Gales on the nose...

The Volvo Ocean Race fleet power through gale force winds...

Wednesday February 13th 2002, Author: John Greenland, Location: Transoceanic
Neal McDonald goes for a quick swim...

What a night.  Out of the Southern Ocean and we started to feel the temperature slowly rising, the sea getting flatter and the wind dropping - the whole crew felt a general sense of relief - we had taken on the Southern Ocean and survived. Apart from illbruck getting a jump, the rest of us are all within 30 miles of each other and the race is really on.

As our first non Southern Ocean night for a couple of weeks began we all expected a slightly less stressful night than we had been used to. No icebergs to worry about, no gigantic waves or Herculean gust of wind and no freezing water sluicing all over the deck.  How wrong we were, for me this was just about the worst night of the whole trip. Up for 12 hours, on deck for eight of those and in the freezing water for 10 minutes. To cap it all we lost several miles to all our competitors - not my idea of a fun night out.

My first clue that all was not going as planned was just before nightfall when the wind started rising much more than forecasted. On the wind it presented no real challenges, initially,  a simple headsail change and that should have been that. We were short tacking through a narrow channel between the easternmost tip of Argentina and the "Isla de los Estados".  Short tacking means all hands up [on deck] - not only do we have to deal with trimming the sails from side to side, as in any boat (a pretty arduous task in itself) but we also have to move everything from one side of the boat to the other.  On deck this means moving about one tonne of wet sails from side to side and down below about 500 kg of food, safety gear, clothing.  Everything that can move gets moved. It all goes towards helping the performance but is an extremely strenuous procedure. Each tack feels like the equivalent physical effort of a rugby match. 

Then add the fact that no one gets any sleep short tacking and therefore it is no one’s favourite option. However its all part of the game and each sked suggested we were doing well and closing down on second and third place. Rudi [Mark Rudiger] was down below navigating and making sure we were in the best place all the time and not going to run into any rocks. One of his goals is to position us in the best current. Well this he certainly did.  In the pitch black we could not see what we were about to get into, but below Rudi had found a spot where he felt we would have some good current flowing in our direction - generally a good thing. This time though we had bitten off a bit more than we could chew.  The current suddenly shot up to 6 or 7 knots, the wind speed to 38 knots and we were on for a white water rafting trip from hell. The conditions kicked up; sea conditions that were unimaginable. The boat bounced around like a bucking bronco, 18 tonnes of boat being tossed around like a cork. In the middle of this we had to tack  - a terrifying procedure. I was on deck and in the pitch black I have to say I was just as concerned as I was in the Southern Ocean. The boat was banging and crashing around.  I had no idea when it would end or what was going to break.

Fortunately we only had to endure 30 or minutes or so of this terrifying ride. The tidal rip eventually abated and the seas and wind reduced to manageable proportions. Another sigh of relief form me and I was down below to study our relative performance against News Corp on the radar. It was clear that Rudi had positioned us well and we were well placed to take some more out of the leaders.

For an hour or so we were neck and neck on the radar.  At last it appeared we might be settling into a "normal" night. Then all of a sudden we started to very slowly but consistently lose out to News Corp - studying the onboard computer it was clear the performance figures had dropped. Up on deck the boys had noticed a slight reduction in speed also. Torches then came out to check the trim of the sails, which were all fine - panic - what the hell was wrong? There had to be something on the fins. We looked with torches and endoscopes but in the pitch black and leaping off waves in 30 knots of wind we saw nothing.  Another look at the radar and we were still losing - this was heart breaking - all that effort to gain a few miles and we were just slowly losing it all.  More head scratching and by this time it was getting light enough to see the keel through a little window in the bottom of the boat - s*** we've got a forest of weed wrapped around the keel.  What now?  We had to do a back down, which was not a popular decision with the lads.

It’s not quite like a car - brakes on, stop, engage reverse and you are there. We have to drop headsails, then carefully slow down and try and get the boat going backwards without tacking. A time consuming and backbreaking procedure during which you know the other dudes are sailing away. I called for three of these "back ups".  Each one failed and lost us about two miles on the fleet. On the third attempt, everyone was getting tired and fed up.  I was livid having been up all night and wanted rid of this piece of weed. There was nothing else for it, but for someone to get in the water and wrestle with it. I looked round and I was by far the fastest and the most angry, so I ripped of my clothes, put on a harness and leapt in. I knew it would be cold but I had no idea just how cold until I hit the water. It took my breath away.  I did not have to go that deep but I did wonder if the cold was going to beat me before I had achieved my goal. After two dives down with the boat jumping up and down in the heavy seaway and drifting fast with the main up in 30 knots, I eventually ripped off the whole forest. Cold, but rewarded the boys winched me out of the water.  It was straight down below for me to try and dry off and get into a sleeping bag before I became hypothermic. The next sked reports were a disappointing loss for us, but I guess that's yacht racing. It also indicated a huge split in the fleet. Amer Sports One and djuice opting to go east of the Falklands, while the rest of us chose to go west.  Time alone will tell who is correct.


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