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1996, BT Global Challenge - Cape Horn

Cape Horn

It was a difficult call. A pressure pump in the water-maker had broken. We were 30 days out of New Zealand, yet to round Cape Horn, and there were no spares.

Consultations with the pump makers and the BT Global Challenge headquarters left David Tomkinson, the skipper of the yacht 3Com, with the problem of whether to ration supplies from the four water tanks, each holding 100 gallons, or whether to make for Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands and await a spare.

Loss of the water-maker was the final disappointment after a series of mishaps had frustrated our attempts to join those contending for the lead. An apparently slow start left us with every chance of closing with the leaders since 3Com had deliberately steered a true course instead of sailing westwards, a tactic employed by many others.

As we converged, nearing the tip of South America, we found ourselves fighting with three boats for a possible fifth place but fell back when we lost our final usable spinnaker.

Spinnakers are giant triangular light-weight sails flown in front of yachts to make them go faster in light breezes. They billow out like bed sheets in the wash.

The first one blew out in an electrical storm last week. The final spinnaker was a fine looking sail, complete with its promotional logo. We cosseted it and fretted over every rise in the wind.

In the end it was the hail that did for it - great nuts of ice like flattened golf balls. They bounced off the steel hull like peas on a drum and weakened the spinnaker until it ripped apart.

The seam of a spinnaker sail is about 75ft long. Several of ours have split along their entire seams. The stitching has begun. It is laborious, and working under the forehatch in pitching seas can easily induce nausea. My seasickness returned.

The crew of 3Com have each paid more than £18,000 for the privilege of a life worse than prison, the most important difference being that prison does not rock from side to side continuously.

Another day, another watch. The monotony on deck is broken by the appearance of two fully-grown fin whales alongside the boat. They cross our bows and swim with us for about half an hour before diving into the deep. There can be few more majestic sights. Suddenly prison seems no more than a memory. Sailing with whales is freedom defined.

The pump on the water-maker is dismantled and a jelly fish is discovered lodged in the filter. Once removed, the water-maker is working but it breaks down again in the evening with an unrelated fault. Washing is out from now on. Tomkinson said: "It is a difficult decision but I think we shall continue with rationed water.

"At least in that case we will be near the rest of the fleet in an emergency. We would probably be held up a week in Port Stanley."

It is a sobering moment. We have just sailed through a force eight gale and are in sight of land for the first time in two weeks, with worse to come. With barometer and thermometer falling and isobars closing together as we reach the southern latitudes, everyone is growing anxious about the approach of Cape Horn .

Yet when it came, Cape Horn was something of an anti-climax. Unlike reaching the summit of a mountain, the passing is noted only by sailing over 67 deg 17 minutes longitude, the north-south axis of the promontory.

I could write of a rocky wasteland and of waves as big as houses, as indeed they are, but the moment itself was quite different.

The truth is recorded in my diary: "Well we did reach the horn and we have passed it. I have rounded Cape Horn . Not many people can say that. It was dark at the time and I was asleep, not that there was anything to see.

"We are about 20 miles south of it. Some celebrated with a tot of whisky. I did not. You don't feel like celebrating much when you have been awoken at 2am and find your four-hour watch has been extended to five because of a time adjustment and you have to put two reefs in the mainsail in a force eight gale and freezing rain."

Somewhere out in the gloom was Cape Horn Island and a small unit of soldiers enduring what must be the worst posting in the Chilean army. We would have gladly swapped them our berths.

Now, we have turned the corner of a continent with 4,000 miles of cold, grey ocean waste before us.

© Financial Times

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