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
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