect is for the winds maybe to firm in around the Canaries later tomorrow. But there’ll be hunger for wind – and just plain old-fashioned hunger for food, which may be running low by this stage on some boats – for a day or so yet.

Race tracker here

Published in Tom Dolan

Solo Sailor Tom Dolan has again moved up the placing in the 1350-mile Stage 1 of the Mini-Transat fro La Rochelle to Last Palmas in the Canaries, as the leaders grapple with light and fluky winds in the final 300 miles writes W M Nixon

Dolan’s tactic of holding to the west has taken him over towards Madeira, where his speed this morning of just 4.7 knots is slightly better than many of the widely spread front runners, and he has moved up five places from yesterday’s 16th.

Clarisse Cremer’s Production Class lead of yesterday had been narrowly regained by Erwan Le Droulac, but now she is back ahead with 6 miles in hand, making 3.7 knots to Le Draoulec’s virtually becalmed state of 0.9 knots, with 227 miles still to sail.

Race tracker here

Published in Tom Dolan
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Clarisse Cremer, continually rising star of French women’s offshore sailing and a formidable performer in the Mini-Transat fleet’s Transgascogne Race at the end of July, is currently the leader in the 1350-mile Stage 1 of the Mini-Transat from La Rochelle to Las Palmas in the Canaries writes W M Nixon

At one stage Cremer had opened out a lead of 15 miles with less than 400 to go. But currently with 337 still to be sailed, Cremer at 5.7 knots in a nor’easter is seeing her lead being eroded by Erwan Le Draoulec, just three miles astern and logging 6.1 knots.

clarisse cremer2At one stage Cremer had opened out a lead of 15 miles

There are still many holes in the wind between the leaders and the finish, indeed an entire area of calm may yet settle between the fleet and the finish. Out to the westward, Ireland’s Tom Dolan has had some slippage from his placings yesterday, when he was up around the tenth to twelfth mark. He has dropped back to 16th, but currently is making a better 6.3 knots, and hoping to benefit from a different line of wind.

Race tracker here

Published in Tom Dolan
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The leaders of the Mini-Transat 2017 are now at the latitude of Lisbon, but well offshore in trying to keep in a line of the fading north to northeast wind writes W M Nixon.

The pace in this first 1350-mile stage (from La Rochelle to Las Palmas, Canaries) of the Mini-Transat 17 had become swift and purposeful as they carried the traditional strong northeast winds down past Cape Finisterre. Since then, last night saw Ireland’s solo sailor Tom Dolan recover even more impressively from his setback at the start, which had found him in last place three hours after the race got under way.

His extraordinary upwards progress since, through a fleet of 56 in the Production Boat Class, saw him in tenth place for a while last night. But this morning it has stabilised at 11th as he takes a stab westward in the finely calculated business of tacking downwind in a fading breeze which provides the challenge of crossing an area of light breezes – or even calm – before he can avail of an area of fresher nor’easters which are flowing southwestwards from southern Portugal.

But the finish at Las Palmas is still 670 miles away from Dolan and his group, and it is becoming increasingly challenging for racing, with other areas of slack winds move across it.

At the moment Erwan Le Draoulec and Tanguy Broullec are neck and neck for the lead, with Clarisse Cremer third and Yannick Le Clech fourth. But with 630 miles for this leading cohort to cover to the finish, any predictions for them – and the entire fleet - are still somewhat premature.

Except, that is, for the half dozen boats which have temporarily dropped out after a succession of equipment failures. They are currently in various ports along the Spanish and Portuguese coasts, and out of the racing in Stage 1. But shore support teams have been arriving to get them race-ready again, and down to Las Palmas to be prepared for the main event.

This is the true 40th Anniversary Mini-Transat, from Las Palmas to Martinique in the Caribbean. The fleet will be back up to full strength for a start which is currently penciled in for November 1st. But it’s not set in stone, as the organisers wait for the current extra-vigorous hurricane season to work itself out on the west side of the Atlantic before they set the final date for early November

Tracker here

Published in Tom Dolan
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A large area of lighter winds and calms currently developing around the Canary Islands may hamper the closing speeds of the Mini Transat fleet as they near the finish of their 1350-mile race from La Rochelle through this weekend and beyond writes W M Nixon.

But this morning the leaders are well offshore from Portugal, streaming towards the southwest in a good line of northeast winds. Inshore towards Portugal, however, lighter wind may emerge today, but the leading group out at sea are hoping to carry their brisk favourable winds well south before they have to consider how best to deal with the developing situation towards the finish.

Their slow progress out of the Bay of Biscay at the beginning of the week since Sunday’s start may make estimates of seven days to reach Las Palmas in the Canaries optimistic. But at the moment, leader Remi Aubrun is past the halfway stage, and is making 9.8 knots with 793 miles to go to the finish, while the consistent Erwan Le Draoulec in second is less than two miles astern at the same speed, with Yannick Le Clech third and Clarisse Cremer fourth.

Ireland’s Tom Dolan has made a remarkable recovery from his setback at the start when – having been in the lead - he’d to re-trace his steps in exceptionally poor visibility to round a mandatory turning point. This very briefly had him back in last place in the 56-strong Production class, but he has now milled his way up to 14th, an astonishing achievement, and is currently battling with top star Pierre Chedeville.

As expected, though, the benefits of being first out of the Bay of Biscay to enjoy the strong favourable winds down towards Cape Finisterre ahead of all rivals gave the leading group an enormous boost, and they’re currently sitting on a lead of around 40 to 50 miles on the Dolan/Chedeville group.

But the possibility of erratic wind patterns over a wide area at the Canaries could upset the rankings. In times past, major events of the calibre of the Vendee Globe and the Volvo Ocean Race have seen major place changes while negotiating the passage through or round the islands, and the fact that the Mini Transat fleet have to reach a finish line in the heart of the islands further increases the challenge.

Meanwhile Mini Transat life continues to inter-act with the outside world. There was a sweet moment on Tuesday when the Mini Transat organisers contacted Tom Dolan’s girl-friend Karen to wish her a happy birthday and confirm that he was working his way up through the fleet in the trademark style of the “Flying Irishman” – l’Irlandais Volant.

Race tracker here


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