I've been lucky enough to participate in a number of off-shore races and there are some watches on board that define a race and some that go further than that and are a highlight of your sailing career.
Last night was one of those latter watches that was both quite scary and exhilarating at the same time. I came up to take the wheel and the rest of the team took their positions trimming the spinnaker. It was explained to us that the spinnaker only had one sheet on it and hence was going to be difficult to drop in the windy conditions – we use the non-working sheet to retrieve the kite and that was not available to us. It was therefore critical that we did not get a twist or wrap the spinnaker.
As a watch we have not yet built up a full team of people with the experience to helm at night with the kite and the other experienced helm was taking his well-deserved Mother-watch rest and therefore the majority of the helming would come down to me. Helming on a cloudy night with no stars to guide you is tricky. Imagine driving down a bumpy country road in the pitch black with no lights with only 10 yards of leeway either side.
Your guides are the pitch of the deck, the wind on your face and the shape of the spinnaker. Your instruments only act like a sat-nav that tells you what the road was doing thirty yards ago. It was fantastic. The exhilaration of surfing down waves that you can't see going up to 20 knots is spine-tingling. You wrestle with the wheel to check the swing of the bow and keep the spinnaker filled. The rest of the team are trimming and communicating the state of the kite as you feedback your intentions on the helm. For three hours we kept this up and creamed along like a barely-controlled train. Once my concentration started to wane the skipper was called to relieve me and as the first inklings of dawn approached we made our way off the deck, happy in the knowledge that the kite was still in one piece for later in the day when we could get it down in a controlled manner, but also that in those four short hours we had covered over 50 miles.
Unlike Graham I am a total novice at sailing having never set foot on a yacht before Clipper Race training. Crew members take their turn in trimming the kite. It is scary, a huge piece of sailcloth with a sheet (a rope) that you need to hold on to tightly and constantly adjust to ensure maximum speed for the boat. Sailing at night is scary when there is no moon, no stars and you can barely see where the sea ends and the sky begins. The only aid we have for trimming at night is the steaming light which is a light on the mast that shines over the sail. This light also gives you a hint as to the size of the waves as you see the swell rise to the side of the boat and then suddenly the helm catches the wave. It is like a helter skelter ride. Frightening, fantastic fun.