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.
It’s impossible to be in the Southern Ocean and not respect its power and its beauty: the massive Albatross gliding like a small plane atop the windswept and towering swells that wrap around the planet. Storms grow, accelerate, and hunt you down like a schoolyard bully.
Each four-hour watch tested our attention. The confused waves were especially challenging and caught us off guard on many occasions. Eight times aboard mar mostro the helmsman was swept off the wheel by a wave breaking over the side of the boat. The rest of the on-deck crew, knocked down like bowling pins, scrambled clumsily to get to the unmanned wheel before the boat could lurch into a jibe. With the keel, all the sails, all the gear, and all the crew all on the high side, this is the last thing you want to happen, and if it does, you’re down for the count. It’s not cool.
A few days after Thomas returned to his watch Jono Swain smacked his elbow, which became infected and unusable. One helmsman back and another goes down. This made for long days for me, doing my normal job as well as stepping in for our injured drivers.
The three days before we reached Cape Horn took forever. Sanya (retired with a broken rudder), Abu Dhabi (broken bulkhead then delaminated hull, later retired), Camper (broken frames in the bow) and Telefonica (delaminated hull in the bow) were all struggling. At one point our team and Groupama were the only teams still “racing.” There were times we both backed off to keep the boat and people intact. We got good at sailing in 40-plus knots. We saw 50 on the anemometer on occasion. We were being as safe as we could, but sometimes the boat would take off, and we just couldn’t slow it down. Our top speed was 37 knots, a speed we try to avoid.
As we approached Cape Horn the cigars and rum were out and ready, the entire crew was on deck. Conditions cleared and for the first time in nearly two weeks the wind dropped below 20 knots. We passed 3 miles away from the fabled rock, which is jagged, beaten, angry, and just plain nasty. It was a surreal and defining moment in each of our lives. With it came a feeling of ease and relief: “We made it.”
This race is about extremes, and we experienced plenty of them: 50 knots of wind in 42-degree water and air temperatures just above freezing, hanging on for dear life, worrying about the guys on deck. But we survived all the Southern Ocean could throw at us.
Groupama and PUMA Ocean Racing were the only two teams to make it around the Horn without having to stop for repairs. But the bizarre leg continued when Groupama dismasted 600 miles from the finish, and Telefonica rode a weather system to close up 400 miles and nearly nip us at the finish. But the “good guys” prevailed and stepped ashore to an overwhelming celebration. Happy to get the win and have the leg behind us would be the understatement of my career. There are few experiences in my life that I would call a “defining moment,” but this was and forever will be, one of them. I’ll never enjoy a cigar and a nip of rum in the same way, but it will always stir memories of those relentless 19 days.