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.

PUMA

PUMA

Amory Ross/PUMA Ocean Racing

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 of New Zealand’s North Island pressed against a high to the south and kept compressing. 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 at one point. The front came through with anger. 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 small 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.

Relentless.

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.

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 couple days after Thomas returned to his watch schedule Jono Swain smacked his elbow, which became seriously 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.” And there were times when 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 and seamanlike 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 celebratory cigars and rum were out and ready, the entire crew was on deck. As luck would have it, conditions cleared, and for the first time in nearly 2 weeks the wind dropped below 20 knots. We passed 3 miles away from the fabled rock, which is beaten, angry, and just plain nasty. It’s jagged and covered with more vegetation than I would’ve imagined. 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.