A dinner date in Dante’s Inferno

The flipside to sailing  – which for the most part can be exhilarating and when things are going well fun – are the necessary non-sailing duties which need to be done to keep the boat functioning, conditions sanitary and the crew alive. ‘Mother’ watch (the accepted term for galley duty – not my choice of word fyi) is one such marmite duty. Marmite because people either enjoy or detest being a mother.

Being a mother entails starting at 4am when you come on watch with the rest of your watch (your half of the crew) apart from you stay below in the galley … all day. Producing a meal is like a sailing manoeuvre – prep, evolution, tidy-up. 

Breakfast involves porridge production in industrial quantities and the magicing up of the first fresh bread of the day. This is consumed like food has been in short supply for the last month. 

The next job is to track down the daybag – quirrelled away in the bunk bilges – with the ingredients for that day’s lunch and supper. Food like everything else is organised on a rota … and since I am the victualler that’s a 7 day rota (the memory of school dinners rides again!)

Meal production for 20+ people in an improbably small space is either a logistical nightmare (the heal of the boat is slight and the conditions calm) or a complete and utter nightmare (when the boat is rocked over big time and crashing through a big sea). Everybody prays for only limited nightmare conditions.

We are talking extreme cooking here! Like rockface cooking at crazy angles with rodeo ride bucking to keep the food prep edgy! Every items in the galley – beit food or utensils – is on a mission to end up where it shouldn’t! I swear the slops bucket has its own gravitational pull because everything from newly washed plates to rogue food substances end up in that bucket!! And hot! It gets unimaginably hot and stiffling in the galley. We are not talking just hot – bicram yoga has nothing on cooking in a Clipper 70 galley – we are talking energy-sapping dripping. The only relief is to appear gauffer-like at the top of the companion way periodically to snatch moments of sea-fresh air before disappearing again into the troglodyte realm that is the galley.

Lunch and supper under your belt the last job as mother is to produce fresh bread for the midnight watch change. Midnight’s fresh bread is so looked forward to … coming down off deck after 4 hours in the dark or about to go up for the graveyard watch … there is absolutely nothing more eagerly anticipated than midnight’s fresh bread. 

After mother watch cooking is never seem in the same light ever again!

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Eat, sleep, sail, repeat …

We are licking it along at 12+ knots with 1900 or so nautical miles to sail to our destination, Punta del Este. The boat feels alive quivering, surfing the waves and the swell. We are racing!

Since leaving the calm of the doldrums a lot has happened. After a crucifying couple of weeks of relentless and demoralising headsail changes – the yankies are unbelievably heavy, cumbersome sails which require the logistic capacity of the Royal Marines stunt team to get them from below to hanked on – we had a tactical revelation … the fuck it and fly approach! And it works! Headsail changes are a thing of the past and the exhilaration of the extra knots and knowing we are up there and tracking down the opposition a total bonus! 

As tactical rethinks go this one came just in the nick of time because we have just completed the ocean sprint section of the race – a total ‘yeeha!’ go for it sail … felt good. We crossed the equator at the same time for good measure … admittedly there was no dotted line in the sea but a momentous moment of sorts and means we all go from being ‘poliwogs’ to ‘shellbacks’ … can’t say that this distinction has made me look too different … but another badge of honour. (I made Rocky Road cake for the crew … thought that appropriate for the occasion!)

Life on board is definitely not comfortable – making it into my bunk is an expedition, using the heads near impossible with the need to brace every limb against a different surface/wall/floor* (*delete as necessary) and toilet bowl content evacuating itself sideways every large wave … and using the galley life threatening. Chopping onions for supper … the options are down your cleavage or rogue all over the floor!

Like everybody else on the crew my body is taking something of a hammering too! My left elbow seems to be having a tennis moment, my knees are objecting to being constantly braced into hard surfaces, my hair has evolved into lego men helmet hair, my skin has erupted into orange peal and the constant sitting in wet clothes has left me with a pruny butt …

But we are racing and once on deck to sailing is both big time exhilarating and fun. Most importantly we are doing ok and getting there!

That was THE squall that was

Last night on our way to the northern gate of the doldrums corridor we sailed into the wettest, longest big brother of all squalls. Not (thankfully) uber dramatic in terms of wind speeds this squall kept going and going and going so that in the end we were the subject of an hour-long cold power shower. The deluge was unrelenting. Not so much large raindrops this was like being hit repeatedly with water bombs.

Getting progressively wetter – the water running down the back of your neck in an ever increasing series of rivers, driving along your up-turned forearms because your cannot seal your cuffs against the assault – is an altogether unpleasant sensation. The worst bit is when the water finalling gets to your knickers  and all your cold wet clothing clings to your body sucking away your bodily warmth and making it difficult to move.

Squalls are notorious as the destroyers of spinnaker sails so all the while you are manning you post, doing your uncomplaining, square-jawed bit as part of the crew to drop the sail below to save it from destruction. 

The process of getting a kite down in building winds is organised mayhem. Each of us has a specific role but ultimately, once the tack is blown and the sail freed to lash windward, the whole aim is to contain the sail by dragging it through ‘the letterbox’ – the gap between the foot of the sail and the boom and post it down below to the safety of the galley for woolling in order to fly another time (like once the squall has passed).

The power of a rogue sail in high winds should never be underestimated so the whole manoeuvre requires coordonated team work. It is a great feeling of achievement when once again we win out as a team … another successful capture without injury (on either side). We all congratulate each other, smiles and jokes all round and at that point we allow ourselves the opportunity to admit that getting soaked to the skin is definitely not fun! 

We all look bedraggled, our hands are white and unappealingly wrinkled, we resemble extras from a zombie movie but it is job done and with the squall gone it is time to put the kettle on for a mug of tea + find some dry clothes.

The wonders of cold rain

After an awesome week of sailing south(ish) under spinnaker power today we arrived at the northern edge of the weather system that is the doldrums.  It has been an interesting day so far … and we have only got as far as the watch change-over at lunchtime!

The wind is like those magic spirits in Shakespeare – there, not there, tricksy, deceptive, inconsistent, darn-right irritating … and finally enough of it in the right direction to make progress. Looking at our track on the plotter we look like a right bunch of amateurs … but in truth we have been working our socks off – sail change after sail change pointing at every compass bearing simply to try and find some wind and keep the boat going (these boats are so heavy that stalling them is just about the last thing you want to do!) We are all completely knackered as well as wilting in the heat + strong sunlight. In the middle of all of this we came across a squall. Squalls are very localised areas of high(er) winds and rain and as quickly as you sail into them you sail out the other side. 

The wind part of the encounter with the squall was very welcome but after 7 days of being cooked at gas mark 8 the instant, cold and heavy – down to my knickers – soaking was something of a shock to the system. However the shock was almost as transitory as the rain … and then the sun came back and there was that glorious sensation of water evapourating on my skin and for a very brief while I felt cool and refreshed … then it was back to being in the oven. 

The other good news is that we now also have wind and are back on track sailing south to transit through the northern gate of the dodrums corridor (an entirely fictional race concepts … there are no dotted yellow lines in the sea!) and then on south as fast as we can!

Hot and getting hotter

Sailing south the code 1 kite up and magnificent … we are back to giving it our all 24/7. The plan? To smoke off the rest of the fleet. However not everything is necessarily going our way – GB remains our nemesis. Last night they were 12 miles behind us now we can see them on the horizon behind us … which means they have closed the gap to less than 7 miles. But we are not going down without a fight. We are all physically and emotionally exhausted with the effort of constantly trimming the set of the sails – which involves heavy effort grinding on the coffee griders/winches + hanging on heavy ropes – and helming in buffeting seas – you are the power in power-steering!

One of the truths that has come home to me is that despite my ardent desire to be the best I can be I am just not physically big, strong or fit enough to give it the grunt the job requires. I am certainly fit for being me but I just can’t give it the beef that the guys can muster. However no tears there are plenty of jobs I can do … this has mostly been coaching the non-cooks in the crew (a surprisingly high %!) up to catering standard and getting them to believe in themselves.

The conditions both inside and on the deck are oppressively hot and as we head south will be getting hotter … bit like the race competition!

Swim completed … now for the bike and the run

This morning at 0943 UTC we crossed through the scoring gate at the front of the fleet. We are off the bottom of the points table with three well-earned smackers! Big smiles all round.

The off watch were unsurprisingly not off but on-deck alongside our watch to countdown the last few miles. A small celebration was considered in order which entailed locking everything off (because techically we were still racing) and commandoing down to the back of the boat for a team photo. First challenge of Race 1 achieved now for navigating the doldrums and then the race sprint. 

I was on mother duty yesterday and after 22 hours of being continuously awake was feeling more than just a little scuppered but achieving has a way of making light of the hardships. 

I am not alone in the totally pooped department since we all in our own way have been giving large to achieve those 3 points. The thing now is to stay focused and even though we are tired and sleep-deprived because of the heat and airlessness inside the boat (we are talking pizza oven conditions here!)

Our next task is to navigate the doldrums infamous for their changeable and windless conditions. It has to be said the daily weather reports are not promising … nothing for it other than to best guess and go for it!

The heat is already killing so we have rigged up the stormsail for shade creation … right now the deck looks like we have gone for the Bedouin encampment option … nothing wrong with cool!

Battle for the scoring gate

So the drag race with GB (CV30) continues … the crew is electric with effort and commitment because although Qingdao is slightly ahead the outcome is not a foregone conclusion … one hiccup by us – one spinny wrap (where the sail collapses and gets so tangled on the forestay that it has to come down + be woolled before rehoisting = really bad news + major loss of speed), one piece of kit failure, a helming aberration – and that position at the front of the fleet would be forfeited. We are absolutely giving it 110%. If a kite change is needed because of strengthening/weakening wind speeds –  it is ‘all hands on deck’ we are doing it. Woolling ready for the rehoist – hot + uncomfortable yes but we are doing it. We are buzzing!

The sailing has been awesome. The wind gods have been with us and we have been rocking it with 5 straight days of surfing the waves on a beam/broad reach flying a mix of kites – the windseeker on light days through to code 3 when the conditions get fruity. Flying with the code 3 is magic!

There is nothing quite like being picked up by and then accelerating down the face of a wave. Pure exhilaration! The technique takes mastering – turning the boat slightly into the wave at the right moment to be picked up and then steering out to ride the wave down and maintain the right course to the end to be repeated with each passing wave. There is always competition amongst the helms. Today our max was 18.9 knots averaging a respectable 12-odd knots in the process.

Each 100 miles down has been another minor achievement … today we broke through the 400 miles barrier … Yesterday we sailed over 280 miles … in 2 days those 3 points could be ours!

Having GB on our heals has motivated us all the more … each day we have pulled away … only a bit but increasing that distance has been a major focus. Fleet up-dates every 6 hours keeps us abreast of the other boats. An important moment in the day and the news in today is that we have increased our separation to 48 miles. The news spreads like lightning through the crew … a reason to feel proud of our efforts.

We are sailing!

Helming … the all body workout

This is our fourth day with a kite up surfing the swell and the waves as we make up way south to the scoring gate for a hopeful bonus 3 points. Two days ago we sailed our way to the front of the fleet though a magic combination of tactics and lucking out with the weather and since then we have been defending our position, sailing our very best, changing sails to suit the weather and constantly trimming the set of what we have hoisted. We cling to our lead over GB … but as of today down to 28 miles!

The sail changes are a killer – a total physical workout. The sails are so heavy it takes pretty much a whole watch to wrestle them from the sail locker in the bowels of the boat to the deck and just as much grunt returning them from whence they came when no longer needed. “Two, six, heave!” is the call. 

The kites (spinnakers – which come in 3 flavours: Code 1 (champagne sailing); Code 2 (breezy); and Code 3 (blowing it a bit) are the sails that come with the most rewards – exciting fast sailing – but the downside is nerve-racking launches (premature inflation and tack trips being two such disater scenarios) and take downs like a Neanderthal mamoth hunt with endless possibilities for getting it wrong with raps + sea dunks. At the end when the sail – the size it seems of a tennis court – is captured by the whole crew bear-hugging it, grabbing it, squirrelling it down below there is everybody’s favourite really sweaty but obligatory task of ‘woolling’ + repacking ready for the next launch.

 However the star job – for most people in the crew – is helming. No point having the best rigged boat in the fleet if you are pointing in the wrong direction!

There are a fair few helm hunters in our crew. I hadn’t ranked myself up there given my relative lack of experience but lucky for me we all get to take our turn.

Helming is a full-on all body experience – it is as mentally demanding as it is physical. I used to think CX-WORX was hard … but absolutely a walk in the park compared to helming in heavy seas.

Helming it is like you are trying to outwit and cajole a larger wild beast. Yet at the same time you must listen to the boat/beast because it is giving you all sorts of clues as to how to succeed. You and the boat against the sea and the weather. But ultimately the sea is supreme and after 30 minutes of anticipating the waves and swell, glorying in the awesome moments of surfing down big waves or surviving moment of near catastrophic sail collapse or being over-powered by the conditions … you are done in.

The physical effort alone left me aching + physically exhausted (power steering is somebody else coming to help you). The mental effort of being constantly on my metal left me totally but totally drained but alive and electric!

What a sense of achievement!

Helming in the dark

After our no wind/ windhole day of disasterous race sailing we were lucky in that the weather system moved to favour us with a moderate breeze – champagne and white knuckled ride sailing in equal measure. Last night was just such an occasion from a moderate pottering sail at the beginning to something of a roller coaster ride (due to the swell + waves) in the early hours. It was during the more exciting phase that my watch leader asked me to helm. First time for everything + never better than when doing it for real!

Helming in the oily dark, no stars, in punchy 20 knote winds, I could see nothing other than the compass dial in front of me – bright enough to render my night sight blind to the rest of the world. 

I confess it was a more than a slightly terrifying experience to surf a large boat down even larger waves that I could not see. But it was also amazingly exhilarating especially when I clocked 10.2 knots (that is good by the way) … and positively excellent when we discovered with the fleet report in the morning that the other boats around us were managing a mere 4! 

Living dangerously

A good boisterous wind makes for exciting sailing. After a racing tactics’ disaster of a day languishing in a succession of windholes we were up for some sailing to regain our position in the fleet. A day of punchy winds and life on the edge clinging to either the deck or the inside of your bunk (never a good location that!) 

Throughout the day the winds built so that by the time of graveyard watch (midnight to 4am) a headsail change became necessary. Nothing for it but to go forward as bowbird #2 (behind the bowman who sits on the pulpit at the very front). Up front on the bow of a boat that is driving and diving through the waves it was total drenching, total exhilaration and total fear all in equal measure!

Next up a tack … straightforward except that the active yankie sheet was left flogging and I copped it. Even inside the pit and being where you should be you can get hurt. I landed a serious flogging from a angry heavy duty rope which then for good measure grabbed me by my left leg and flung me out of the pit and across the deck. It hurt. All of me hurts … especially my left leg which isn’t feeling much like cooperating at the moment … can’t say that I blame it!