Dodging squalls

I am at that stage of tiredness where I am not quite to sure when the days
begin and end and when I say something whether or not I am repeating
myself.

The weather has been a real mixed bag of either good winds or wind holes –
it has been a really frustrating race. When we can sail we have been
sailing well but there have been extended periods of simply going nowhere +
wallowing. Last night we spent the night trying to avoid squalls. The radar
showed that there were some quite massive ones out there + quite frankly
being flattened as opposed to being becalmed did not seem such a great
option so we went for a bit of dodging, tacking + reefing. Even so there
were some hairy moments + we did get dumped on. Facing squalls is (I
imagine) a bit like trench warfare – you’re dug in + a lot of stuff you
don’t want comes your way + you just do your best to survive it.

Open ocean sailing is a bit like being a member of the emergency services –
extended periods of inactivity followed by intense periods of the
proverbial hitting the fan. I am still a sufficiently novice sailor that
every sailing crisis sees me terrified trying my best to remember the
correct number of turns on the winch/how quickly to release the relevant
sheet or halyard or doing by best to grind at the require rate – I still
get the impression that I am seen as more of a liability than an asset
(basically I am too little + too light to do many of the jobs at the
efficiency + speed required). But I am good at remembering to do the ship’s
log on the hour + make hot drinks – so I do these + hey-ho to the macho
image of rugged mariner.

This morning we heard that the organisers have shortened the race to New
York so (as of this evening) we have just 60 miles to go to the finishing
line.

We now have wind + once again close hauled are making good going. As a crew
we are still mentally racing even though the extended wind holes we managed
to explore did nothing for our chances of a podium position. The schedules
(known as ‘sheds’) every 6 hours keep us abreast of the progress of the
others + we know our relative speed – when not drifting – is good. The
latest sched is just in + the young bucks crack tactics team is analysing
what to do. Each 6 hours we are making ground on the leaders … but will
we overhaul the chaps in front before they get to the finish? We are still
hoping to better our 6th place. Strategic tacks + wind holes – all part of
the final day of what is turning out to be quite a tactical race. All this
plotting actually makes the sailing quite fun.

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Into the race sprint

Yesterday we were becalmed and life was beginning to look like groundhog
day and today we are roller-coastering along, the wind picked-up, the boat
alive, bucking and quivering over the water and we are back to life on the
edge – today it feels like we are definitely racing.

Libations to the wind gods because with the wind comes a greater
positivity within the crew – there are sailing-related tasks to be done:
sails trimmed, navigational choices to be made, other boats to catch-up and
a race to be fought. The fact that your food once again is running away
from you, using the heads is darn-right tricky and navigating your way
round the boat a life-threatening experience are well – incidental. Our
destination is New York and we want to get there. Many of the crew are
worrying about missing the people they arranged to meet there if we are
late but more importantly we are a racing crew + this is a – not very
comfortable – racing yacht and quite frankly it is easier to self-justify
the comfort sacrifices if we are doing well.

Wind holes are a dreaded – and preferably avoided – part of the sailing
package. When becalmed it is very easy to become resigned to ‘one’s
lot’, difficult to motivate yourself to do crew/boat/race-related
activities. Many of the crew just sit and read and go into voice-
activation mode only (i.e. jump-to only at the skipper’s command).
Sometimes I read but mostly I don’t. I prefer to stay in the present and
watch the textures of the sea + observe the view – which is always an ever
changing study in blue. I am never still on land – why do three activities
+ complete them successfully when you could do seven + be late for them
all? That’s me. Right now – when after this am I ever going to see an empty
horizon open from one end to the other – I don’t find it too difficult to
be still.

The up-side of watching are the dolphins. We have seen a depressing small
amount of wildlife on our journey – but occasionally somebody must contact
www.dolphins.com and order a show because seeing dolphins can only make you
feel glad. We had the companionship of a pod of speckled dolphins this
morning – silver + grey and lithe as they impressively french-plated their
way under our bows, beautiful in the shafts of morning sunlight that showed
the sea to be crystal-clear as well as rich deep blue. Just WOW! Not very
profound but thank you dolphins – what an amazing start to the day.

And now? We entered the sea sprint at lunchtime today – a measured distance
over which all the crews are timed. We won the sprint in the last race +
are doing our very best to repeat that endeavour this time round too. Back
to attention to detail, constantly trimming the foresails, navigating the
best course between speed + direction (some times mutually exclusive if the
wind is in the wrong direction). But there is an element of luck – so
please wind gods no wind holes please and a good lively breeze to get us
over the sprint finish in a good (best) time (oh and please not at too
close hauled).

Languishing in the Sargasso Sea

It seems impossible but a couple of days ago we were sailing close hauled +
hanging for dear life. Life was a rock-climb, navigating your way from boat
part to boat part without enduring serious mishap. The sort of existence
that puts you on your metal + makes life feel kind of edgy.

Then the wind dropped and for a while we were sailing with Garmin (CV27) +
that was good – playing cat + mouse + keeping us on our racing toes. And
then the wind died + Garmin went west ….

So here we are languishing in the Sargasso Sea with an open horizon + no
wind so to speak of. Life is a lot less ‘exciting’ but meandering along
gives you more space to appreciate the warm air – no longer sticky +
tropical – the colours of the sea, the clouds + the orange spiky seaweed
which comes in random birds’ nests + carpets scattered over the sea
surface. To think that eels come all that way here…

Life not on a steep incline is all round a great deal easier – food stays
were you put it, daily requirements are the right way up. Life is more
agreeable – except please wind gods we would like a tadge more wind – not
too much more you understand but enough that we could once again be bowling
– not meandering – along with one of the kite sails aloft.

Spinnaker sailing – definitely the best way to sail.

Sierra Hotel Indigo Tango happens

When you are sailing you are pretty much thrown back on your own resources
+ those that come with the boat.

Problems require in-house solutions – hence the manic daily cleansing of
the galley + the heads to stop us all going down with the scurvy/ships
plague/Jamaican gips or whatever.

Manic maintenance is also a feature of race-end stop-overs – blocks,
winches, engine, generator, water-maker, the works – all get a good going
over. (Understandably not done voluntarily at sea for fear of loosing some
or many of all those little parts.) However even a religious observance of
maintenance doesn’t stop the corrosive power of seawater + stuff happens!

We have had an on/off relationship with our water-maker which thanks to the
talents of our engineer Mick is a 60/40 one i.e. on the right side of
working + we have soldiered through – mother watch showers (the reward
for 24 hours of submariner sailing (cooking + cleaning)) are confined to 1
jug affairs.

A scarcity of water however is nothing compared to no heads. Yesterday the
shit did not so much as hit the fan as get stuck in the pipe. Yesterday the
whole crew pulled together in an act of enlightened self interest – it was
emergency heads resuscitation day!!!

This involved dismantling the heads. The problem is that seawater + urine
have an interesting habit of causing the heads to suffer angina. This magic
mix chemically reacts to produce a crystalline precipitate which lines the
evacuation pipe + finally leads to system failure.

There was a lot of grumbling in the boys’ camp about women’s things +
sanitary products – but none of it. Not the girls. Basically the problem
was grid-locked number 2s!

The solution? Simple – dismantle the toilet + then literally beat the shit
out of the pipes, reassemble + dredge out those bilges.

We now have two as-new squeaky clean functioning heads (apart from when
sailing at extreme heal when one or other decides to falter – basically
toilets function best on the level).

So we are in action. Long may this functioning arrangement continue!

We’re on our way

On Saturday 24th Clipper set sail from Port Antonio – on the NE coast of
Jamaica – for New York.

The week’s stay in Jamaica was a pretty eye-opening one for me. I guess
like all places Jamaica has rich + poor parts – the NE corner of the island
most definitely falls into the latter category, but that said it made the
place all the more interesting for being so.

The bit of Jamaica that I saw reminded me of my garden after you come back
from the family holiday in the summer – a barely controlled riot of
vegetation – except that this was tropical in exuberance + species content.
Interspersed throughout this riot of palms + trees is a proliferation of
dilapidated shacks – lower density in the countryside + cheek by jowl in
the towns. You got the strong impression that come the next hurricane
season + some of these picturesque assemblies of wood + crinkly tin (+
sometimes breeze-block) might not make it. I never made it out of the NE
corner of the island – but if asked about the architectural style of the
place I would have to say ‘shack-inspired’ – even the permanent houses
looked like posh shacks.

The people we met were immensely welcoming – and although it might sound a
little tacky I was proud that I was one of the ‘home team’ – they live
their national motto ‘Out of many, one people’.

Our send off on Saturday was another of those heart-swell moments. 12
Clipper 70s, marina flags hoisted, parading in San Antonio’s small bay is
quite an inspiring sight. Then we pealed out of formation, positioned for
the start and our sailing chums once again became temporary foe (well only
for the next week until we reach New York).

We have now been sailing close hauled for the last 2 days and that barely
suppressed sense of nausea/seasickness has yet to leave me. That said I am
glad that once more we are on our way – life on a nautical roller-coaster
is the best way to describe it, back to life at a steep incline.

Yet for all the downsides to having to cling to any available surface –
yesterday I was slammed so hard against one of the walls in the only
working head that the toothpaste on my brush shot off + attached itself to
another wall halfway up – there are some definite pluses. Dawn yesterday +
watching the sails turn pink in the early morning glow has to be one of
those.

The sailing has been intense + we are squeezing everything we can out of
the sails. For once we are sailing more or less as a fleet – enforced
because of the scattering of islands + reefs which require avoiding – but
it gives you a sense of being part of something bigger + also gives us a
windmill or two to tilt our lance at + provides the immense satisfaction of
knowing we can out-sail them.

Well one more island to go – Samana Cay – then New York our next stop.

Extreme cooking

The end of Race 12 (Panama to Jamaica) is in sight although with the
absence of any real breeze actually finishing could take a little while. At
 sunset we hoisted the Code 1 kite in the vague hope of utilising what
little wind there is. It was always the plan to go for a glory finish with
the kite aloft – but that staring touch of sailing at speed over the
finishing line to a podium place will have to remain one of the skipper’s
stated but unobtainable ambitions … not that we didn’t try either.

The finishing hours of this race are about as different from the start
as it is possible to be. Race 12 – although relatively short (a mere 4
days) – has been truly character testing what with one thing or another.

The race started with wind – 22+ knots of trade wind – and up wind
sailing, so that until this morning we were pounding through the waves + the
rather mountainous swell in lurching heaves + plunges + at an angle of heal
so severe that the deck felt positively vertigenous. Existence comprised of
clinging to some part of the boat + concentrating very hard on the horizon in
some brave effort not to feel seasick. Questions like ‘Why am I doing this?’
didn’t feature – pushed to the extremities of my mind by the sole exercise of
trying to survive without undue physical harm.

When not terrified witless – there were times – the sea became a subject of
study + wonder as to how a single entity could appear so very different in
the differing light throughout the day (+ night – it has been a full moon).

Crew duties continue as on all sailing except we had the added challenge of
the generator failing on the first night (so no on-board computer), followed
shortly by the water-maker and both heads (no toilets!). It was in these
conditions on the first night that I discovered the new sport of extreme
cooking. This involves providing a hot meal for a crew of 21 in a galley
tilted over to near vertical, where any item or food substance either
dodgem-car’ed its way through the other stuff on the counter or leaps to its
death on the gallery floor. To make the whole exercise a little more
challenging chopping, dicing, catching + cooking were illuminated by head-
torch (on red light so as not to obliterate the night-sight of the helm). I
have never felt so seasick – death would have been welcome – + having
prepared the food I retired to the floor + left the serving up + eating to
those with more nautically-adapted constitutions.

Moving round the boat is nothing short of life-threatening – it is my now
strongly held opinion that extensive skills on a rock climbing wall with
over-hang capabilities a necessity should be made a mandatory requirement
for round the world sailing!

But that said here I am!

The magic of Dolphins

In the grand scheme of things we probably haven’t seen that much wildlife
on this voyage – certainly the sighting of the two humpback whales not
half an hour into the start of race 11 gave promise of the prospect of
great things to come – but no. But that said it has been heart-gladdening
to see the creatures we have.

Squid are the creatures who have visited us in greatest numbers – but sadly
for the squid this seems to have been on a one way ticket during the night
+ we have returned them only subsequently to the sea on discovering their
dessicated corpses stuck to the deck in the light of morning. That’s
excepting the one that splatted against my shoes + the few that were
spotting + returned immediately from whence they came. Most of the others
are completely screamish about this task – me? Just pick them up + chuck
them back – they are very slippery to grab hold of. I reckon on the fear
front it must be even stephens – but the justification must go to the
squid, they are after all are a lot further down the food chain + should
life have got particularly sparse on the victualling front then we do
actually have a recipe for squid stew.

Flying fish have been seen but only one actual landing – again another
catch by me at silly mid-on + prompt return to the sea. I don’t know if it
is just me who is weird but the girlie contingent screaming + jumping
around at the unexpected appearance of uninvited visitors seems, well, a
curious way to respond. The other response that makes me smile is the
liberal use of the plastic dustpan (several have been lost) to assist both
visitors + corpses back from whence they came.

Boobies have called by on a number of occasions. The Skip is slightly
paranoid about these visits as on the previous race one such visitor pecked
-out the equipment at the top of the mast (so understandable response). But
the booby bombing raid on Krzysztof still has the prize for best
retaliation.

There have been some curious sightings – the booby hitching a ride on the
back of a chillaxing sea turtle. A number of other sea turtles all resting
on the surface – one casually waving us farewell with a front flipper.

A ten points in the Eye-Spy book goes to me (am I sailing or just sitting
there on the look-out for creatures?) for the manta ray that flying
carpet-like leaped out of the water did a 360 back-flip + then disappeared
back whence it had come. Seeing such amazing + unexpected behaviour the
first thing I questioned was my sanity – but no I had definitely seen it,
an extremely large floor tile (dark on one side + lighter on the other)
leap out of the water + gymnastically perform a back flip. No photos of
course, the moment was too short + too spell-binding to do anything other
than gorp.

However the star star prize has to go to the dolphins. Dolphins (+ we have
seen several different species – big grey + light ones, little ones,
spangled-star studded ones (the term ‘spotted’ does not really describe
their appearance) – are just something else. Their acrobatics is second to
none, but it is at night when the steaming light is switch off that they
come into their own. Phospholuminescence is just magical. The boat cresting
along on a bow wave of strange green/blue-white light makes sailing at
night (at the risk of going into hyperbole) seem like you are in the world
with spirits. And at night dolphins, boy-racing our boat + surfing the slip
stream, come with their own wake of this phospho-light and sometimes their
whole outline is illuminated in an other-worldly glow. Seeing such
phenomenon (+ with no other explanation) you can understand why myths of
silkies and willies (not not that sort!) and other folk came about in the
minds + folklore of our ancestors.

For me the dolphins definitely have it.

In the daylight world we are a day out from the western end of the Panama
Canal marina. We have been motor/sailing now for the last three days – that
is mostly motoring + a bit of sailing when the wind is in the right
direction. We passed close to the Treasure Island-esque islands off the
west coast of the mainland – sea spray rising high from the swell pounding
the vertiginous cliffs – + we are now into the Gulf of Panama. Right now
the rest of my watch are enduring the largest series of squalls yet to hit
us all voyage – driving ice rain + buffetting freezing air to chill you to
the bone – so I guess I ought to man-up + go up + join them for a soaking
having spent the last hour safely ensconced in the nav station!

Getting back to dry land after nearly 3 weeks at sea is a strange prospect.
Personally I am not rushing.

Driving into the dark + unknown

Post race Jamaica is now motor sailing down to Panama – if life was surreal
before it has certainly become a lot more surreal now because the focus on
sailing has gone, all we have to do now is get there in a straight line
asap. Our route will be taking us to within 3 miles of the coast so the
hope for whale-sightings has been rekindled.

At the end of each race the boat is subjected to a deep clean, so in the
absence of any other pressing agenda we are getting on + doing the tasks
piecemeal as we go. Yesterday I was set on scrubbing the deck (well ok,
washing out all the blocks with fresh water – sea water corrodes everything
very quickly). I was then given buffing up the fenders – a task that
ultimately proved more intractable than it had first seemed.

Busy day yesterday.

Because of shortage of sleeping accommodation the watch system as we have
always known it continues. Thus it was this morning post-midnight Port
Watch was on duty + I was asked to helm. What my fellow crew members did
not know was that I have never helmed at night.

Driving into the dark + unknown (yachts don’t have headlights as such) is
quite frankly terrifying, added to which somebody came up from the nav
station to say that a whale had been sported on radar somewhere to port +
to keep a look out. Quite frankly given the level of darkness it would have
had to have climbed on board or us hit it to have been seen. As it was
trying to keep the compass to a bearing of 104 degrees proved surprisingly
difficult. I was definitely having difficulty focusing on the instruments –
but that was probably a lack of reading glasses or maybe because it was 4am
in the morning.

Suffice to say we survived, although on going off watch shortly afterwards
sleep did prove difficult. But that most probably something to do with the
adrenaline in the system …

What has winning done for Jamaica?

Crossing the finishing line has produced a palpable sense of relief +
achievement in the crew + a perceptible level of agree-ability + self belief
in the Skip. Jamaica has certainly had its run of bad luck (mask becoming
unattached (leg 1), rigging failure twice! (leg 5), medi-vac of engineer to
Japan (leg 6)) all of which resulted in poor racing results. Pete had come into
the event with the stated objective of a podium placing but that hope was now
history + he had seemingly resigned his ambitious to getting us back to
Blighty safely (a not unadmirable position). But winning the Ocean Sprint
changed everybody – from that moment there was a change. Everybody is now
bright-eyed + bushy tailed!

Ocean yacht racing requires a whole new outlook on how to achieve the
result you seek. In every other sport in which I have partaken personal
effort – run faster, pull that oar harder, train more intelligently – reaps
rewards. But in ocean sailing personally doing things faster + harder isn’t
necessarily the output that wins the race (although it certainly helps when
changing a tack or sail), it is doing it intelligently + concentrating on the
detail all the time that makes you a winning team. Lesson for life?

Actually now that we are no longer racing the 17 days when we were seem
totally surreal. Did we really do that?

What were the highlights?

The race start certainly made a big impression – sailing tack after tack, up
wind, close hauled, healed seriously over in close proximity to the other crews
made me feel like I was living.

Funnily enough surviving the squall with in 40 knot winds, boiling sea, golf
balls of ice + a  deck angle that made you feel one wrong move + you would be
hanging there like a Christmas decoration (we were all very much tethered on).
That was living!

Slogging it out to the finish with Garmin. Mile after mile adjusting the trim,
tweaking here, easing there, constantly eating into their lead + then over
hauling them, seeing the opposition + the result of our efforts. And then
setting our sights on Henri Lloyd + similarly eating into their lead + knowing
that had the race not be shortened we would have had them. Jamaica definitely
in hunt mode, the collective desire to achieve – that was living too.

But probably the highlight of highlights has to go to the dolphin show at the
finish. I almost cried. Don’t know how clairvoyant dolphins are but the
exuberance of their display, just the positive celebration of being alive –
said it all for us on Jamaica. And it was right there and then as we crossed
the line – what sort of coincidence was that. Thank you dolphins that was
really really living.

We did it!

At 4pm Monday afternoon (local time) Jamaica crossed the finishing line for
 Race 11 in 3rd place behind GB (where did they come from!?) and Henri
Lloyd (we nearly got you!)

The crew are elated + just to prove how magical the moment we were treated
to the most glorious dolphin display yet – 3 meter leaps, back flips,
barrel rolls, the works. The dolphins quite demonstrably expressing the
crew collective delight at a not inconsiderable achievement – from back of
the fleet to 3rd.

And now in celebration the skip has given permission for a team swim off
the back of the boat …