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Disaster doesn’t sink sailor’s spirit

“Shipwrecked on the Canary Islands” is a memorable, if not so merry way to sign a Christmas card.

Sailor Diane Reid stands on dry land by the Ashbridges Bay Yacht Club, three days after she flew back from the Canary Islands, where she was shipwrecked in one of the stormiest Mini Transat races  since the 1990s. PHOTO: Andrew Hudson

Sailor Diane Reid stands on dry land by the Ashbridges Bay Yacht Club, three days after she flew back from the Canary Islands, where she was shipwrecked in one of the stormiest Mini Transat races since the 1990s.
PHOTO: Andrew Hudson

Beach sailor Diane Reid came awfully close to doing it.

Reid is now home safe after a broken part on her mast forced her to quit the Mini Transat – a solo race from France to Guadeloupe done in sailboats just 6.5 metres long.

Reid was the last of many sailors who had to quit this year.

“This race wreaked absolute havoc on the fleet,” said Reid, smiling despite it all last week at the Ashbridges Bay Yacht Club.

First, she said, freak storms stretched the race’s opening leg, which goes from France to Spain, from four days of racing to 41 days of mostly waiting in port.

Just eight hours after it finally started, the fleet suffered two collisions, one serious injury, one broken mainsail and one man overboard.

“The guy who went overboard was clipped in, but the boat was going so fast he couldn’t physically pull himself in,” Reid said. “The only way he could stop his boat was to de-mast himself.”

Organizers finally decided to cancel the whole first leg of the race and call everyone to head for the nearest port.

Eleven of 84 sailors had already been forced out before the fleet slowly made their way along the treacherous Costa del Morte to a second start in Sada, Spain.

Despite three-metre swells and nasty upwind conditions, Reid said her Mini handled well to that point, minus some battery trouble.

It was when she started sailing downwind on gusts of 25 and 30 knots that Reid ran into trouble. Twice she jackknifed in a crosswind, hitting the water hard.

“Minis are like Formula 1 race cars,” she explained. “They’re great, but if you just flip the wheel the wrong way, you can wipe out and it goes crazy and pear-shaped on you very quickly.”

With 17,000 miles in her Mini and her own boat repair business back home, Reid is used to pear-shaped.

So when after those two hard crashes her bowsprit (a pole extending from the prow which holds the forward sail) tore loose, Reid was ready to deal with the result – a giant bite in her fiberglass bow made by a flailing length of Spectra cable that is 40 times stronger than steel.

Reid managed to jury-rig her boat and sail into Portugal. There she patched the bow and swapped her batteries, but it cost her all but five of the 72 repair hours allowed under Mini Transat rules. She lost about 15 just because it was the weekend, she said, and most marinas were empty.

When the final straw came, Reid was getting ready to climb her mast for a relatively small fix – installing a new weathervane.

She was four days behind the fleet and some 350 miles off the next waypoint in Lanzarote, one of the Canary Islands.

“I’ve got all my tools, my new windvane ready to go in – all my plans A, B, C and D going on,” Reid said. “And I look down in the cockpit and I see a rivet head.”

That tiny rivet head, it turned out, should have been holding a spreader – a crossbar keeps the mast secure by keeping tension in the lines that hold it in place.

Reid weighed her options.

Morocco was closer than Lanzarote, but she had no charts to land there and no way to sail the headwinds she would likely meet along the coast.

She decided to re-jig her sails so she could at least sail downwind, if at 10 per cent power, and continue on to Lanzarote. She punched a distress call that signals trouble that is short of an SOS, and relayed a message to the race organizers using a passing cargo ship.

When she finally sailed into the bay at Lanzarote, it was three in the morning.

“I needed a rivet gun and a drill,” Reid said, ruefully. “But by the time the marina opened up, my technical time had literally run out.”

On Lanzarote, Reid found another racer forced to drop out – her friend Richard Hewson. Together, the two tackled their next challenge – shipping their boats home.

Minis are 10 feet wide, and a shipping container is eight feet wide, Reid explained, so they have to go in on a 45-degree angle to fit. For six days, she and Hewson sat on the seawall and welded cradles for their boats out of galvanized steel, using sheets of plywood to gauge their 2 cm of wiggling room.

“We’re on the seawall doing this, and all these luxury yachts are going by, and we’re on concrete, filthy because we’re working with our hands all day,” she said. “It was insane.”

Reid was already back in Toronto when she got the news that her boat loaded into its container okay.

But she still has to work on one final challenge – raising the $10,000 needed to get that container back to Canada.

Reid was still welding her cradle in the Canaries when the ABYC held its annual race banquet, where she was awarded the Rear Commodore’s Commendation for Courage & Perseverance.

It’s a fitting award for a sailor who has seen it all, and so is the prize that comes along with it – a bottle of Gosling’s Black Seal Bermuda Rum.

PHOTO: Jacques Vapillon

PHOTO: Jacques Vapillon

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