BT Global Challenge - The Southern Ocean
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
"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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
© Financial Times