Freeway to Memory Lane
Freeway to Memory Lane
A second visit to sailing’s most demanding racecourse serves as a reminder that to be there is one thing, to return unscathed is another. "Gaining Bearing" from our June 2012 issue.
I’m not the first to cross the vast and isolated runway known as the Southern Ocean, and there are many tales far more harrowing than mine. Racer, voyager, explorer, each before me has his or her own Southern Ocean tale, but all accounts bear the same truth: the place is cold, wet, gray, nasty, and unforgiving. And let me add, “relentless.”
This leg of the Volvo Ocean Race has always been the most intimidating. It’s also been the most alluring. When you’re in the heart of the Southern Ocean you’re officially as far away from land as anywhere on Earth, and while it’s awesome to be there, all you want to do is get out. As extreme as this passage may be, it’s even more so in April.
A short stopover in New Zealand only gave us a few days to recoup from our grueling leg from China. The boats were beat up, the crews could have used another week to recover, and given the forecast, the odds were stacking up against us that it would be damaging. A forecast for the first 24 hours of a leg is typically very accurate, but from there on out, it’s usually much less so. When you get to Day 10 all bets are off. This time, however, that wasn’t the case. Our team meteorologist, Chris Bedford, who briefs us four days before the start, had a different tone to his voice. The forecast wasn’t changing during that four-day build up, and his message—loud and clear—was to prepare to get our butts kicked. “Really fast and really windy,” he kept saying.
It was that way right out of the blocks. A low-pressure system to the north compressed against a high to the south. To get around the high we had to go north, straight into the low and 40-plus knots of wind—on the nose. First night out. It was a Volvo sailor’s nightmare.
During the first storm we got down to a double reef and a storm jib. We were right up in the front pack, and if it hadn’t been for a 20-minute stop to fix the leech-line attachment near the head of the sail, we would have been right up front. The boat had made it through the first storm problem-free, but the crew did not (see “Men Down,” SW May 2012). Casey Smith hurt his back and newcomer Thomas Johansson dislocated his shoulder. Only 30 hours in we’d lost one-fifth of our crew, and we hadn’t even gotten to the hard part yet.
As Bedford suggested, we used the low to the north to latch onto the massive low to the south. This second low was so massive we could ride it from New Zealand all the way to Cape Horn. It packed big breeze but was moving slowly enough for us to stay with it. In fact, we were sailing faster than it the entire time, and sailed into and around its center, as we left our mandatory “ice gates” to starboard. There was no way out, and day after day it was wet, cold, windy.
The dress code for a watch was six layers on our upper body, three layers on our lower body, two hats, a hood, 5-millimeter neoprene gloves, and two layers of socks inside our boots. Some traded their heavy foul weather gear for a survival suit.