BT Global Challenge - Sailing into Cyclone Fergus
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.