Interview. Donald Alexander

Chaos below with stacking and finding somewhere to rest.

by Richard Crockett

Donald Alexander, a born and bred ‘Durbanite’ recently completed the Route du Rhum singlehanded race – his first ever solo race, sailing under the Point Yacht Club burgee. Here he chats about the race and his experiences.

What made you take up singlehanded offshore sailing as I never saw that side of you – I remember a small boat sailor & kiteboarder?
You were there at the beginning of this adventure as you advised me to look at the Class 40. I’ve always enjoyed challenging myself physically and mentally, hence the whole mountain obsession, but that didn’t go as well as I hoped because of altitude sickness and, after having a couple of stents inserted late 2009/early 2010 (despite healthy living), my heart didn’t like the high altitude either.

But giving that up wasn’t the main reason for wanting to sail solo. I had a niggling inner voice calling me to do it. Don’t ask me why. It was a deep, visceral thing. I’ve learned over the years to trust my instincts and they have seldom let me down, if ever, and they weren’t wrong on this one. I loved it from the get go.

But it was a big jump from being a keen Laser sailor in my 20s and early 30s to sailing the Atlantic solo, especially in a high performance boat like a Class 40 which, as it turned out, was the perfect boat for me. So, I figured the best way to find out if this solo thing would appeal to me was to buy one and give it a go.

I bought the boat in La Trinite in Brittany, France and got some coaching from Anne Liardet, a bit of a legend in France having successfully completed the Vendee Globe, before my first solo voyage from Brest, France to Plymouth, England. It was pretty much on the nose all the way and I was a bit sea sick due to the fumes from a leaking diesel tank, but I absolutely loved it. I was immediately hooked.

There was just something special about being alone and in control of an over powered boat and being totally responsible for its success or failure.

It wasn’t too long after that I set sail from La Trinite for Grenada, where my son was studying. And, to cut a long story short, there was not a moment of that voyage that I didn’t love intensely. It was the adventure of my life and I could breath easily, wasn’t freezing cold, gasping for breath with a thumping headache and nausea and not able to sleep – so much more fun than the mountains.

And at that point I had no intention of racing the boat. I just loved sailing her.

My favorite combo, gennaker with staysail. Very fast between 100-130 TWA.

Having made the decision how difficult was it to get into this aspect of the sport and Class 40?
The adjustment wasn’t so much the sailing, though I had to get my mind around the massive jump to handling so much power. The big learning curve was learning navigation, understanding all the high-tech electronics, managing power through the batteries and the never ending DIY which is simply an unavoidable part of solo sailing, and something for which I do not have a natural aptitude. I do it because I have no choice, but its always a nuisance factor and the only downside I can find in solo sailing.

Despite the DIY niggles, I think my personality is perfectly suited to solo sailing as I’ve always enjoyed boardsailing which is just me, my equipment and the elements. Nothing gives me more joy. And I kind of like it when it gets a bit hairy as it gets my blood running a bit faster!

This pic does not begin to capture viciousness of that low pressure.

The learning curve must have been very steep? I was impressed with all the terminology of big boats and their equipment that you learnt so quickly.
Ja, learning the terminology just comes with learning how to sail these boats alone. Getting to grips with the basics was pretty straightforward, but my real learning curve, to become somewhat proficient, came when I hired Pip Hare as my coach. For those of your readers who don’t know Pip, she is something of a legend in UK and European sailing circles. I rate her right up there with Ellen McArthur, but without the self-promotion skills required to get the big sponsorships. She is unbelievably knowledgeable on the infinite aspects to competitive solo sailing, and sailing generally, and is a natural born teacher. She sailed with me from Portland, Maine to the Azores, and my learning curve went vertical. And then I did my Route du Rhum qualifier from the Azores to Plymouth and put into practice everything I learned from her.

Aside from the learning, we had some amazing sleigh rides in over 30 knots with the A6 kite up (the small one but still 145m2), comfortably surfing at 18 – 24 knots for long periods. Our best average for 1 hour was 18.6 knots – and that is possibly the most fun sailing I have ever done. At those speeds the boat really comes into her own and has real attitude and personality. I learnt a lot on that voyage, not least of which was personal management of sleep cycles, nutrition, hydration, etc. There is no end to learning about solo sailing. The top guys like Le Cl’each, Thompson, Gabart and others are not there by accident. They are incredibly smart, knowledgeable and experienced solo sailors.

Different routing models racing to the finish.

You can see how massive squall drove me off course towards Antigua.

Looking at my options. Other “boats” are other routing models.

Your first solo passage must have been scarey? Please take us through that.
As mentioned, my first solo voyage was from Brest to Plymouth, which was more of a rush than a scary experience. My biggest concern then was the shipping traffic in the English Channel which is hectic. But the transatlantic crossing proper had its moments of fear.

I had two particularly scary moments. The two scariest moments which, in retrospect, were not such a big deal but, with my level of experience then at that time, did get me going a bit. The first was not being able to get the spinnaker down after an early morning knock down from a squall that came in from nowhere. It was early morning, as the sun was coming up, while I was enjoying my first cup of coffee of the day, sitting in the hatchway. Before I knew it the boat was lying at 90 degrees, sails flogging wildly, and everything stowed on the weather side landed up on the leeward side, with coffee stains on the coachroof as a reminder of the event.

Getting her up again once the squall subsided wasn’t such a big deal, but later, trying to get the spinnaker down, was a challenge. Through lack of experience I didn’t release the tackline and sheet enough and tried winching the sock down which tore the block off the handrail on the forward deck and broke the sheave at the top of the sock. It took a long time to finally get the sock down by hand!

The other scary moment was when water forced its way up through the rudder stocks during some high speed sailing and there was water sloshing around down below. Not a lot of water but, with a flat bottomed boat, relatively little water can be spread far and wide very quickly and look pretty disconcerting.

Coming in to finish.

Having taken the decision to do the Route du Rhum, what preparations were needed?
The preparations are intense to put it mildly. As is often said about these races, it is an accomplishment just getting to the start line! More so for something like the Vendee Globe, but still a lot even for the RdR.

It comes down to preparation at every single level and of every single piece of equipment – rigging, lines, halyards, sheets, sails, electronics, bottom finish, food, water, power (batteries, charging systems like solar, fuel cell devices), satellite communications and navigation inputs, service all winches and clutches, set up mouse lines for back up main halyard – and lots, lots more.

Back up systems for autopilot were a big issue for me. I had two masthead units, two rams for the rudders and two CPUs. I was determined to have really good wind instruments for the autopilot because in solo sailing one is so dependent on the autopilot, and one can definitely have a competitive advantage if it is working well. It’s a bit ironic that my wind instruments were knocked out in the early stages of the race despite all the back ups – “the best laid plans o’ mice ’n men”.

I also had to meet the safety requirements of the race organizers – and rightfully so. The French scrutiny of safety equipment is strict in the extreme. The list is long and detailed down to the medical kit which would not look out of place in any primary care clinic. The Class 40 Association also sends their official measurers on board and they are equally strict. For example, they measured the capacity of my ballast tanks and found them to be too voluminous so Paul, my ‘preparateur’, had to install closed cell foam pieces into the tanks. The hatches to the tanks are then sealed as are the water sac, the emergency fuel and water, the life raft and the engine. Believe it or not, when I came in to Guadeloupe, I was penalised 45 minutes because my life raft broke loose. During a particularly turbulent gale as I was approaching the Azores, it was ripped out the padeyes to which it was lashed and so had to be relocated to stop it floating off the transom.

And then there is one’s own preparation, including gear which is critical. I learnt from the Atlantic Cup just how critical this is and how debilitating and dangerous being seriously cold can be. Pip was invaluable in setting up a personal gear list and directing me on where to get the stuff from, and how best to store it in appropriate bags to ensure everything remains dry, which for the first 13 days was a major challenge.

What to sleep in is also critical as I did not change my gear for the first 12 days! In other words, I remained in my dry suit and boots the entire time, which makes it critical to ensure that when you do sleep or rest, you remain warm.

A Goretex bivvy bag (ex British Army issue) and a blanket with Goretex on one side and fleece on the other side were lifesavers. It was so much better than a sleeping bag. Those two items are great at wicking away the water on the foulies and keeping you warm. The dry suit also has a pipe you can blow into to introduce warm air, something I did with great regularity. With all these little details, I was never cold. Good headlamps and torches were another absolute necessity.

Power of One at the start.

The start of the RDR must have been very special? Can you share that with readers and then your passage to La Coruna where you undertook repairs.
The “start” starts with leaving the marina area via the locks (St Malo has a 10 metre tide, yes, 10m not 10 ft, it’s crazy) the afternoon/evening before and then tying up to a mooring. Leaving the locks the day before and the start of the race itself was an experience of a lifetime.

I had no idea that the RdR was such a big deal in France. It is not only a big deal, it is the second biggest spectator event in France after the Tour de France with 2.2 million people visiting the race village in the week building up to the start. One of the big traditions is cheering the competitors into and out of the locks. 20 Class 40s at a time went into the locks and the cheering, from beating drums and trumpet playing is just something else. I have attached a link to one of my recordings which hopefully gives an idea as to the intensity of this sendoff.

One can be forgiven for deluding oneself briefly into believing one is a celebrity, so sincere is the cheering. And it’s not just for the big names, it’s for all competitors, although I do feel that the South African presence, clearly from our rugby connection, earned some special cheers. What an occasion. A once in a lifetime special memory.

Sadly, Debra (my Wife) and I had a miscommunication because the networks were down and she missed coming aboard for this experience. What happened is that the networks were overloaded with so many people using them that we could not call or message each other. It was quite funny actually (more in retrospect) as I had mentioned to her that I needed her to bring the gas canisters from the car. She thought I meant the gas (diesel) jerrycans and hauled two 20 litre jerrycans about a mile through all the crowds, and so missed our departure, which was very regulated by the French organizers. There was no allowance for waiting and I could not get through to her. So it was with some surprise when I saw her at the marina pontoon with those two heavy cans! It’s an indication of just how strong and determined she is.

A couple of kind and sympathetic Frenchmen helped carry them back, carrying one each. It was with some hilarity when they got to the car and Debra pointed out to them that I was actually asking for the Jet Boil cooking gas canisters that weigh about 100 grams each. A funny anecdote, but such a shame she missed out on the lock experience which is so unique as she would have loved it.

Then the start itself. There’s a bit of background to this. I was aware that good starts don’t mean a lot when you are racing 3 500nm, but I wanted a good start – which I think is a dinghy racing thing! I was all amped with the line and timing set up on the B&G display. But again – the best laid plans o’ mice ’n men!

Pip and my mate Ian were on board with me to prepare for the start, a good 90 minutes to 2 hours away. We were going to be met by our support RIB with Debra on board. The plan was to meet on the shore side of the line at 13h30, which was the deadline for offloading support crews. Unfortunately, when we arrived at the rendezvous point, the RIB was nowhere in sight and so the next 20 minutes were spent on the VHF radios trying to find each other. We eventually did, but a long way from the line and minutes before the start gun. It was a bit stressful all round. I have some sympathy for the RIB captain, a good friend of mine’s son, as there is serious chaos out there with boats everywhere despite strict no go zones for spectators. A few other RIBS also could not find their boats.

Nearing finish line.

As a result of this chaos I crossed the line 38th out of 53, not ideal but not the end of the world and it did not detract from the specialness of the occasion.

Debra likened it to the movie Normandy, simply an armada of competitor and spectator boats of all shapes and sizes, with media helicopters buzzing in and out. It’s a spectacle that’s difficult to describe, but incredible to experience. It was so cool having my support team following me for the first 45 minutes to an hour. The conditions could not have been more perfect for the spectators and sponsors. Despite being quite cold, it was a beautiful day with a nice 15 knot downwind reach with a reaching gennicker to Cape Frehel. It was the Route du Rhum spectacle at its very best and it was a massive privilege being a part of it.

I must emphasize that, despite two Atlantic crossings, I still fell very much into the ‘rookie’ category in terms of racing experience and what to expect of myself and my boat, so I simply gave it my best shot from the outset, but allowed myself time to settle down into something of a rhythm as one adjusts to the unnatural state of being without sleep for long periods.

From the gate at Cape Frehel, we bore off another 20 degrees to get round the next headland, Isle de Brehat, which, according to the prep notes Pip put together for me, was 2 – 3 hours away, before heading in a more Westerly direction at a tighter wind angle. So, it would have meant pulling up the big A2 or A3 as the sun was going down and bringing it down after dark. I decided to avoid that and stuck with my gennicker as I watched many boats struggle getting their spinnakers up. It also meant I could cut the corner at Isle de Brehat which resulted in me catching up a number of places. Aside from having to make a serious change of course to avoid a collision with a fishing boat, who I called repeatedly on my VHF, the night was pretty uneventful.

Given that I did not have any competitor position reports and I didn’t think I was doing anything special, it was a pleasant surprise, when the next day, I was already getting messages that I had pulled up to 29th.

The next day was spent with the gennicker up, which I tried gybing to head more NW, as indicated by my routing software, and just succeeded in wrapping it around the forestay. It took many uncomfortable gybes back and forth to unravel, which was a huge relief as that could have forced me ashore to fix, but the gennicker itself was in such a knot that I could not undo it and just dropped it and stowed it as it was down below.

I knew from the forecasts that the champagne sailing party was over and a series of low pressure systems were on their way, so late afternoon on the second day was a matter of preparing for a rough night. And a rude baptism of fire it was with the wind blowing 35 – 40 knots with the staysail and 3 (maybe 2) reefs. It was early in the morning around 01h00 when I heard a loud bang on deck accompanied by the sound of a flogging sail, clearly the staysail. With my headlight I could see that the lashing to the Antal ring that held the tension of the staysail had broken and the sail was held loosely in place by the cleat/jammer. It was cranking a bit with gusts at 40 knots and the only way to re-attach it was to bear away at super high speed, furl and drop the staysail, re-lash the Antal ring, hoist the sail again, sheet in and harden up back to beating. Simple when writing about it, but that little exercise took me 90 minutes and lost me at least 20nm downwind. But still the reports kept coming in that I was overtaking boats and down to 23rd position in the morning.

I must say that the pounding was intense and I did wonder how much she could take. And so the next day was pretty much more of the same, though I seem to remember it moderating a bit and scolding myself for not shaking out a reef. I can’t recall if it was that previous night or the night after that the carnage in the fleet took place with Sam Goodchild getting dismasted and Armel Le Cl’each capsizing in his Ultime, ‘Banque Populaire’.

And then the next night, another low came whistling through, but I was fine. I was getting over my seasickness, and getting into a nice rhythm, and I even got in a good sleep. In the morning I noticed a big crack in the main ring frame supporting the mast and keel. It was a bit unnerving as I have no deep understanding of boat design and engineering, so I sent Paul a picture which he did not like and he forwarded it to Marc Lombard, the French designer, whose response was immediate, take it in to port for proper composite repair. Paul suggested La Coruna, Spain, 285nm away, and to take it slowly to protect the boat from further damage.

At this stage I had pulled into 19th position and apparently was driving a lot faster than the boats around me, and, as I say, I was feeling good, despite the conditions. So this was a big blow to me and quite dispiriting as I had gone a long way NW and was well positioned to avoid the worst of the fronts coming up and, in retrospect, would have had a much easier passage to the finish.

It was also around this time that my wind vane for the vertical masthead unit (VMHU) had been blown off and I had a bunch of other niggles on the boat which could be sorted out at the same time when ashore.

I had another night of over 40 knots, but more from just aft of the beam, which was a lot more comfortable. It took just under 2 days to get there and a lot of that time was spent on organizing logistics getting a composite expert and Ian, an experienced boat builder, to La Coruna as fast as possible. I arrived at daybreak on the Friday and Luke Porter, an absolute master at his trade, and Ian, arrived just after midnight that night and started work first thing on Saturday morning. They did an incredibly professional job fixing the main structural failure and the many other niggles on the boat, not least of which was the diesel leak that had spread everywhere. Then on Sunday they discovered a sheered frame in the forward waterproof bulkhead which they repaired quickly. That allowed me to set sail early afternoon on the 11th, a week after the start, rejoining the race in 29th position.

My girl put to be bed in the distance behind Macif.

How was the rest of the race once you rejoined?
There were two parts to the rest of the race. The first was sticking religiously to the rhum line and getting thoroughly battered by low after low after low. I believe I was the furthest NW by some measure and paid the price for it with bad weather and a high level of risk, and a lot of suffering. But it paid off when all the other boats that had sought refuge from the lows or gone in for repairs headed South much earlier. This enabled me to move up to 25th position within 5 days. From there, I was able to work my way up over the next few days to 23rd where I remained for the rest of the race.

The second part was after I finally headed South on the morning of the 16th after my worst hammering of the lot, with gusts over 50 knots. Both my MHUs had been blown off two days earlier in the previous low when it blew 30 – 40 knots coupled with horrendous seas. So, on the night of the 15/16 I spent about 16 hours “manually” steering the boat with the compass AP console to try and nurse her through the pounding, which was so much worse than what I experienced coming across the Bay of Biscay.

That night nearly broke me and I seriously gave thought to pulling into the Azores which were about 300nm away, especially when I found that the life raft had broken its lashings and was drifting off the transom. But after the wind dropped and veered to the West, which got me going South, coupled with some food and rest, it wasn’t long before my spirits perked up again and I started focussing on the boats in front of me instead.

The balance of the race was dominated by trying to sail the boat as fast as possible on a compass AP and get some rest, which was difficult, doing both was challenging both mentally and physically.

Talking to school kids at local Guadeloupe school was special.

Was the finish and knowledge of finishing one of the world’s greatest races special and memorable?
The final night of sailing along the lee of the island in no wind was brutal, but as with most things that are tough, the memory is short and before I knew it I was beating around the Southern corner of the island up to the finish in Pointe-A-Pitre, with just a single tack needed.

Coming in to the finish was one of my most memorable experiences ever. I just expected to have to sail through the finish line and communicate my time to the Race Committee which they would verify against my tracker. Not the French, even at 23rd, they gave me a hero’s welcome, sending four boats out to escort me to the finish.

It was a quietly emotional moment for me.

I subsequently discovered that there was a drone filming my arrival. When they told me they were sending a boat out, I asked permission for Debra to be aboard, but unfortunately I got my times messed up adjusting from UTC, which I had been operating on until I got to Guadeloupe, and local time, so she missed my arrival which was such a pity.

The organisers also put someone on board to help me in, and the safety inspection officer came aboard as I headed in.

The welcome party at the dock at the Acte Memorial was sensational. Words can’t begin to describe the feelings of elation and relief. A seriously special and unique memory, to be held close for a life time. That aerial footage of my beautiful boat cutting so elegantly through the water to the finish will be something I play many times over. It was truly special.

You come from a sailing family. Your father was a great offshore man. What influence did he have on your decision to sail solo? (I did a passage to Richards Bay and back with your father many years ago and still remember it vividly).

Dad’s influence on going solo? Probably not much at all that I am aware of. But his influence on me being a man of the water was massive. I think he started me sailing aged 3, and I will be eternally grateful for that. He was also an adventurer at heart and, no doubt, that DNA filtered down to me. But we mustn’t forget the influence of my Mom, who I think you know quite well too. She also has an adventurous spirit, though in a quiet, less obvious way and a tough, resilient spirit which I think she may have passed on.

The big question – where to from here?
Future solo plans? Interestingly, what gives me the greatest joy is simply being out in the middle of a vast expanse of ocean, just me and the elements, sailing such a beautiful thoroughbred of a boat. So, the part I probably enjoyed the least was the racing. I am quite competitive by nature, so I had this ongoing inner conflict of wanting to just immerse myself in the beauty of the experience, on the one hand, and doing everything I could to catch the next boat or defend my position. So, this race was a valuable experience in determining my priorities, as I have harbored a secret desire to do the Vendee for some time. And after doing this race, that desire has been tempered somewhat. It’s just too long at sea and would it really feed my spirit? I’m not sure it would!