Diary of a Clipper Racer

Around the world in 333 days with Mark Osgood

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Final Diary entry, 54, added Monday 6th October 2003.

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40 - Rainbows, Moonbows and Broaches - July 2003 - by Ian "Cookie" Cook

Now, I know time is relative. Einstein first proposed it scientifically.  Everybody else has more personal knowledge of it as the minute hand creeps with ever-increasing reluctance towards the promised release from work on a Friday afternoon. However, whichever way you look at it, ten hours isn't a lot of anybody's life, right? It's nothing in the grand scheme of things - blink and you'll miss it!

Well that's not entirely true for us on board the Clipper boats as we make our way around this planet of ours. Even within any given three hour watch you're not sure exactly what will happen. The whole gamut can be run in those hours - anything from complete boredom bobbing in the doldrums to the wildest, gnarliest, sail-wrestling foredeck action that any ocean-warrior could hope to encounter. But very few ten hour spells hold the wide contrasts that we saw on London Clipper a couple of days ago, so I thought I'd try and re-live the experience for the diary.

It started when we came off watch at about 5pm. The wind had built a little, but we were well within the limits of our AP kite. We were sailing deep, with the wind as far behind us as we could, and all in all it was a very pleasant drive. There were grey clouds on the horizon, however. Quite literally, in fact - it looked like it was going to be a bit of a squally night and there were already some ominous grey masses lurking at the limits of visibility like wolves surrounding a limping deer.

Squalls are one of the major banes of a sailor’s life. They are localised weather phenomenon caused by convective activity (geek talk for rising air) and are notoriously difficult to predict. Essentially large clouds in nature, they can hold anything within their boundaries - some have dead calm patches that trap the unwary, others light, fluky winds that keep changing direction and still others have very high, gusting winds accompanied by torrential rain - so expect the unexpected! Even their movement defies conventional wisdom - they are often seen moving against the prevailing wind (how do they do that?), so it is very hard to tell if an individual squall will hit you even when you can see them.

Given all this there was an air of expectation on board. Something was going to happen - there was that electric tingle. And as we came off watch one of these clouds moved closer. It was tombstone grey with a shroud of rain hanging underneath it. It looked bad, so we stayed up on deck after the watch change in case it crossed paths with us and we could help the next watch get the sails down quickly.

Lucky for us that we did - not because the squall hit us (it passed behind us by some way in the end) but because we all got to see the most incredible rainbow that any of us had ever seen, there in the rain beneath that squall.  It was the perfect, complete arc, and with an intensity to the naked eye that, had we seen a photo of it, we'd have suspected digital trickery.  Framed against that dark grey backdrop it really shimmered. Every colour was clearly visible and breathtakingly vivid. For all my life I've suspected that "Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain" should be more "Richard Of/Yorkish Gave Battlish/Innish/Vainish", as the colours normally merge and run together. This was different, though - this was special. If ever there was a pot of gold at the bottom of any rainbow, this was the one to check.

This was a rainbow of the sort that I'd guess Noah saw after the finish of the original Clipper "40 days and 40 nights" race!

It's hard to sleep after something like that, even more so when squalls are still lurking. However we've all learned the hard way to get our heads down when we can - there'll be something to keep you busy just round the corner!  Surprisingly we made it all the way through without being called, sleeping until we were next due on watch. Nobody slept well though - nobody ever does when you're running nearly dead downwind as the boat rolls constantly from side to side.

Still, we were fresh(er) and ready(ish) when we next came up at 11 that night. The moon was nearly full, the AP was still flying and there were more squally clouds queuing up to play. The watch was a tricky one. The wind built, and there was the occasional gust over the supposed maximum for the sailplan. However they were very brief and not that far over the limit – so the call was made to keep the AP up as long as possible, as for the majority of the time between the gusts we'd have been massively underpowered with the much smaller heavyweight kite up. This is a race after all - every boat takes these calculated risks.

All was going as planned, and London was trucking along quite nicely straight down our intended course. Those not trimming or driving kept an eye open for the squalls, but for once our luck appeared in and they all passed away from us. Did we get complacent? Were we less vigilant at 1.30 than we had been at 11? It's hard to say in retrospect, but I don't think so.  Whatever, our luck was definitely about to run out.

I was driving at the time, with Al sitting shotgun (i.e. alongside the driver so that if there are any sudden gusts or waves that overload the steering two people can get their combined weight on the wheel to sort things out). One of the dangers of driving deep with the kite up is that the waves occasionally knock you too far to leeward. If this goes too far this can result in a Chinese gybe (a London Clipper speciality - see earlier diaries for full details) but it normally results on the kite just collapsing to leeward. This isn't the end of the world - the driver heads up a little and the trimmer trims rapidly to help prevent a possible wrap. The kite then fills, is subsequently eased and things go back to normal. Now at least you know the theory.

We were knocked to leeward and the kite stalled. I headed up and the trimming was on the ball and immediate. The kite was caught and didn't even collapse. Then suddenly "Riding Turn!" was shouted by the winchman and all hell broke loose. A riding turn is where the coils on the winch overlap, effectively jamming that winch up. So we were now sitting with a drastically over trimmed kite which we were unable to ease - perfect timing for a 30 knot gust to come out of nowhere! Foxy (our watch leader) was everywhere trying to sort out a solution to the riding turn problem, whilst calling for Rory at the same time. Al and myself were 100% focused on keeping the boat dead downwind and praying the gust would go. We did our best, but these boats are not the most directionally stable down the faces of waves, and after about a minute the inevitable happened and we got rounded up a mere fraction by a big wave.

The vicious circle that happened next was made unavoidable due to the riding turn. As we couldn't ease the kite the wind knocked us flat on our side.  Even with Al and myself both hanging off the wheel, we were unable to prevent the boat rounding up further due to the increased heel (tilt) of the boat.  This increased the apparent wind, pushing the boat further over and thus the escalation of the problem grew. Eventually we were pinned on our leeward side by the kite - a manoeuvre known as a broach. This was a first for us - we've managed nearly everything else on the race this far, but this was London's first full-on broach. Nobody was celebrating our new achievement.

Unbelievably the sail actually held together for a minute or so as the wind still built. Actually, I have absolutely no idea how long it actually stayed like that - it was one of those situations where all your focus is so directed on one objective that time really does stand still. I remember "All Hands on Deck" was called, I've no idea who by. I remember we quickly checked that we were all OK, but though I heard the other voices of our watch I didn't know where they came from on the deck. It registered that an engine had started, but I had no idea why. Everything we had was focused on trying to keep that kite alive.

Foxy was still attempting a fix to the riding-turn whilst up to over his waist in water on the side deck. It was completely jammed and the boat stayed resolutely on its side. I don't think the spreaders touched the water, but at least 1/3 of the boom was under the water, we were pushed so far over. Just staying upright or on the boat is a challenge at times like that - I was lucky to be on the helm as I could stand on the sidewall of the cockpit - others had to hang off the winches or whatever was nearby where they had been sitting.

All our efforts were to no avail. Suddenly (and with a noise that we all know sickeningly well by now) the kite shredded. The boat slowly came upright and we were able to sail back downwind. We were free, but at what cost? The tattered remains of our AP were flogging themselves to further destruction up the mast. The crew were by now coming on deck looking tired and shocked, but within seconds each was going about their role to get the kite remains down and get a headsail up as quickly as possible. It was impressive to see people functioning as a team within seconds of being woken up and thrown into a hostile situation. We've come a long way since the start of this race.

Slowly I began to take in everything around me again. After the number one was raised and the remains of the kite retrieved and thrown below the real damage assessment started. When I heard the salvage pump start the reason the engine had been started dawned - there was clearly a lot of water down below. Sure enough that was the case - the hatches in the galley had been left open in the calm weather, and during the broach they were under the waterline. It's amazing how quickly water can come through such a small opening. The galley now looked like a war zone. Cave lockers were full of water. Flotsam and jetsam bobbed around under the cooker and around the floor. It was chaos, and the next few hours were spent with all the crew rotating to bail, clean up, make sure there was no serious damage and get the boat ship-shape.

Backbreaking, disgusting and agonising work - but everyone threw themselves uncomplainingly into it and slowly order was imposed again. I looked at my watch at one stage - I should have been off watch 3 hours ago, no wonder I was tired. Eventually, after a long stint as part of the bailing chain I went on deck to cool off before going to bed. It was very quiet to be out there again after the chaos below. There were still plenty of clouds around but it was clear as day - the moon was shining as brightly as it only ever seems to manage out here at sea.

And suddenly there it was - a bright silver Moonbow! I'm not sure if that word exists, but I think I remember it from a favourite childhood book and so that's what we called it. It was an incredible sight one that I've certainly never seen before. It's very hard to put into words what we saw.  There weren't any colours, as such, but there were definite bands of different silvers and greys within an arc like that of a rainbow. It was an incredibly eerie, beautiful sight, and was a much-needed pick-up after the misery of losing a much-needed kite had sunk in. Yes, it is a race and we want to win. However there are other reasons to be out here above and beyond the winning and losing - rainbows, moonbows and broaches.

Click here for diary 41 - Reflections of a Leg 5 Legger - July 2003 - by Chris Channon

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