Welcome to Cape Town

We made it! Hard work, we had to dig really deep and keep the effort coming. There were some highs and some lows (when things went badly wrong due to crew error) … but we made it. Can’t quite take that in at the moment … I have just sailed across the southern Atlantic!

How amazing is that?

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Swimming lessons in the pit

There are some days when the weather is congenial (but we are talking relative terms here) and some days that are so windy and the sea so big that the effort required and the level of cold and wetness achieved make them seem endless … and some days that have every weather condition imaginable on the menu. This race has seen all three of these categories … and then there are the long, wet, cold nights with mountainous seas and large inundating waves … seen a few of those as well.

Straight up – sailing in heavy seas can be exhilarating, it can also be frightening and on some (not infrequent) occasions terrifying. Sailing in big seas at night nearly always verges on the terrifying. The other night was such an occasion.

The presence of the moon makes for significant differences in light levels – from romantic lighting (full moon) to gravitational black hole dark (no moon). The other night was a particularly oily black, wet and stormy sort of a night. Being up on deck was not fun. The boat was rocked over and the deck – precarious in dry conditions – was being repeatedly lashed by in-coming waves. 

Then a particularly big waves came over. It was like being hit by a bag of concrete (not that I ever have but as I imagine). I don’t have much gravity in my favour anyway but there was no resisting the force of this volume of water. Winded, I was simply picked up and my whole body driven down the length of the boat. Lucky for me I was winching at that moment and clung to the winch handle for all I was worth. I now know what it feels like to be a small pennant flag in a high wind – you have no option but to go with the flow.

That scared me! But what scares me more is the thought that this is merely the southern Atlantic and the sea and the weather conditions are so much heavier in the Southern Ocean and the Pacific! Oo-er!

You can do nothing about the weather just trim your sails right … and as a good girl guide ‘be prepared’. If that was a taster then I am a little bit more prepared!!!

Kite flying

Into big, combative seas the chances of things going wrong are high. The options are various although in reality the same mishaps tend to happen time after time – kite wraps (the knotting of the spinnaker sail round the forestays). In the last 48 hours there have been 4 catastrophic wraps with concomitant broaches (that’s when the boat veers uncontrolably heeling wildly) – the last broach for us the main and mast were in the water with stuff going everywhere! It is amazing your power to cling on when you have to!!

Kite wraps are definitely the substance of sailing nightmares – they invariably happen at night and usually are verging on the intractable. The spinnaker sails are so large and with no or backing winds to fill them collapse inward onto the wires that support the mast. Within moments sail origami has happened. The difficulty of untieing the resulting birds’ nest is compounded by the size of the problem and its height from the ground. In the worst cases the bowman has to be hoisted on the halliards – up the mast and down the forestay – to cut the sail loose (at worst) or encourage the knot down the forestay to the deck (preferred otion). In all scenarios the hiccup results in temporary cessation of racing with a concomitant loss of race position in the fleet.

The other downside of sail wraps (there are only downsides) is sail damage. Wraps invariably result in the sails getting torn which is never a good option. Trying to find and mend the tears in acres of crunched up material poked into a shoebox (ie the saloon) is the unwelcome (but heroic) job of the sailmakers because the sail has to be checked and mended before it can sail again.

We have a little mantra on the boat ‘No wrapsies, gybesies or flogsies … and definitely no fuck-ups!’ … unfortunately simply saying this alone doesn’t make it not happen!

Albatross

I saw my first albatross! Big bugger! Like Boeing 474 to small light aircraft big compared to the other seabirds. 

My albatross was a sort of dappled grey – maybe that makes him/her a young one or maybe there are dapple grey albatrosses out there – but whatever it does not detract from the elegance and simple majesty of an albatross in flight.

My albatross joined us in the early light and flew a spell-binding dance with the sea and the waves all day swooping and sawing round the boat, sometimes close-to sometimes further off. Aerobatic perfection. 

And then with the fading light my albatross simply flew away.

Wow!

Hard day’s night

Constant winds in the 20 knots department, the boat heeled over with the stantions and guard-rail dipping in and out of the drink, waves not infrequently breaking over the deck and drenching the occupants – the every day highlights of another day in the office.

Life on board is hard work – the living more than the sailing. The sailing – though it requires concerted hard graft and attention to detail (getting manoeuvres wrong can cost you your hard-earned place in the racing fleet) – is relatively straight forward – you have a job to do, you obey commands and do it – it is the staying alive that requires determination. Everything is hard work. Living aboard a Clipper 70 is like being Indianna Jones in the Temple of Doom – but without the poisoned arrows and large stone ball (although big waves come close!) – every movement could be treacherous, you ignore that golden rule ‘one hand for you one hand for the boat’ at your peril!

Everything from getting out of your bunk through using the heads, to climbing the companion way steps is exhausting! The effort required is relentless. Probably the hardest thing you do (several times) a day is wrestle your way into wet weather gear (taking ut off is no easier) – getting three submissions out of a drysuit leaves you sweating and completely exhausted!

That the conditions are wet and chilly doesn’t help either. Even when it’s sunny it can be wet … but when it is grey and life is monochrome it is wet, wet, wet. All the time everything is wet … and if it is not wringing wet then it is damp. Cold and wet can sap your life forces.

Why are you here I hear you ask. Is it worth it? Definitely is the answer! Adventures are a challenges … nobody said that adventures had to be relentless fun!

We have 1700 nautical miles to Cape Town to be sailed the fastest we can – well that’s the cunning plan!

Life in the washing machine … on salt water wash

That is what sailing on 20+ knot winds feels like – washing cycle with added tumble + extra high pressure salt water jet wash. Our boat is rocked over at a greater than happyily manageable pitch – (‘Race of your life’ on the inclinometer) every manoeuvre is like a struggle to survive – with periodic washings of the deck with powerful, driving waves which break against your body washing you down the boat if you are not holding on for grim death at that moment. We are on our way! Cape Town here we come! Our boat is somewhere towards the front of the fleet. The crew are all hoping – given the winds – that this will be a short one. Two weeks? That would do very nicely thank you.

Race start was pure exhilaration. Twelve Clipper 70s slicing through the water in the small area behind the start line like giant whites in a shark pool. The sky was blue, the sea a khaki shade of green and with 30 knots of unbelievably warm wind is was like living in the blast of an industrial furnance. The boats cutting and gybing to avoid collision  – it seemed like we were taking part in a nautical maypole dance. The around-the-cans race at the start completed we were away one of the leaders.

Horizon here we come!

We made it … and now we are leaving!

Well after 33 days we made it to Punta. There were some fun moments and some definitely not so fun moments …  It was a long haul and we had to hunker down and mostly deliver. Sailing conditions ranged from windless swelter to big seas big winds bone-chilling drenchingly cold. The thing is you just have to keep at it – even when you are that tired you still have to give it your all and find extra to get the kite down/ the head sail changed/ the code 3 on deck. There is no let up … but then the satisfaction is commensurately back-slappingly large. 

It is amazing how quickly the dreadfulness of the torrid moments fades to leave you not exactly with a rosy glow … but with a sense of satisfaction at something acheived. We sailed over the finish line 4th in the fleet – a fair reflection of the effort we had put in.

Our stay in Punta del Este has been a much-needed interlude made all the more enjoyable by the welcome from the local people. Lorena the local ambassador for our boat deserves a special mention for seemingly moving heaven + earth to ensure we got our sails mended and our food provisioned without (shamefully) much Spanish passing our lips. But such is adventure … the people you meet are part of it.

And tomorrow we leave. The journey to Cape Town promises to be an interesting downwind sleigh ride of a sail. It is certainly going to be an interesting start. The forecast is 25-30 knots winds with gusts expected up to 40-50 knots tomorrow night!  Baptism by fire for the new leggers who because of the high winds of the last few days didn’t get to enjoy their usually mandatory refresher sail as the port was closed!

So here we go! Next stop + 3600 nautical miles away … Cape Town!

From carnage by starlight to wallowing in darkness

It is amazing the difference 24 hours can have when it comes to the weather at sea.

As of yesterday the difficulty of kite sailing in challenging conditions had crescendo – last night was hairy scary – but I realise these conditions are as nothing compared to what is to come in the Southern Ocean and the Pacific … jury still out on that one!

There is a spectrum of terms to describe sea state (ref the fishing forecast) – last night’s sea was covered by the term ‘moderate’ which sounds sort of benign but isn’t!

We were still sailing with the code 2 (the down wind spinny for moderately blowy conditions) and doing very nicely thank you. In daylight waves can be sorted – their magnitude and angle of approach anticipated and the necessary management strategies employed. At night you are in the dark – literally and metaphorically – add to this rapidly building wind speeds and survival is in a whole new region of the ball park!

Helming in the dark in mountainous following seas is well above my pay grade! The swell and the waves make steering heavy or tear the wheel from your hands. Your arms and shoulders scream with the effort of trying to keep on course and in control. Trimming – the sheet tears through your hands with every flog of the sail and your hands and forearms cramped with the sheer effort of hanging on. But none of this pain compares with the misery of pruny butt – the downside of sitting in wet clothing for days on end!

Two nights of kite roulette scored high with the scared witless points – sail wraps, over-powered steering, course too high … too low, crazy angle of heal, main dump, sheet over-ride … the near-misses kept come. By the end of night 2 each watch was done for and gratefully handed on the the other. From down below you could hear the action still coming – the unbelievably loud grinding of the winches, the shouts, the banging of the boat … 

That was yesterday. Tonight we are becalmed and wollowing in the totally windless moonless dark … it is so oily black in fact that we can see nothing beyond the guard rail. The weather forecast tells of 12 knots – clearly the weather has not read its script! 

From one set of extreme conditions to the other. Just medium would be nice! We are not fussy!

Directionless wallowing in the total dark and drizzling rain is the new low point – especially as we see our hard fought for 2nd place and early finish receding into non-existance. I opt to helm (a) because I can in such no-wind conditions, and (b) because it involves standing up thus giving my poor scrag end some quality non-pain time not being parked on the deck!

Roll on daylight and the wind!

Saturday night Sunday morning

Sometimes life just goes belly up! Last night’s sailing came close … With less than 1000 nautical miles to the finish line we are trying are hardest, trimming our socks off, doing our very best to mix it once again with the front of the fleet. 

Our on-going battle with GB continues and having dropped a place to them over the last few days by yesterday morning we had fought our way back to a 5 mile lead. Things were going well … we were not getting complacent but then in the space of a couple of hours it all went horribly exciting with a touch of emotional exhaustion thrown in there for good measure.
We had been on a good wind for most of the day but the sea state had definitely become moderate and the waves and the sea swell had become trixy wrong-siding us and slewing the boat off course on occasions. Add to this rain squalls with localised high and shifting winds and the moon-less dark … and you have the mix for a drama. 

We got drama! First a kite wrap when suddenly changing winds caused the spinnaker to swiss role itself into a non-compliant tube with immediate loss of speed … 20 minutes later issue resolved but GB now visibly closer on the horizon behind. We ploughed on gaining a little distance. With the dark came higher winds and broach number 1 … Recovery. The night sailing lights of GB getting closer. In the early hours major broach number 2 – main in the water, boom in the water, staysail and skinnaker all in the water … nothing for it other than to cling on, all hands on deck, dump the kite … flat out emergency! By the time we had recovered GB were at 10 o’clock and our lead gone. 

With the yankie hoisted we set about sailing our socks off once again. By dawn GB were on the horizon 8 o’clock off our port side (great picture by the way). Lead over GB and 4th place in fleet regained.

Moral of the night – don’t sail too high, trim like hell the moment the kite even thinks about collapsing … and never give up!