The Caribbean is behind us, we have managed to navigate the Bermuda Triangle without incident (ghost ships, giant squid etc.) and have finally reached the North Atlantic, our final ocean before the end of the race. This occasion has been marked by a radical change in the weather, as Hurricane Colin makes an appearance. Apparently Colin is not really a hurricane but in fact a Tropical Low Depression Storm. It looks and feels a lot like a hurricane to me. We go from balmy blue skies and bright, hot sunlight one watch to minimal visibility, choppy seas, cold temperatures and mad shifts in wind direction. It’s a crazy ride, but one we have been prepared for, watching the bright red patch of weather appear on the grib files over the last 12 hours. The grib files tell us to expect 30 knot winds. When I come on watch the wind is keening in a high, sustained note and the instruments read gusts of over 100 knots on occasion. Only myself, James and David are up on deck for the show, with the rest of the crew kitted up down below and ready to come up if necessary. There’s no reason for many people to be up on deck however, especially since we are being constantly binned by huge waves and gusts of hail-like rain. On the North Pacific we didn’t have the instrument panel attached to the mast, where you can see the true wind and apparent wind strengths as they happen. I think that was probably a good thing, as reading the numbers makes me more apprehensive than not knowing what strength the wind is (and that I may need to helm in it). Happily Colin comes and goes very quickly, and by the end of our watch we are down to a ‘balmy’ 30-36 knots of wind. But it leaves me with a massive amount of respect (laced with terror!) for the power of these sudden hurricanes that sweep from the Gulf of Mexico, along the Eastern seaboard of the US and into the Atlantic. I hope it’s not a taste of what’s to come in Leg 8.
Colin also marks a shift in temperature downwards, from tropical heat to much cooler temperatures. We are definitely moving North at a fast rate now, keeping up with the fleet and battling it out with the main pack in a long drawn-out drag race that runs for several hundred miles. The racing is really fun as we are pretty evenly matched, and every decision about gybing, tacking or following the opposition could mean the difference between placing well and coming at the bottom of the fleet. It’s a real roller coaster – sometimes we are doing well and the mood on the boat is buoyant. Then we make a tactical error and the next sched shows us dropping down the ranks, and the mood is annoyed and frustrated. Em is a great watch leader to have for these occasions as she is hugely interested in the race tactics and navigation of the boat. She keeps Zimmer Watch up to date with where we are and what we are doing (and why), and is constantly positive about improving our position, even when we are doing badly. At times like that I just prefer to retreat to my bunk at the end of the watch and ignore the race around me. Obviously not cut out to be an ocean racer!
This level of racing also means that the sailing is pretty gruelling. On my watch I am the go-to (ie. most bossy) person in the pit and on bow from the RTWs so I run between the two, discussing what we may have to do next in the pit (and who does what), and then leaving Em to run things there while I head up to the bow with James.
In the first half of the Leg working the bow was not a hardship – who could object to sitting on the prodder in the brilliant sunshine, with the blue waves sparkling around you and dolphins frolicking at your feet? However in the North Atlantic it’s a very different kettle of fish. The waves bin you regularly, it’s cold and massively bouncy on the pointy end and the wind is a real bugger, especially when you are changing head sails downwards as the wind increases. Suddenly all those muscles that I have built up over the past 10 months are getting a real workout. I have a discussion with Rowena about this after one evolution, where it takes 6 people on bow to get the Yankee One down, and where I am on the pulpit literally hanging my whole body weight off the hanks in order to get the sail to drop. She asks me why I like to do bow (or, in her words, why would I be crazy enough to do that job). This is not a hard question to answer, since it embodies one of the main reasons I have come on this crazy adventure: every time I go on the bow, especially when the weather is horrible, it requires me to prove to myself that I have the stamina and endurance to do this (yet again), the strength to actually carry out the task I have to do (which I did no have a year ago), as well as the courage to know what awaits me (wet, cold, possible injury) and yet do it anyway. Stamina, courage and strength are qualities I hope I have and have come to sea to test. And the bow is a place where you really do test yourself.
It’s made more difficult by an incident that happens the night before we are due to finish the race. The weather has been really fluky, with high winds in the 30s and 40s where none was expected, followed by periods of calm, sunny downwind sailing. Most of the time we are very good at anticipating the weather and hanking on the correct headsail accordingly. This time we are caught out, when light winds requiring a Yankee One turn to blistering 40 knot winds in the space of half an hour or so. The call goes out to get the Yankee One down and 5 of us go up on to the fore deck to get the job done. I am on the bow, with James as the number 2 position, just behind the outer forestay, where he can pull the sail in as I pull the hanks down. We’ve got maybe 3/4s of the sail down (and my arms are like spaghetti) and I look up to yell at him to help me with the remainder (even a couple of feet away the wind is so loud you can’t hear someone unless they yell at you). As he stands up and goes to turn around to help me, the bow bounces wildly, he loses his grip on the high side rail and lands on the pile of sail which is wedged next to the low side stanchions. The sail basically acts as a slide as I watch he goes over the rail, head first, until all I can see are the soles of his feet as he hangs over the side. It’s absolutely terrifying. My first reaction is Can I reach him? But I am wedged in the pulpit, double-clipped on, with most of a sail collapsed between him and me. So I yell to Steve, the number 3 to ‘Get James, Get James!’, and then, as it’s clear he is actually not on the boat,
I yell ‘Man Overboard’.
I am helpless to do anything but watch and shout for help as Steve desperately reaches over the rail to grab James and try and get him back in the boat. Luckily the Man Overboard message is relayed to the helm, and Wendo luffs the boat up so that the low side flips up to the high side in a second, and both James and Steve (who is holding on for dear life) are flipped back into the boat.
I never, ever want to have to shout that again for real. The enduring picture I have of that moment is seeing nothing of James but the soles of his feet, as he hangs upside down off the side of the boat. Luckily he is very fit and a climber, and is therefore used to hooking himself on to ridiculous things in improbable positions. So he has hooked his ankle around something solid on the rail, and though his life jacket pops, he doesn’t ever reach the limit of his tether, which is clipped on the the high side jackstay. He therefore gets binned by a few waves, but is never in danger of getting permanently dunked or dragged along the the side of the boat under water (which is the biggest worry with a tethered Man Overboard), and sustains nothing more than a bruised calf muscle. But, oh what a terrifying moment. More so because I see the whole thing play out in front of me and am helpless to do anything but observe.
This is Val signing off as the race finish is only 800 metres away and lights from the East Coast are twinkling on the horizon as the sun goes down. Leg 7 is finally done and dusted after 6 weeks at sea. 7 down, 1 to go …