32 knots on a Class 40
After repairing the boom we faced a long wait in Horta as some deep low pressure systems were blocking our path home. With the delivery crew of Clemency Williams, Charlie Dalin and Angus Thomson all on the island and the boat ready to go we made the most of our 'holiday' and explored every inch of Faial marvelling at the dramatic volcanic scenery and even managing to climb to the highest point of the island. Eventually after over a week of twiddling our thumbs the synoptic charts started to look better and Clemency in consultation with Mike Broughton, also of Winning Wind, decided that we could leave on Sunday 26 November. It was going to be a fast ride home with some strong following breeze, just how strong it wasn't possible to tell...
For the first three days we surfed along in 25 knots of breeze, all down hill, the only discomfort was from the large swell left over from the recent gales. As we approached Cape Finisterre we knew that things were going to get feisty. An intense cold front was moving NE and would be passing over us bringing strong winds for a period of approximately 36 hours. As the wind built rapidly we reduced sail until in a steady 45 to 50 knots we decided to get all the mainsail down and proceed under staysail alone. By now the seas were nothing short of mountainous. We suffered several knockdowns and to the credit of the build team she showed no ill effects. As we launched down the face of some waves it seemed like we were literally going to the bottom of the ocean. The speeds were totally insane and we quickly gave up looking at the log as we just seemed to be going quicker and quicker, that and it was hard to see anything under the thick walls of green water on deck! With no options but to take every wave the most important thing was to ensure that we did not get side on to any of the breakers and to keep the speed up to give us manoeuvrability. In all the tens of thousands of miles I have sailed, never before have I seen such a evil sea, we had all the safety kit to hand and for a while when things got really nasty the whole crew were in survival suits. Mike kept Clemency updated with the latest weather info and we hung on.
Thankfully the front finally passed us and we enjoyed some champagne sailing in reward for our bravery. Just as we were relaxing with about 400 miles to go it became apparent that there was another big low brewing mid Atlantic and heading our way. The advice from Winning Wind was get to land as fast as possible! No more cruising, it was all rags up and in full race mode. The forecast was for winds in excess of 80 knots in the Western Approaches on Saturday December 2nd, exactly where our routing put us. I'd like to say I couldn't believe it but after the year of bad luck I've had, not much surprises me anymore. It was winter, it was the Bay of Biscay and it was the third time I'd been there in the past couple of months. You are bound to get hit properly once! Anyway we amended our plans slightly and headed for the nearest port, Douarnenez, just south of Brest on the north Brittany coast. As the wind built, spinnakers gave way to gennakers and then to headsails. We were still sailing downwind but that was about the only encouraging thing. The GRIB files showed that there would be 80 odd knots by 2200, our ETA was 2100. It was going to be close call. We closed on the Brittany coast as the breeze built and with the crew in full race mode we swept into the welcoming arms of Douarnenez bay at 2000. By 2100 we were moored up and hugely relieved. We packed the boat up and made our way to a welcoming local pizza restaurant. As we ate the wind rose and outside it howled, signs were blowing over and people were struggling to walk in a straight line, maybe that was just the wine though, it was a proper storm either way and we'd been very very lucky.
It's rare that I do much sailing with a full crew, well more than two anyway, but in this instance it was a blessing, they were all fantastic and all showed true character in a tough situation. Everyone pulled together and shared a life experience that will stay fresh in our minds for a long time to come. By the way did I mention we did 32.4 knots!!! This was registered by our GPS, no calibration question marks, fact. 32 knots on a 'restricted' 40 footer that doesn't have a swing keel and is not even built out of carbon. To put it into context, most of the class 40s in the Rhum claimed they struggled to break 20 knots and the maximum speed by a Volvo 70 (the quickest offshore monohulls) is 42 knots, no doubt which is the most impressive in my mind!
Well that's the end of my sailing for 2006, things didn't exactly work out as planned but when do they ever? I look forward to 2007 with the same old enthusiasm and the same appetite. This season I have been awoken to just how cruel ocean racing can be but I've learnt that it's all part of a beautiful game and you have to take the rough with the smooth. I remind myself how lucky we were in the Oryx Quest, when having sailing over 15,000 thousand miles and were mid Atlantic, the windward cap shroud broke but the rig stayed up. Another day and we may not have been so lucky and I would have been denied the honour of becoming a round the world yachtsman. Disappointed yes, but not beaten. Thank you to all my friends and sponsors, one and the same nowadays, for their support this season. I hope my adventures have brightened your days in the office, your support certainly brightened my days on the ocean.
If I don't catch up with you in person before, then a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you all.
Best regards, Nick