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Donkin on Sailing

Sevenstar Round Britain and Ireland Race – August 7- 21 2006

Three reports submitted from Puma Logic with the addition of a postscript

Report One

Passing Skellig Michael, a jagged rock on the south west tip of Ireland, you have to admire the way a handful of monks preserved the traditions of Christianity cut off from the Holy Roman Empire for nigh on 300 years.

No more than a dozen monks lived on the rock in beehive dwellings atop a winding stone staircase they built by hand. The sight of visiting ships must have stirred feelings of hope and anxiety – hope of some trade with the East and fear of the Vikings from the north.

Today it is a forbidding obstacle for the 27 competing yachts in the Round Britain and Ireland Race that started on Monday. A few of us among the crew of Puma Logic can identify with those monks even to the point of envy.

I would happily swap my berth with the drafty, dark but level space of those beehive huts. Each monk had his own space for prayer and contemplation. There was peace and quiet. Here, as I write, there is a body on the stairs, two by the cooker and the sink, two donning foul weather gear, two up top driving and skipper Philippe Falle in the heads taking advantage of the starboard tack. In 10 minutes we tack to port where, because of the positioning of the waste outlet, the pump doesn’t work. You have to think about these things.

But in the haste to pack we didn’t think about the 36 toilet rolls abandoned in the store room. So we are rationed to one sheet a day, supplemented by baby wipes and kitchen roll. If only all our problems were so minor – like the bucket lost overboard on the way to the start line. Even the loss of a winch shortly after the start was something we could live with, but we can’t afford to lose another.

Far more demoralising was losing our first mate, Sara Stanton, to sickness. Sara had been struck down by food poisoning on the day of the race. After taking medical advice, in the hope it was no more than a 24-hour bug, the skipper decided to include her.

Instead her condition deteriorated leaving no choice but to head for Penzance Bay where Sara was transferred to the Penlee lifeboat. ‘I think I made the right decision to take her. She had worked so hard for this race. I also think it was the right decision to have her taken off. It was heartbreaking to see her go. She’s the best first mate I’ve ever sailed with and it’s a big loss to the crew,’ said Philippe.

We hear a day later that Sara’s condition has stabilised in hospital. In terms of the race, the detour cost Puma Logic three hours when the team had been gaining on class leader, Magnum.

More time was lost crossing the Irish Sea when the steering cable snapped in heavy seas, forcing us to deploy the emergency tiller while the cable was repaired. The lead slipped further away from us when Magnum managed to squeeze past Skellig Rock without a tack allowing her to race away when we had clawed back some miles.

There is still plenty of time and as the wind has settled to a steady15 knots we continue to edge north up the west coast. Conditions on board are just about tolerable but half the crew has suffered from seasickness.

The worst part is the sheer discomfort of living on a racing yacht, shifting between bunks within the stripped down interior. Making meals and keeping the interior clean is literally an uphill task on a 30 degree incline bouncing on every wave. Someone – no names - thought it would be a good idea to replace our bog standard mugs with those lidded insulated beakers you can buy at service stations. This was a bad idea. A high centre of gravity means they fall over constantly and the lids are a waste of time. They might work in people carriers for a day at the races, but not out here.

Then there’s the muck and water everywhere. It’s no joke when you wake up to find your sleeping bag has drifted into the bilges or when a wave hits you on the high side just as you are about to bite into your Marmite sandwich. I have sailed in a BT Challenge yacht in the southern ocean and that was comfort personified compared to this machine.

Relatively small irritations are magnified when there is little respite from the weather – and this isn’t the usual kind of August. No balmy days here but a steady 15 knots of wind. The upside to this is fewer sail changes that would have accompanied more variable weather. Another benefit is that we seem to be on a steady beat with the promise of a fast downwind section to come after turning the corner in the Shetlands.

For light relief and a sense of perspective I have brought with me a copy of Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey In The World. There’s not much time for reading, but if the baby wipes run out it’s a handy 600 pages long.

Richard Donkin, Puma Logic, Friday, August 11

Report two

Muckle Flugga at the northernmost tip of the British Isles is one of those places you learn about in school, then push to the back of your mind for the occasional recollection in a pub quiz. For the past few days among the crew of Puma Logic it has been the very centre of our universe.

It’s the turning point, the corner, the pinnacle of our northerly beat through almost unrelenting winds at a time of year we ought to be sunbathing. Instead most of our sun cream is still packed away in the darkest reaches of the hold where sloshing bilge water penetrates all but the most tightly sealed container.

In all the buffeting we have taken, sea water has penetrated the food bags, destroying some of our meals and forcing a stock take this afternoon. We have enough but the menu will need adjusting.

The watches have been adjusted too, playing to strengths and weaknesses. Just now, with two crew nursing injuries – although nothing broken – we are talking about more of the latter.

In the circumstances morale remains remarkably high. But the way to get through these endurance events is to take your sleep when you can, eat when you can and always save one hand for the boat.

Just now, chasing second place in our class, we are pushing the boat hard. Philippe Falle, our skipper, is quite the Captain Bligh at times, demanding ever faster sail changes and boat speeds. We trim the sails constantly through the night. Downtime? There is no downtime.

It’s like that old song, ‘three wheels on my wagon, and I’m still rollin’ along’, except the Cherokees are in front and behind.

How long this can be sustained is anybody’s guess. The yacht itself has held together well since our steering breakage a week ago, achieving impressive speeds But can the crew hold together?

People are not machines, even when asked to work like one. We are still feeling the loss of our first mate, Sara Stanton, to salmonella – the good news is that she is out of hospital and recovering at home. I wish I was recovering at home too and would gladly swap beds. In the same way I know she would rather be here.

Isn’t life cruel? The one who would rather be sailing, and whose skills we miss so much, cannot be with us. While the one who would rather be fishing – that’s me - whose skills would hardly be missed at all, is feeling really quite well.

I’m cast as the fly in the ointment on this boat, Philippe’s very own Fletcher Christian. All the pumped-up motivational stuff leaves me cold and probably makes some believe I couldn’t care less how we finish this race. But I do care.

Before we started we spent time working on a list of team values – a set of principles that would govern our behaviour on the boat. Among them are words such as ‘respect for the sea’, ‘positivity’, ‘sensitivity’ and ‘enjoyment’. There’s also ‘harmony’.

At times I will admit that I have struggled to embrace every one of these values and I doubt if I’m alone in that. But I think that all of us keep the first one at heart. As far as we finish safely and as friends, I’ll be happy.

Wherever you may be reading these lines it might be tempting to believe they have been knocked off in a few idle moments. In fact, between sentences I’m passing up buckets of dirty bilge water on deck. My bunk is occupied by an injured crew mate and it is time to make lunch.

A word here about bunks and lunch: we ‘hot bunk’ on board, taking whatever is available; but most of us seem to have our favourite spot. Mine is a kind of ‘nest’ on the high side using a spare mattress shaped against the sail cloth. Get the nest right and sleep is assured.

Lunch today is fresh-baked bread and soup. There is the immaculate conception and there is fresh-baked bed in 20 knots of wind. We have made the bread so that, at least, is something in which we can believe.

So on to Muckle Flugga it has another, unrepeatable nickname here on board Puma. Just above the point on the chart, in big purple letters, it says: Area To Be Avoided. Can’t anyone read?

Richard Donkin, Puma Logic, Tuesday, August 15

Report three - Final days

Approaching the later stages of the race, morale has risen with the barometer as lighter winds provide the opportunity for some on board repairs and the chance to dry out our personal items.

Kate Hope, who has worked through seasickness to stay on watch, tempts providence slightly when she observes, that ‘not a lot has gone wrong for a while’. Barely has she finished speaking when Philippe discovers that the heads have broken down.

The black bucket becomes the new receptacle of choice, although some have experimented with ‘going over the side’, not as unpleasant as it seems in a light sea breeze.

What a difference a change in the weather makes. Everyone is cheery, people are helping each other and the grumbling that surfaces through tiredness in bad weather subsides with the calming waves.

But heavier weather returns and the constant beating without sight of land is wearing on the nerves. The work can be physically demanding too. Yesterday both watches must have performed a dozen sail changes between them, sometimes to achieve no more than an extra knot of boat speed in half an hour.

These small margins, however, make a big difference over hundreds of miles. For the best part of the race – since St. Catherine’s Point, on the Isle of Wight, in fact – Puma has been chasing down Mostly Harmless and today in the North Sea, as we approached the Norfolk coast, we nudged in to second place. We can see the grey cone of her sails off our port beam.

The strategy now will be to cover her every tack in the remaining beat around East Anglia and into the English Channel where we hear that class leader Magnum has encountered light airs. We know that Magnum has sailed too solid a race to slip up at this stage with her 90-mile buffer. But we’d like to narrow the gap. All the crews know that a race like this isn’t over until it’s over.

The weather conditions have turned this Round Britain and Ireland Race into an epic, with some closely fought duels. Most of us, I think now are ready for the end.

Richard Donkin, Puma Logic, Saturday August 19


Our race ended quietly in the early hours of the Monday morning after experiencing high winds in the channel that forced a hoisting of our storm trisail in place of the mainsail.

The crew and skipper had given so much to the point of exhaustion that everyone was drained by the time we reached the pontoon in Cowes. The champagne was uncorked, naturally, but there was little feeling of triumph, particularly since a race official had informed us of a protest (later withdrawn) that could have cost us our position.

It had been noted that the class leader, Magnum and ourselves (with quite a few other boats) had mistakenly sailed inside the Eddytsone Rock when it should have been left to starboard. There had been little or no advantage in doing so but some argued that it was a technical infringement of the rules. Had the protest been maintained it may have come down to a ruling on whether the Eddystone is an outlying rock or not since its surface would be covered at high tide. You could say, at the time, that we felt we had been caught between a rock and a hard place.

Make no mistake, the seas around Britain and Ireland proved the hardest place for the competing crews, particularly those on the smaller yachts where the pounding of the waves is amplified when beating perpetually into the wind. Nothing would tempt me to repeat the experience.

For me, at least, any future sailing is for sunny days and light winds ideally with a pub rather than some race finish line as a goal. I’m proud of what we achieved. As Philippe said afterwards, this crew, which was far less experienced than many of those it bettered, should not have been capable of a podium position. Much of the credit for that should go to Philippe and his will to succeed. But those who sailed with him signed up to the same challenge and sustained their commitment to the end.

Could we have won? It would have been interesting to see how we would have faired had Magnum not stolen a march on us around Skellig Michael which enabled them to build a big lead. In practice I believe they would still have beaten us. Magnum are a class act with a fine skipper and a crew drilled from years of sailing and competing. They were worthy winners. But I think we could have run them a close second and with that kind of pressure, who knows what could have happened?

It is a testament to the character of the Puma Logic crew that down to the last day we had Magnum on our minds. Not until they crossed the line were we willing to settle for second place. In short I believe Philippe instilled in to all of us a winning mentality and a belief in ourselves that outstripped any realistic appraisal that might have been made by an outsider. He did it before with his Commodore’s Cup team that outperformed the expectations of the RORC selectors.

The choice of the selectors to overlook the team in favour of a less successful crew looked misguided at the time. Puma Logic’s continued success only emphasises that impression. In fact it would be true to say that proving the RORC selectors wrong was no small factor in our determination to excel. A much bigger factor, however, was working for each other.

Not everyone – I include myself here – performed selflessly all of the time. But some did to an exceptional degree. Brian Phillips, the granddaddy of our crew, never missed a watch; Mark Humphreys, a talented sail racer in his own right, was always there for helming, sail changes, cooking, cleaning or any other of the thankless tasks on a boat.

But if anyone, of all the crew deserves a halo, it is Mark Taylor, one of the watch leaders. There were many watches when Mark worked on long after the rest of us had scuttled to our bunks. I never heard him complain, not once, nor did he say a bad word about anyone. Mark’s contribution was an example of team-working at its best.

In a bout of soul-searching, once the dust had settled, Philippe said he felt his leadership had been wanting at times. If so, there is much he could say in mitigation. The loss of Sara, our experienced mate, had been a big blow, most keenly felt by the skipper.

He confessed that when our steering went he had been ready to “throw in the towel”. I don’t believe that for a minute. If a towel was all we had left he would have hoisted it as a spinnaker. None of us, least of all Philippe, would have given in lightly.

I’ve known him many years and recognise his imperfections as much as he recognises mine. If a friend is someone you would trust to have with you in a crisis I can’t think of anyone better.

It’s hard to appreciate such things at the time, but sharing adversity is a powerful experience for any group of individuals. There’s no hiding place on a small boat, neither physically, nor emotionally. Sometimes the only outlet is the work itself. Better to scream at the sea than each other. You can do that on the foredeck. It brought out levels of aggression, levels of satisfaction too, that I would not have known existed.

“It must have been brilliant,” said a work friend afterwards. No it wasn’t. Words such as “enjoyment” cannot convey such experiences that make a far deeper impression on the character.

So why do we do these things? Motivation is a complex issue. I think for some of us there may have been a point to prove, if only to ourselves. That man Apsley Cherry-Garrard described exploration – and endurance events like one are close bedfellows – as “the physical expression of an intellectual passion”.

A lot of it, I believe, comes down to extending self-knowledge. Cherry-Garrard said this: “Some will tell you that you are mad, and nearly all will say, “What’s the use? For we are a nation of shopkeepers……and so you will sledge nearly alone, but those with whom you sledge will not be shopkeepers: that is worth a good deal.” The same goes for those with whom you sail. It’s worth a good deal.

©2006 Richard Donkin - all rights reserved