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Donkin on Travel

1997, BT Global Challenge - Sailing into Cyclone Fergus

Cook Islands

The weather warning called it Cyclone Fergus. This tight grouping of isobars more than 2,000 miles away seemed irrelevant to the crew of a small yacht on the homeward stretch of a voyage across the southern ocean to New Zealand. The journey was almost over and we had suffered enough.

For three days we had tracked the progress of Fergus steadily south-eastwards towards the broken boot of New Zealand and prepared for the inevitable. The rigging felt strong enough, even if it was sagging in the wrong places. And Malcolm Thornley, the boat's engineer, was able to add some shackles to the backstay. How much we owed to his ingenuity – he had salvaged so many critical situations in mid-ocean - we would never know.

We crossed the international dateline and a day disappeared. Sunday lunchtime turned into Monday afternoon. Tracts of my diary remained empty. It was impossible to have that Monday morning feeling because Monday morning never happened for me. I wonder what I might have done with it.

Group 4, Save the Children and Toshiba had made it to Wellington ahead of the cyclone. Our yacht, 3Com, would not be so lucky. The lull before the storm had its own effects on the crew. The weather forecast was the sailing equivalent of being told you were going over the top in the trenches. It said the sea would be somewhere between "very rough and phenomenal". We pondered on this word, phenomenal, which did not seem to belong to the usual sobriety of meteorological reports.

One or two of the crew said they were looking forward to Fergus, a notion dismissed by Mark Ward on the starboard watch. "Anybody who looks forward to it is downright stupid. It's not clever, it's not brave, it's just stupid," he said. Gerrard Walker, the navigator, said: "I'd be lying if I said I was looking forward to this with anything but sheer terror."

In the stillness we watched the moon rise, stealing some of the sparkle from the stars. The air was heavy with dew and the sea, a flat calm. It would have been silent had it not been for the ever present rustle of the sails and the clanking of rigging against spars.

Some, like me, displayed signs of what I can only describe as "last meal" syndrome. After more than a full month of strict water rationing, ruling out washing, I snatched a quiet moment in the galley to duck my head under the fresh water tap. The shampoo and rinse took less than a minute but the deed had been witnessed. Instead of lying low I decided the next challenge would be my underpants. I smuggled the three-week-old specimens into the galley where a bowl of fresh washing-up water was awaiting the dirty dishes.

There was outrage but I did not care. I wanted to look my best for Fergus. By the time it hit us, the next morning, Fergus had been downgraded to a sub-tropical storm. Some storm. Down in the hold it was like waking up in your dug-out to the thudding barrage above. For the first time we felt the stern lifting, instead of the bows. Those in the cockpit were immersed in water.

"It was when the water came up to my nose that I realised we were into something big," said Jane Corfield, a fellow watch member, as she ended her stint above.

The wind was gusting between 50 and 60 knots but it did not need instruments to confirm its power. Fergus was going out in style. But so was 3Com. With the mainsail fully lowered and lashed to the boom and just two sails flying in front, we reached a boat speed of nearly 17 knots, the highest of our journey.

The emergency radio beacon, designed to mark our position in the event of disaster, was swept overboard. It was cold comfort to hear, a few minutes later on the radio, that the signal had been picked up in Falmouth. But Fergus had thrown its best punches and its power was beginning to wane.

As the adrenalin slowed to a trickle my seasickness returned. I saw out the old year heaving into the cockpit, came down for a glass of brandy and some water, then saw in the new year in the same style.

The rest was plain sailing, or rather, plain racing, since our excitement at the sight of land was quickly disturbed by the appearance of two boats, Time and Tide and Courtaulds International, at our stern. After 7,000 miles of sailing through emptiness we were confronted with a close finish. Thoughts of preserving the rigging were dismissed.

First a helicopter, then a few small boats came out to greet us. As we turned into the dock we could see hundreds of people lining the waterside clapping and cheering. Balloons were released, "Rocking All Over the World", the Status Quo song adopted as the 3Com anthem, was blaring from speakers. There was a jazz band and champagne.

Forty-three days after our departure from Rio, we had reached the moment I had craved. In mid-ocean I had imagined myself kissing the ground in thankfulness but when the opportunity finally came I did not step off the boat. My thoughts were on the other side of the world with my family.

I stroked the friendship bracelet on my wrist. Plaited by my eldest son, it had been my most treasured possession. It may have been that I wanted to savour the moment and standing there, on deck, I felt strangely secure. We were not the only boat to be welcomed "home".

My emotions welled up on the arrival of Time and Tide, the only BT Global Challenge yacht to compete with a disabled crew. Some have criticised Chay Blyth's ethos of pitting novice crews in a race of such arduous proportions. The inclusion of a disabled crew caused further reservations.

Many might assume, understandably, that Time and Tide's challenge is to get around the world. But that is not the way the crew sees it. They are trying to win and they are improving with every mile, demonstrating that the sea, at least, does not discriminate between the disabled and able-bodied. The crew had suffered - two were taken straight to hospital - but their spirits were higher than any in the fleet.

Some may wonder why ordinary men and women should pay thousands of pounds to risk their lives in the most inhospitable conditions for weeks on end. The pitiful sight of Concert arriving the next day, with just a steel stalk for a mast, only confirmed the risks they are facing. Two or three other boats, including ours, were fortunate not to have suffered a similar mishap.

But events such as this are tearing down the barriers between ordinariness and achievement. There is no such thing as special people, only people in special circumstances.

What was it like? "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," wrote Charles Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities . Will Sadler, 3Com's starboard watch leader, had put it less eloquently before the voyage. "There will be good bits and there will be bad bits," he said. The bad bits were often seamless. Many of the good bits will only emerge later, sifted from the memory like tiny nuggets of gold and just as precious.

© Financial Times

   
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