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Donkin on Travel

1996, BT Global Challenge - The Southern Ocean

Southern Ocean

The co-ordinates 55 degrees, 40 minutes south, 112 degrees, two minutes west mark the exact spot in this empty quarter of the globe where our yacht, 3Com, very nearly came to grief.

Hard sailing in a 40-tonne boat through pummelling winds and seas puts enormous strains on equipment. Sometimes something gives. As the crew struggled to retrieve a broken cable and a foresail hanging over the side, David Tomkinson the skipper confessed: "There are two things in ocean racing that put your heart in your mouth - a man overboard and the loss of some rig."

The race headquarters warned other boats to check all rigging and dropped its plans to extend the Rio to Wellington leg that would have deliberately delayed the arrival of the fleet in New Zealand to ensure that reception plans went smoothly.

Increasing hardships mean the battered fleet taking part in the BT Global Challenge is closing on its Wellington destination with a huge sense of relief today, after the southern ocean lived up to its fearsome reputation on this gruelling 7,000-mile leg of the round-the-world yacht race.

Plotting the course of the 14 boats on the stark white navigational chart that represents the Southern Ocean has been like watching snails competing to reach a cabbage leaf.

Two boats, Concert and Time and Tide were forced to divert to the Chatham Islands, 400 miles closer to the fleet than New Zealand. Concert lost the top of its mast and Time and Tide had an injured crew member.

The rigging problems suffered by about half the fleets, most seriously by Concert, emerged first on 3Com when we lost our forestay in mid-ocean.

At a first inspection our position in the race appeared hopeless. The damage seemed irreparable. We were racing on a sail and a prayer. The best we could hope for was to limp back with a makeshift rig and reduced sail well behind the rest of the fleet. The worst, we preferred to leave to our private thoughts.

The forestay acts like a guy rope on a tent. It is crucial to the structure. Challenge boats have suffered two dismastings in the past. The First happened to the yacht, British Steel II, at about the same stage of this leg in the 1992 race. The second occurred in the English Channel during a training sail.

Ingenious and hair-raising repairs were required and incredibly, within 36 hours of near disaster, 3Com was once more in the race, albeit well back in the field.

Our crisis became a cause for celebration across the fleet when the extended course - a universally unpopular addition - was abandoned for fear of further forestay problems.

The rejoicing did not last, however. The fleet was about to encounter its first full-blooded southern ocean storm. Soon, more yachts were reporting strands breaking on their rigging: the forestay collapsed on.

Motorola; Heath Insured II was forced to strip down its sails when a crucial piece of side rigging failed; and Concert lost the top of its mast entirely. Hardly a watch went by before more problems were emerging.

Tomkinson said: "We have two options - putting everything up and waiting for it to fall down or to sail reasonably conservatively. In race terms it has become a matter of getting there, more than anything else."

The same storm led to a call for assistance from the yacht Time and Tide which is crewed by disabled people. One of them had been badly injured. It was an anxious time for the crews who have all drawn inspiration from the presence of Time and Tide nearby.

Tomkinson did not hesitate to alter 3Com's course to undertake a mercy mission. Extra pain killers were needed urgently for Brendan West, a leg amputee who had injured his one good leg in a deck accident.

I met West in Rio, where we were both joining our yachts for the first time. I was pushing a cart loaded with sails and feeling sorry for myself because I had twisted my ankle a few days previously. He came alongside me to help push.

We were told that West was in great pain from the injury which had inverted his good leg at the knee. His boat needed all the pain killers we could spare for its trip to the Chatham Islands, 2,000 miles away.

The rendezvous and transfer went without a hitch. It was an emotional meeting for both crews, a reminder that neither they nor we were alone in this unforgiving ocean and that humanity can have its moments.

Christmas was a muted occasion without the usual festive trappings to stir the seasonal spirit. Our world is a boat a crew and, usually, a friendly albatross gliding by within a vast and fickle ocean. We had boil-in-a-bag dumplings with Christmas pudding, a cake and some crackers, accompanied by carols from the helm.

On-board entertainment is limited but the solitude has led to a flowering of interest in poetry. Popular recitals include Rudyard Kipling's "If" and W.H. Davies's poem "Leisure", which begins "What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare".

We look forward to the New Year with the same mixed feelings that greeted Christmas. "It's hard to get excited about the New Year, because in a way my year started in September when we began this race and will end when we finish in July," said Philippe Falle, a photographer and 3Com crew member.

The rigours of the past few weeks have sapped our will for celebration. We dared to enter the weather's lair and it did not treat us kindly.

The hours grind by slowly as if someone has applied a brake-handle to the cogs of time. The passing of a year seems meaningless when time itself has become intangible. We want to feel land under our feet again.

Christmas at sea strengthened the feeling of isolation, the physical and emotional distance from our families. It was a time for introspections to scan the featureless sea in a search that borders on the spiritual. The enormity of the ocean challenges the most committed non-believer.

© Financial Times

   
©2006 Richard Donkin - all rights reserved