Seeing it like it is

Mark Covell reports from his drowned media station on board Team Russia in the Volvo Ocean Race

Tuesday November 18th 2008, Author: Mark Covell, Location: United Kingdom
Remember in one of my blogs from leg one, I wrote about telling it like it is? Say what you see? Well I’m about to do the same again and lay it on the line as it is for me, not the crew, not the people back in whatever edit office my work goes to, but right here right now.

Right now it’s 22.30 ships time (17 Nov.) and we are heading southeast at 28 knots in about 30 knots of wind. It has just taken me well over an hour to simply boil 5 litres of water and pour it into one container of freeze dried food. It took me 25 minutes to find the lighter because today we had a small issue below decks with which way was up and which down. We had a fresh 38 knots of breeze with two reefs and full A6 kite up. The speedo was showing off with glimpses of 34 knots but mostly strutting about with its shirt off showing a solid 26 pack. I was in the office doing my lippy trying to put the media station back together (reasons later). The boats motion was violent but no more offensive then normal, when suddenly I am thrown to starboard, hitting the bulkhead door and breaking it clean off. “Gosh” I said, “What the devil was that?” My question was answered as the laptop normally Velcroed down, landed in my lap, with a catch any fullback would have been proud of.

The Blue Planet

Gravity has now chosen to work from left to right on Team Russia today I thought. Shoving the Mac quickly down my trousers, I made the rest of my kit safe and solid. Thanks to Sarah from our hard working shore crew for my new pouches, nothing else fell. As you can guess, the old up and down which I had become rather fond of, had now turned into side to side. Luckily, I had the spreader camera view on the media station screen. It was showing one of those clever half underwater, half blue-sky shots you see in BBC nature programs. I could hear David Attenborough’s voice softy saying; “What the Volvo Ocean Sailor is experiencing here, is a Chinese Gybe, we don’t know enough about this species yet, but we believe they do this to keep cool when they over heat.”

Quickly breaking out my very own retake of The Blue Planet, I hit record on my consol. I was torn between grabbing my camera and capture more of the action or capturing the essential electrical navigation kit now hanging from the chart table like strange fruit in a southern wind. Wrongly I chose safety over fame, bundling up as much as I could and wedging it behind a corner. I sorted myself out, stowing the collection of stuff rammed down my trousers and headed for the action with video in hand.

Walking down the disorientated sidewalls, forward to the cockpit I could hear voices, commands one by one clear and direct. The normal rage and rampage of the boats screams to slow down were gone. Just a quiet sloshing sound as the waves broke against the hull. As I clambered forward I noticed the sleeping bags now moving in the water, mixed with things normally stowed high and dry. It’s all wrong, so wrong, but not the first time I have been in this predicament, except the last time I was sailing a Laser on holiday and the water was a lot warmer.

So we are laid flat on our starboard side, main in the water, kite still up and keel fully canted down, pinning us to the sea with no runner on the port side. Sails that were staked on the high side now trying to swim back to Cape Town, as the water flows freely washing water bottles and winch handles in and out. The crew on deck are standing on the sides of things, tailing winches from confusing angles, desperately trying to untangle the puzzle. Thank God all on deck had life jackets and harnesses clipped on. I’m now filming but desperately aware that it’s not the most helpful thing I could be doing. As if the referee had finished his count of ten, slowly the boat is freed from its half nelson and the she breathes a sigh of relief as the keel bulb cants back to the good side. The lads still working hard to prevent further issues manhandle the kite down; stake the sails back in and secure runners and sheets. Sensing that my presence is not welcome and any commentary or remark would be curt and abrupt I sloped away to put my world back into place for the third time this leg.

Satan’s Piercing Scream

The first time was just after our depressing, paint drying Cape Town start, when I discovering a very annoying high pitched alarm in the media desk. It was like a perverse form of torture reaching the very inner of my inner ear. I rang the makers of my media torture chamber and discovered that it was designed to alert me to an electrical short somewhere in the boat, that it could be ready to burst in to flames at any time. “Okey dokey, just tell me how to find the problem and I’ll be off?” The answer was not as simple as I had hoped. “Sit at the desk and listen to hells acoustic screams and have someone else go through the boat independently switching off each electrical system until you isolate the issue.” After five long hours of listening to Satan’s piercing mother-in-law bang on about her bunions, I was ready to kill something or someone. We had not found the evil little short and my media desk was still not operable. I voted to disconnect or hit with a large hammer the beeper and go to sleep and try to relieve my head of an ache fit for a hangover, only achieved after a night out with Guy Swindles (the voice of the Volvo Ocean Race).

I took the former option and tried to sleep. Now as discussed before on the Volvo, sleep does not come easily. I am not allowed a bunk as I had already bust two on the previous leg, so I get a wet bean bag on the high side of the thin aisle that all the crew use to get to their bunks. It’s safe to say even though I’m not on watch every four hours and have more time to sleep and shouldn’t have any grounds to complain; it sucks! It just has no similarity to sleep in any way shape or form. There aren’t enough sheep in New Zealand to count that would send you off on these insane boats. The common trick is to get so cream cracked (knackered) that your eyes can’t stay open any longer. Sooner or later your body can’t fight it and overcomes the rattle and shake of the hull and you eventually slip into dreams of warm apple pie. I ultimately achieved nirvana and enjoyed short but exceedingly good sleep, mmm Mrs Kipling’s best.

Day two was another eventful one. I woke as one of the off watch crewman shed his wet weather gear down on my face and then used my slumbering bones to step up to his bunk. There was no intention of rudeness; in his need to reach the sanctuary of his pit, he just didn’t know I was sleeping there.

It was still blowing the knickers off vicars, dogs off chains, frogs off drains and any other windy alliteration I could think of not too rude to print. Anyway time was getting on, I still hadn’t sent any media off the boat and I had a date with a bucket. I got up in the clothes I had slept in and didn’t shave or brush my teeth. I had a war to go to, the war with the water that had advanced in over night. This is a constant battle, it’s as though the designers of the original Volvo 70 had thought just sailing round the world with ten sleep-deprived madmen in a turbo charged sled was not hard enough. So they introduced internal water ingress; leakage to you and me. Then to make it even harder they gave it a sailing motion about as erratic as a shopping trolley with a dodgy wheel never tracking in a smooth motion.

Freeze-dried Pina Colada and Party Hats

After the tough few days for the crew on deck, I have been trying to cook and bail as much as I can. With the media desk still not working 100% I was hoping that we would get some calmer water and I could solve the gremlins still lurking. Every time I tried to write a blog or film I would feel sick. It wasn’t your standard seasickness but a battered worn down mist that everybody was now feeling. The crew were pushing as hard as they could but still not making inroads against the fleet. Moral was low and we needed a pick up. It came from the unlikly depths of the food bag, normally the bringer of all things inedible. This time we had a birthday surprise for Wouter Verbraak our navigator. I found freeze-dried pina colada, chocolate cup cakes and party hats. We had a short round of Happy Birthday and raised a smile and all forgot out worries for a while. Seeing a fully kitted out sailor in sea boots, survival suit, lifejacket and harness with a pointy party hat perched on his wet head is enough to put a smile on the most work hardened face.

Bailing Like The Sorcerers Apprentice

At the end of day two I put my head down on the pillow I don’t have, with a good feeling about the team and it’s fortunes. It was with shock and surprise when a worried Nick Bubb, desperately trying to get to a pipe under my beanbag, woke me. As he rummaged, he muttered words like, accident, sorry and quickly. Then he said the word I have become to loath, WATER.

In filling the stern ballast tank, the quick release valve had been accidentally opened, probably in the last aft stack. The result was water in the media station of jackoozy proportions. You didn’t need to use the orange dinghy bailer; you could fill a bucket direct from the sheer depth. I couldn’t quite wake up from my sleep. I kept rubbing my face not believing what was going on before me. Water was occasionally sloshing in waves up onto the top of the desk and over my laptop and cameras stored in open compartment trays. This was my worst nightmare, to lose my kit and be held redundant and prisoner with nothing to capture life on board. As Nick and Mike Joubert feverishly bailed like the sorcerers apprentice, I gathered the kit up and wrapped it up in a dry shirt hoping that no serious damage had occurred. I had to take the lid off the media desk another time to check and clean up any damage. Luckily no harm done that I couldn’t fix with some intense shaking and mopping with a paper towel. It took about three hours to get the area back to its normal slightly dripping but not streaming state. When would I be able to stop battling with the boat and the elements and be free to operate as my role intended?

I put the kit back together and moped out the remanding water unaware of what oriental fun and games were still to come later on day three.

I had to laugh when I got a well intended email from Volvo HQ, gently reminding me that I was behind on my media output. That reminder was about the only gentle thing that has happened to me since my daughters good bye kiss on the dock back in Cape Town.

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