Leg 3 - Emotional Turmoil

Leg 3 - Cape Town, South Africa to Fremantle, Australia

Number of souls on board: 20

Distance sailed: 4,500 nm

Number of days at sea: 26

Finish position: 8th

Pairs of Peripheral sunglasses down: two lost to the vicious ocean; one broken by violent moving boat.

Holy shit! Sorry kids, but this was one hell of a tough leg. Don’t get me wrong, that is how it is advertised to us but I expected it to be tough in a very different way. I imagined it would be tough physically with cold weather and big storms but it was the mental and emotional side that I found difficult. 

The best part of this race happened right at the start. Unfortunately our skipper, Lance, was really ill with pneumonia but being the ex-marine he is, he wasn’t about to let his boat sail off without him. This gave me the opportunity to helm the start out of Cape Town! Pretty exciting to be behind the heel of a 70ft, 32 ton race yacht only a few meters from 11 other equivalent boats….even better when you get the start near perfect. 

But thats about where the fun sailing stopped. Even just trying to get out of Table Bay and down the Cape Peninsula was frustrating with about a thousand wind shifts. One particular one drove us deep in towards the coastline due to some oversight by the crew member at the navigation table. It was a pretty scary moment when in the dark I came on deck to see white water/surf break on the not so distant horizon and then watched the depth sounder drop from 80m to 20m...19m...17m...12m. A quick spinnaker drop and a tack got us clear of any danger with only 3m under the hull. Unfortunately this was not the deal for one of the other boats, Greenings, who were slightly behind us ran aground and remained there. By the morning the hull was washed up on the beach and totally irrecoverable. How did we/they manage this? Who knows but I think as ocean racers we had become used to having nothing around us, nothing of concern from a navigational stand point for hours on end. So probably whoever was responsible for the navigation at that time didn’t pay enough attention and when the wind shift caught us we were driven round so that instead of sailing along the coastline we were instead pointing into it. 

Unfortunately this has ended Greenings' campaign and the boat has been taken apart and removed from the South African coastline. The Greenings crew have mostly been accommodated on other boats going forward. 

We then charged straight south deep into the Southern Ocean. At one point we were as low as the 444th parallel. It was ridiculously cold. The drysuits were worn all day everyday with up to 7 layers underneath. Mid layers didn’t come off even when getting into my sleeping bag. At times my hands were so cold after a four hour watch that I couldn’t operate the clip on my tether or undo my lifejacket to take it off. 

Leg 3 is supposed to be “the Southern Ocean Sleigh Ride” as we were supposed to skirt over the top of a series of low pressure systems. This would usually result in down-wind, down-wave conditions. Unfortunately the low pressure systems were pulled quite far north leaving us on the underside of them and upwind sailing for nearly two weeks. These Clipper race boats are designed for downwind sailing. They do not go well upwind. We usually sail them at a true wind angle of approx 60 degrees to get best VMG. In these conditions the boats are heeled over at 40-55 degrees. I am not kiddding. This makes everything very difficult. Moving around the boat, going to the loo, bracing yourself to eat dinner or look at the weather in the nav station and getting into your drysuit all become a huge effort. On deck you need to be well locked in to a post, winch, corner or simply hanging on to something fixed to stop yourself from being flung about. The boat is also crashing into and off of 15-20 foot waves, so on top of all the extra exertion just to get about daily life your sleep becomes seriously interrupted. You become so unbelievably tired. A lot of internal dialogue is needed to motivate yourself to get out of bed, trim the sail, make the crew a coffee. In sailing this upwind stuff is called “beating” I can tell you we took a beating.

During this time we got word that the Unicef boat had a man overboard incident. Luckily he was tethered on and ok. But it certainly frightened more than a few on my boat. 

Shortly after the main low system when the weather had eased a bit we had a disaster. Most of the crew were below having lunch when we heard an incredibly loud bang. Claire and I sprinted on deck. I was looking over the side of the boat for a hole and looking behind the boat to see what we might of hit. Claire was looking up the mast to see whether a halyard had snapped and then we both saw at the bow that the forestay had broken. (The forestay is the forward most fixed wire used to hold the mast up. It is a key piece of structural integrity however the mast will not necessarily come tumbling down without it…..but it could). Quick as a flash Claire started giving instructions to the crew on deck and she absolutely nailed it. The helm bared away, we eased the main and ran downwind. I ran onto the foredeck and started running all the spare halyards forward to the bow and Claire got them ground on tight. Then we dropped the yankee we were flying on that forestay. I have to say how impressive Claire was with clear orders and knowing exactly what to do. What had happened was that the shackle holding the forestay to the chainplate had split and opened over 90 degree - its rated to 7 tonnes!

Over the next day, with input from the race office, we set about fixing the forestay. This involved a bunch of hairy moments including JV and myself being lowered over the bow about neck deep in water to try and undo a shackle we thought would fit. So I have pretty much been for a brief swim in the Southern Ocean. When that didn’t work our Skipper came up with a pretty ingenious fix and we cracked on. During this process I had to climb out on the end of the bow sprit while the boat continued to sail on at speed and surf up and down waves. Pretty sketchy. As I lay on the bow sprit every now and then I would see the water rushing up towards my face as we surfed down and bottomed out on a wave. I would stop the work I was doing and wrap my arms round the bowsprit in case we plunged under. One of these times we took a huge plunge, I was completely submerged and the Southern Ocean ripped my nice Peripheral “Green Out Wraps” from my head. When I got back to the cockpit the helmsman (Elvis) told me he clocked 18knots on that wave….a new speed record to be broken in future.

The forestay shackle also broke on two other boats within 24 hours. This was at a time when the closest possible help was nearly 1,800 miles away, well out of helicopter range and nowhere near any regular shipping channels. With this in mind the race office put the whole fleet on a restricted sail plan limiting which headsails we could fly in order to reduce the forces on the forestays.

A few days after the forestays had been we received the most horrendous news. Great Britain had had a fatal man overboard incident. This sent massive shockwaves across our boat and I am sure etc entire fleet. So many questions were being asked. We all wanted to know what had happened, how our friends on team GB were coping. 

My understanding of the events are as follows. Simon was on the bow doing a watch change when a big wave knocked him over the guard wires but he was still attached by his safety tether. The other crew on the bow were not able to pull him back into the boat. As they scrambled to get a halyard onto him the clip of his safety tether had become lodged under one of the bow cleats twisting the pulling force at a funny angle. Before anyone knew it the clip on the safety tether had opened up and there was now an untethered man overboard incident. With all credit to Andy (GB skipper) and his crew they managed to get back to Simon in some very rough conditions and had him back onboard the boat within 36 minutes and just 3 attempts. Unfortunately Simon had drowned. The following day Simon was buried at sea. By all accounts Simon was a truly great man and sorely missed by his family, team GB and all who knew him.

All of these events posed challenges and built on top of each other, especially as we all became more and more tired from a physically exerting race. For me as a watch leader I was often asked a lot of questions about the events from what I sensed were very scared crew. I was constantly trying to find the right answers to re-assure my watch and instil confidence in them to continue while never hiding anything and always giving them as much information as I had. But trying to re-assure someone that the mast is not going to fall down and they will not be lost overboard is fine until the reality hits that these events could infact occur. I tried to be a good example, spending as much time on deck as I could despite the cold and wet. I tried to be sure to be on the bow whenever anyone else was up there. I tried to give people the option to let me know if they were scared or didn’t want to do anything…and I promised to cover for them in if they did feel incapable of doing a task. 

There were a bunch of other incidences on more minor scales. We had a full blown broach and blew the spinnaker halyard which put our Code 2 in the water and severely ripped it. We ripped the code 3 as well. We had twists in the spinnakers and tack lines that blew when they shouldn’t have. It beat on us hard. While it is hard to complain about anything in light of Simon we certainly felt that nothing seemed to go our way. My catch phrase was “for f&%*ks sake….give us a break” and could be found screaming it at the sea.

We were pretty low I would say. We still had each other for motivation. We had a good crew who could still make jokes and keep each other cheered up but it wasn’t the same atmosphere as the previous legs. On my watch we seemed to have a bit of a break-through about 5 or 6 days after Simon’s burial. Most of the watch were hunkered down in the cockpit and I asked them how they felt. I shared some of my own thoughts and emotions and they were echoed back to me. We shared our frustrations with the race up to that point…..and then, I don't know what triggered it but we had a big laugh about it all. It helped but certainly didn’t massively change anything. 

The leg was a tough one. I am so glad I took part in it. I now know I can handle these challenges but they are still hard and hopefully the guys I share our beautiful pink boat with will agree. They were certainly super stars for holding their mettle and pushing through. No one stepped down. 

All we had left was an easy straight shot into Fremantle……or not. A large wind hole help up the fleet and we were three days late into port. You really couldn’t have scripted this shit!