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Donkin on Travel

1996, BT Global Challenge - Beyond Cape Horn

The Eskimos, it is said, have scores of words to describe the nature of snow. If they, or indeed anyone, lived in the southern ocean they might have an equally extensive lexicon for the description of waves.

It is only when you live on the sea, day after day, that you realise waves have many different characters. There are large gentle waves over which a boat can slide smoothly. There are waves that break alongside a boat, dowsing those on deck, and there are small, deceptive waves hiding hollows in their wake. When the boat falls into one of these holes it feels as if Neptune is taking a sledgehammer to the hull. The hammer has been pummelling the hull of the yacht 3Com for the past seven days with little respite.

The satisfaction of rounding Cape Horn can only be savoured later. The immediate struggle has been to maintain some semblance of a working routine in deteriorating conditions. The loss of the water maker which desalinates salt water was perhaps the most severe setback.

There have been other breakdowns. The bilge pump failed, allowing water to soak into those cabins which happened to be at the wrong side of the tack, the exhaust pipe fell off the generator, filling cabins with fumes, and air needed bleeding from the engine fuel system. The heating system broke down and at one stage the generator packed up completely.

The problems have combined to undermine our spirits. There is no joy in realising that your body wreaks of stale sweat and urine as you climb from your bunk. A passage from my diary reads: "no water to wash with, water sloshing in the cabin, cold feet, cold hands, damp clothing. The fetid smell of body and clothes, greasy hair, reconstituted food and the incessant wind and rocking of the boat combine to make the daily routine barely tolerable, living constantly at an angle of 45 degrees. There are probably worse conditions in which to live but I can't imagine them."

Conversations have become laced with tetchiness. When waking a crewmate I was accused of prodding him and of entering his cabin five minutes early. It is particularly difficult for a temporary crew member joining a tightly knit crew on a single leg of a round-the-world race. Relationships are tested in an atmosphere where lifejackets inflate spontaneously, where a head poked out of the cockpit can result in a thorough drenching and where plates and knives fly across the galley as if propelled by some paranormal force. The automatic function of the lifejackets, which inflates them in contact with water, has now been deactivated to preserve gas. A limited flow is restored to the water-maker but it does not last long enough to lift the rationing.

Days of adverse weather are wearing on the psyche. We have reached the doldrums of the mind. Cape Horn was a physical goal. Beyond the Cape is a desolate sea intent on imposing its strength on our passage. Our destination, Wellington, is almost too distant to contemplate.

There are few hours of darkness so night runs into day in a relentless cycle of watches unbroken by weekends. The cold and the damp are unremitting. The view from the deck is grey skies and an even greyer windswept sea. When, occasionally, the sun does break through it is enough to get people up top to remind themselves there is a world beyond the clouds.

This crew, it should be said, is reputed to be one of the happiest in the BT Global Challenge fleet. One can only imagine the tensions elsewhere. Chay Blyth, the organiser, describes this as the most arduous leg of the toughest yacht race in the world and few here would argue with him.

The voyage has led to the most vivid of dreams. The other night I dreamed that a luxury liner came alongside the yacht and invited everyone on board for a couple of hours. We bathed and changed into fresh clothes, ate and drank. But as the hours closed, anxieties rose. We had to get back to the yacht.

Beyond these emotions, 3Com continues her dogged progress. "She's a tough old boat," said Kieron O'Connell, the mate. She has made this voyage before. The wear and tear on ropes, sails and pulleys, however, is becoming apparent, requiring constant attention to maintenance. The physical and mental demands on the crew are equally visible.

Ocean racing is a war of attrition. The race organisers have placed two imaginary points on the map, called waypoints, which boats must negotiate on their passage. The first one is designed to keep us out of the iceberg fields in the most southerly latitudes.

But the second, which we have just had confirmed, is designed to add on 800 miles to our journey to delay our passage deliberately so that sponsors and officials can be ready with their receptions. It has not been well received by crew members. Some have compared it to staff officers arranging a military distraction to ensure the success of the big push. "I reckon it will take us up to another six days. That means three more double night watches," said Mark Ward, one of the 3Com crew. If only we could be as philosophical as Robert Frost, the poet, who wrote: "But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep."

© Financial Times

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