To participate in the Global Solo Challenge, along with many other requirements, all skippers must demonstrate that they have completed a 2000-mile qualifying passage on board the boat they will sail in the event. A small dress rehearsal before the big show to test the boat and their preparation.
Louis Robein, who for the Global Solo Challenge chose the reliability of his X-37, Le souffle de la mer III, sailed a triangle tour of the northern Atlantic in stages, some with crew, others solo. The best training is certainly to navigate.
“I find the qualification essential. The distance is fair and involves about three weeks of navigation, where problems must be solved as they arise. Participants understand well what awaits them during the circumnavigation, but sailing trains us to be reactive and attentive. During the 2000 miles at sea, the issues to be improved emerge, and we can test the new equipment we have installed for the race.”
Louis planned his departure for January 2022, expecting about six months of navigation. He began making some modifications and improvements to Le Souffle de la Mer III, though the boat was already quite well equipped. He added water and diesel tanks. He purchased additional safety equipment, such as the Silzig buoy, a man-overboard recovery device. He acquired a satellite phone and a second VHF antenna. To optimise energy production on board, he purchased a hydrogenerator and solar panels. With safety as his first priority, he participated with all his crew in a sea safety course so that everyone could cope with any emergency that might arise at sea.
In the dead of the French winter, on January 10, Le souffle de la mer III cast off and found its true dimension, which, as its name says, is between wind and sea, immersed in nature. The first planned stop was at the Canary Islands. Robein has been a volunteer for UNADEV (the National Union of the Blind and Visually Impaired) for four years and helps visually impaired people practise sailing. On his journey, he took some visually impaired members of the association with him to share his adventure and live unique moments together. In eighteen days, with short stops to rest and to visit some significant ports, they reached Lanzarote, where Louis Robein was joined by four friends, his technical team for the GSC: Jean-Claude, Lionel, Régis, and Thierry (Jean-Pierre, also part of the team, would later join him in Mallorca on his return). They accompanied him on the Atlantic crossing to Guadeloupe.
Between sunrises and sunsets, passages of low pressure systems, calm days, and flying fish, in twenty-three days, on February 22, Louis and his crew arrived in the Caribbean. After a month and a half of minor repairs, they carried on cruising.
On April 4, Louis was ready to leave from Pointe a Pitre, Guadeloupe, for his qualifying passage. He took a short detour to the northeast of the island, which he wanted to see: “The reputation of the leeward side was confirmed: zero or very variable wind. I arrived at sunset at L’île aux Pigeons. After passing this area, the wind picked up to 20 knots. I reefed in the middle of the night and decided to reduce the genoa as well, but I ran into a small problem: I couldn’t roll it up. I only solved the problem at dawn.”
For the first few days, a steady wind accompanied Robein and Le souffle de la mer III, sailing heeled over at 30°. “At first, you have to get used to the rhythm of navigation again, and with the boat always heeled over, I had to manage the fatigue,” he wrote in his logbook.
Louis sailed through the Sargasso Sea, a large stretch of ocean between the Antilles and the Azores, where clusters of floating seaweed are found. This particular type of seaweed has apparently been named “sargasso” by Portuguese sailors because the small granules remind them of a type of wild grape from their land by this name. The inconvenience is that Louis has had to clean the propeller of the hydrogenerator several times a day to keep it running. “The qualification was also good preparation for using the new equipment I installed on board in preparation for the GSC. I got along very well with the hydrogenerator and have devised an effective technique for quickly clearing it of weeds, as I’ve had to do it countless times. For the race, I have also planned for a second hydrogenerator and will not bring the solar panels that did not prove sufficiently efficient,” he recounted in retrospect.
After the first week, Louis started to cross paths with cargo ships, sailboats, and then numerous fishing boats, especially as he approached the Azores. He was extremely vigilant but managed his sleep well, with short rest periods of an hour and a half offshore, and arrived in good shape and spirits.
“On April 24, I arrived at the marina in Horta, on the island of Faial, and my sister and brother-in-law came to greet me. It was a great joy.” Louis completed his qualification and could celebrate twice: both for arriving in the Azores and for ticking off another important part of his preparations for the GSC, which took him closer to the realisation of his biggest dream, that of circumnavigating the world.
Louis has not forgotten some of the technical problems he had to face. “There was always more wind than expected, and I was almost always sailing upwind. I had to circumnavigate an anticyclone, so I headed north before pointing east towards the Azores. During this solo stage, I had to make many repairs: the bow pulpit came off and I had to fix it, and the anchor dropped because the chain had detached and started to touch the hull. Of course, all problems always happen at night!” Other work involved more fine-tuning and minor repairs, including adjusting the mast’s strut, the main traveller, the hydrogenerator’s mounting bracket, and the boom’s joint.
Louis nonetheless managed to find the positive in all his experiences. “All in all, these difficulties are instructive. They gave me confidence in my ability to manage boat problems and prepared and reassured me in my project both technically and psychologically. I never let myself be overwhelmed by panic. I know there are always problems to solve on a boat, and it will be the same during the GSC, but in the end, I know I’m always able to return to port.”
He was also able to appreciate the strengths of his boat in this long passage, predominantly upwind. He says that the boat handles waves well and is stable. The autopilot, which he had replaced before departure, responded well, and he has learned to adjust it for strong and upwind conditions. He was able to note reference points on the halyards and sheets for adjustments that, when sailing solo, are different compared to when sailing with crew.
The short break in Faial was an opportunity to create a beautiful mural on the docks of Horta and immortalise the passage of Le souffle de la mer III, as is tradition for sailors arriving after the crossing. After a toast at Peter’s Bar, Louis sets off again with his crew. After nine days at sea, he had to stop in Madeira due to the impediments of some of the crew members, and took the opportunity to visit this island as well. He decided to set off towards the Balearic Islands alone: one more opportunity to train for the GSC.
The passage through the Strait of Gibraltar is complex; Louis stayed awake for 48 hours and could confirm the proper functioning of his AIS to monitor the traffic around. “The qualification allowed me to better learn the use of the AIS and my new navigation software, MaxSea Timezero. In 1999, I participated in the Transquadra Solo, a solo Atlantic crossing, and received updates on weather conditions via weather fax. Now I’ve been able to test the connection with the satellite, which is new on board, and I’ve identified the weather files to retrieve for a more global analysis. Having the map of the phenomena moving across the entire ocean gives me a broader view, and I can better anticipate what will happen.”
Louis reached Palma de Mallorca after nine days of sailing, and three customs officers escorted him on arrival—a small routine check. He brought on board his friend Jean-Pierre, who is also part of the technical team for the GSC, and set off for his home port, Marina de Cogolin, where the skipper finally earned a well-deserved rest.
“I have experienced beautiful moments and appreciated this voyage. Sailing is always informative, and you learn a lot. Now I’m ready to go even further.” Louis Robein is eager to see the stars again soon, and Le souffle de la mer III is itching to get back to sea. The next appointment is in A Coruña, Spain, in September, on the start line of the GSC.