When asked about what I wanted out of the Clipper Race, one of my responses was to be pushed to my absolute limit. I couldn't think of anything scarier than being in the Southern Ocean, in pitch black, with monster waves, on a 70ft racing yacht, tired, cold, and hungry with a bunch of strangers which I am entrusting my life with. Well, all of that came true.
This leg for me has been one of the hardest challenges of my life. The first couple of days were very nice sailing then, boom; a 70 knot storm hit us with full force. The waves picked up to an incredible size that you simply can't describe or show on a camera, as the equipment can't pick up the resolution of them. It is such an awesome sight to behold, the sheer power of Mother Nature in full force.
I've read these words before of other peoples experiences and many people reading this will have done too, but trust me, reading it and thinking in your mind as to what it could be like, then actually being out here are two very different things.
I think there wasn't a single person on board that wasn't scared in any of the storms. You would awake from your off watch, get kitted up and stand in a line at the bottom of the companion way. Like soldiers ready to go over the top, no one wanted to go up, but you had to. On team, one dream!
Everyone had to battle with their demons in their minds just to get up on deck, then the helmers would have go for another battle in their minds to take their turns to get up on the wheel.
As one of the helmers on board, I had the responsibility to the crew to take my turn on the wheel and guide the yacht among the waves safely and quickly, as we are racing of course. The problem is, when you hunker down in the cockpit you only see the waves passing by, and although very scary you don't get the full picture. It's only when you get behind the wheel and see the landscape in front of you do you realise the full extent of it all.
In my job I drive for a living. I have no issues taking a vehicle up to and beyond its limits, sliding, setting hot laps on race tracks etc. No issues at all. What I do not like is driving off road. You are never fully in control of the vehicle as if you hit a patch of mud or clay, you can make a correction, but until the tyres find grip, you're a passenger.
Helming downwind in these monster seas is just like this. You are never fully in control, the waves have so much power they take you where they want you to go and you can only hope your steering input aids a safe passage. Now add a pitch black night where you can't see the waves coming to move you, and you may have an idea of why I absolutely hated every minute of helming in the storms.
The other item that pushed me to the limit was the incident with Jim. Jim and I are both "Round the Worlders" and are becoming closer as the days go by. We were sat next to each other one day, singing "Magic Moments" and discussing what desert would be best to eat right now, then the wave hit. You can see the video on YouTube. Jim went flying, I don't remember a lot, but I do remember Jim lying next to me, turning blue, not breathing or responding to me. He came round and everything is fine now, but it’s a moment I never want to happen again.
The shock of this took my stress levels over the edge and I'm not ashamed to say, I cried like a little girl all of my off watch in my bunk. You have so many thoughts running through your mind, everything is hard, and then to have the image of Jim was just too much. All the stress, fear, emotions came out. Probably because you are exhausted, both physically and mentally, I just needed to release.
Then, on day 15, just as I was on the helm in another massive storm, hail and rain stinging my eyes with 40 knots of wind blowing straight in my face, I lost it, swear words were shouted, I wanted off the boat, I wanted off the ocean, I wanted out of the race and I wanted the skipper on deck to see for himself what he had put us in and why I wasn't steering 100 COG.
I came down below and decided in my mind I was quitting. I was done. However on this watch there was only me and Mark Heywood helming, so for me to drop out it would have meant Mark taking the wheel for over 4 hours, which was impossible in these conditions. So another battle with the demons. Get up there, get it done, get to Albany, and get off the boat. Back up onto the wheel and then from nowhere the wind dropped, the blue sky came out and we have had days of the most amazing sailing ever since.
In my mind that moment was my test. The pushed-to-the-absolute-limit I was after.
I had gone to the limit and I chose to go on for my crew and was rewarded by the storm ending. I've gone through everything this leg, shear fear, enjoyment, sadness, pain you name it, it's happened - and it's not over yet.
So, 5-6 days to go to Albany, hopefully the nice weather holds and we get a podium for the pain we have all been through. I'd say we deserve it, but hearing the stories of the other boats and what they went through make me kind of think every boat in the fleet deserves it. Why have more people climbed Everest than sailed around the world? Because it's so hard. Will I quit, no way, I'm going round the world no matter what.
On a lighter note, a challenge in a challenge that I'm attempting to do 100 push ups non-stop by the time I got off the boat in London. I'm up to 50 at present, but doing push ups in these sea's was a bit of a pain and could only manage 40.
Hopefully when we stop heeling at 30 degrees like now, I can get on and get back up to 50 or more. See picture for proof!