The great south
From the outside, looking at the boats leaving the pontoon in Auckland was very similar to every leg start. From the inside it was a slightly different one. Everyone knew this was the big leg, the longest, toughest and coldest which made it harder to say goodbye and there were definitely more nerves around the place. The leg started in spectacular fashion with a huge turnout of spectator boats on the harbour with a great breeze and a tough upwin
d night, which lay ahead of us and that was just for starters!
Once we rounded the last bit of land we would see until Cape Horn we headed south very quickly. We had a few, high wind, high speed sail changes to do. We slow the boat down for these manoeuvres but they are the hardest for the bow team and the driver to try and keep the boat safe. I was on the bow connecting a sail when I felt myself lift into the air as the boat just dropped out of nowhere into a wave. I was clipped on but I wrapped my arm around the forestay just as I was lifted like a rag doll into the air, the wall of water passed and I was dropped back onto the deck and immediately I felt a searing pain in my left bicep. F#$k it, was the only thing in my mind as we were two days into a Southern Ocean leg and I knew an injury would be hard to manage.
Adrenaline carried me through the pain until the end of the manoeuvre, upon checking the damage the force of the water pulling me against the forestay had torn my bicep. At the time it really knocked my confidence as it was the first injury I had had the entire project and if I got hit by another wave I knew I couldn’t hold my weight with that arm. I strapped it up best I could, hit the pain killers and pushed through the pain. It was a bit of a strech during the leg as at some point everyone had some sort of injury from the constant battering of water that the galley ended up full of painkillers. Wake up, get dressed, grab some food, pain killers then on with your watch.
Pascal gave me an update on the forecast as we were heading south, he just said “10 days – 30 + knots all the time.” I sort of laughed as I couldn’t believe it but as the first low pressure approached that set the scene for the next 5,000 miles of racing. High speed downwind sailing with the whole fleet trying to thread the fine line between safety and performance. It was high stress, freezing cold racing, everything the Southern Ocean’s reputation promises. Charles stuck his head out the hatch on one of the watches and said he had some bad news. Normally when he says that it’s because we need to do 50 gybes or change a sail or something hard but this time he said that Scallywag had a man overboard six hours ago.
The news hit me like a bolt of lightning. It hit so close to the heart, like it was me or one of the crew on our boat who had fallen overboard. I remember it was such a surreal moment, I was driving a 65-foot skiff downwind in 35 knots, huge waves, freezing water, my hands and feet were frozen and the nearest land was Antarctica and I was just there crying my eyes out. I couldn’t stop, it just broke me. The boat seemed to almost be driving itself. I was taken away with the news and I struggled to work out why and how we can carry on. I can’t imagine how it was on Scallywag and all my thoughts are with the friends and family of John.
The repetitive, relentless, brutal sailing days in the South continued. Three low pressure systems passed over us before rounding Cape Horn and each one held its own different difficulties. The first was just insane and high-speed surfing waves. At the top of each one you didn’t really want to go down them as the boat left off the mark barreling down the face banging and crashing all the way. The second pressure system held the most breeze with a night of 50 knots. We barely had any sail up on that mental windy pitch-black night, but the boat was still as fast down the waves. I remember looking back at Daryl in the morning and saying it’s funny when 35 knots feels like a light breeze. The third pressure system was all about the cold, in each rain squall it snowed and filled the cockpit with hail stones and an icy breeze. One thing was sure as we approached Cape Horn, everyone was ready to get out of this place.
The last drive I did before rounding the Horn was one I will never forget. I got on the helm just as the sun was coming up, the wind speed was 40-50 knots and the sea looked insane, completely white with smoke spray blowing off the top of every crest and waves that were just incredibly long. The boat was magic, feeling airborne most of the time but somehow quite in control despite the insane conditions. Just before my time ended the boat started off down a wave and nearing the end we went straight into another one, ending the run at 35 knots of boat speed. I got off the helm thinking that is something not many people will ever get to experience.
A few hours later we rounded Cape Horn. It was a very welcome sight after all we had been through. Everyone came on deck and we had a moment all together to admire what we had just done and despite the south being over, reality then kicked in that we still had a long way to go. Another few days of difficult reaching conditions and a super tight battle with Brunel all the way to the finish line in Itajaí, it was a real fight. The first beer after being safely back on land has never tasted so good but my head was still lost in all that had happened over the leg for a long time after the finish.
We still have a long way to go in this race but it feels a lot closer now we are back in the Atlantic.
Next stop Newport!