Ever since we left La Ciotat, I had been wondering at what point of a blue water voyage did one stop using makeup, moisturiser and all the other girlie trappings of civilisation.
Well, I found out.
It’s when the wind hits 50 knots; the swell is around 12 meters; you are 100 miles closer to a cyclone that has just doubled in strength and it’s the middle of the night.
As you know from my last entry, we had pretty much settled for the night on the 16th thinking that we were as close to the action as we were likely to get, and thinking that things were really hardly bad at all. Which they weren’t. So as Kevin was on first watch and I was on third at 4, I went to bed.
I woke up to the sound of shouting; and flashing lights on deck. I couldn’t see the time; and to be honest as there’s a lot of shouting at sea I wasn’t too worried. It was obviously a bit rougher than when I’d gone to sleep; with water on the hatch, so I thought I’d get into my full wet weather gear and go up and see what was going on.
I could see the boys running forward; and then I saw Betrave – who also should have been in bed. So I got up there as fast as possible; but still thinking that if there had been something wrong they would have called me … right?
The deck was awash. Betrave saw me come up and told me that we had taken another reef in the main – the third; taking us down to our smallest reach (the GC had already organised us to take two reefs the day before). Whoops, I thought, must be hot … what’s going on?
Betrave quickly filled me in.
We were set up with the large 1000 litre tank on port side at the front, for which we’d had to remove the bench on that side. On starboard, we had the bench with two 250 litre drums in front of it; now empty as we’d used their fuel first. Before I had gone to bed, I’d walked around there to see the GC retying the lashings that secured all this various ‘stuff’ – just in case. He had lashed the drums to the seat; which was bolted and glued to the deck.
None of that had been of any use. We had taken a huge wave from the front on starboard which had swept the seat from it’s fixings and taken it and the two drums backwards down the boat. The bench had stopped at the superstructure of the bar but the drums had floated backwards along with the sail bags of the big gennakers, which were also on deck on that side.
We were now on starboard tack as we had been since the day before – the first time we’d changed tack since we’d left Las Palmas, so this was now the ‘wet’ side of the boat …
Betrave had woken up and gone to their hatch to come on deck and seen that not only was the water on deck halfway up her hatch but that it was streaming in a waterfall into her cabin down the top of the hatch. She was standing in a waterfall; unable to open the hatch as it was halfway under water. When the water receded the hatch was still blocked by the big sail bags and she was shouting for the boys to let her out – but they couldn’t hear her – and started flashing the light in the cabin on and off to get their attention, which worked. They moved the sail bags and let her out; and then within minutes I was up there too.
Another series of big waves broke over the deck and everything loose was swirling around. The GC was yelling at us to clear the back drainage as everything – ropes; plastic bags; everything lying around on deck or that had been stashed under the seats – was being taken towards the back and blocking the water on deck from draining.
We started moving and re stacking all the ropes from the back onto benches; throwing anything extraneous overboard to get it out of the way – towels; plastic bags; the garbage bin had fallen over and emptied too; I really don’t know what else there was – to keep the drainage clear. It’s the greatest danger; that the deck fills up with water and gets too heavy; she takes water below through the hatches and then before you know it; it’s all over.
So this happened several times and each time more boxes and the benches would float loose and bang around and give us heartache; so finally Betrave and I decided to load everything loose that we could find into the galley; block it with a bench; lash down the bench and block it all in. This worked a treat; and then at least we were freer to do what needed to be done in terms of looking after the boat. It did mean that we basically couldn’t access anything in the galley without mounting a major expedition, but more of that later.
We had to drop the main; even with the third reef we were going too fast. It didn’t go down cleanly so we couldn’t pack it in the boom bag, so had to lash the sail to the boom to stop it from spilling around. This required great commitment from the Genie; who had to go up top (obviously with full safety harness and lines, but still) and do the actual lashing …
The Genie had also been busy trying to keep the generator pumped and dry; we had taken a few big waves into that space and it was vital that the generator didn’t get too drowned. It had stopped working the day before anyway (it doesn’t like storms) so we had no power. The engines were on alarm one after the other as well, but fortunately the engine bilge pumps were working well and the water alarms didn’t sound unless we had just taken on a big wave and then shut off again, so we knew things were dry enough down there. So he was a very busy boy indeed …
Of course by this time we were all completely wet through – every wave that we took was a drenching from head to foot. There’s no way you can keep even remotely dry under those conditions. The water just pours down your neck; up your sleeves; over the top of your boots …. Fortunately it wasn’t cold; the Genie took his gear off, it is hard to move in all of it, but I decided to take the GC’s advice and keep mine on; at least it protected from the wind.
Dawn came and things had settled down on board; the light obviously made it easier to see the swell and start to steer so that we were surfing it and keeping our course rather than just running into breaking waves.
I managed to make coffee on the gas stove; but only the GC got a cup before we got smashed again and the coffee spilt all over the stovetop. I didn’t attempt anything else until much later in the day.
It’s hard to explain how you feel when all this is going on. Apart from a very few moments of adrenalin fuelled action we were all very calm and honestly not afraid. There was work to be done; we did it. Meantimes we all stood around the helm; and just endured. It was hard enough to keep on your feet. A more pressing problem became apparent pretty soon – we needed to pee. Betrave and I discussed this. The boys had it easy anyway but even for them a full salopet that comes up to under the arms presents technical difficulties. ‘Just go’, said the GC. ‘Go?’ I was horrified. ‘We’re all wet anyway’, said Betrave.
Hmmm. I remembered that female endurance jockey who told me that she just went in the saddle … I thought about the logistics of a) trying to get below without loading half the ocean into the boat opening the hatch and then b) struggling my way out of my (completely wet) jacket; the salopet and down to my sodden t shirt. On the upside, I wasn’t wearing track pants or shorts. Betrave looked at me with a big smile. ‘I’ve done it,’ she said.
So I did it too. And there you have the answer to that question of when you let go of all the pretences of civilisation and it’s not a matter of time but a matter of circumstance which, as we know, can turn on a dime …
At around 8 am the GC told me to take the helm; forget the issue of peeing in the salopet, he needed the loo. I was absolutely horrified. You can’t, I said. I can’t do it! At that time we were surfing 12 meter waves, going parallel with them – so steering up to zero; coming up the side of the wave; then turning 20 degrees to starboard to take the breaking part of the wave under the stern and streaming down the back of it safely. Judge it wrong and the top of the wave broke over our side; smashing us again with water.
You have to, he said.
OK, I said, but you can’t go below. You have to stay up here. So I made Betrave bring him a bucket and to his eternal credit (and hers, she had to wash it) he stayed with me and did what he had to do on deck while I helmed. I shook like a leaf for all of that ten minutes; but we made it. Steer as close to true North as possible; then take 20 degrees to starboard to surf the wave that’s heading at us to take any breaking water under the portside keel …and repeat.
I handed back and after about another half an hour he said, OK, I have to lie down, I can’t go on. You have to take over.
So I did. The Genie and Betrave came and stood behind me to give me support, a gesture that I will never forget. Betrave kept telling me that I was doing a great job; but the best bit was when we made it over the crest of a huge breaking wave just taking it under the port keel and the Genie said to me, with a small smile, ‘well played’ …
Well played indeed. By the time the master awoke I had quite the hang of it. Don’t ever want to have to do it again, I have to say, but I was quietly proud of a job well done and a new skill learned. Of course I’ve helmed before, but frankly obviously never like that.
Everything is always easier in the day; more cheerful and less fraught. We all took our turns at the helm that day and by the time it had come to nightfall the swell had dropped quite a bit, down to around 2- 3 meters. The wind had also dropped a lot, down to around 25 knots so we entered that night in not too bad shape. I crawled over the galley benchtops and managed to dig down to the emergency food supply which of course was right in the middle of the galley amongst the stuff that we’d piled in there during the night; managed to get the oven lit and to heat some canned food on the stove as well; so we had some dinner in shifts and at least went to sleep with a warm full tummy.
Apart from the fact that everything – and I mean everything – was completely sodden. As we’d taken so much water and the hatches had leaked, the mattresses and everything were completely saturated. Betrave’s camera and lenses had been in a plastic box in the galley which was half full of water. Her phone was in the same side of the galley and was also drowned. She nearly cried when we found that, the camera and lenses had been a big blow already. My phone was below but on the chart table and had gotten slightly wet; after a day in a bag of rice it came back to life. My computer – thank god – she had moved in to the very head of my bed so it was dry.
The next day was, if anything, harder to handle. Apart from the fact that we were running a really nasty 3 meter swell which banged and smashed the boat relentlessly so that it felt as though we were riding a runaway freight train which regularly smashed into things – rattle rattle rattle BANG, under the platform so that everything inside the stove jumped and clanged – we were tired – the fact that the autopilot couldn’t’ be used had meant we were on a roster of one hour on three off as each of us took our turn at the helm. We were so tired that we just slept where we lay on the benches – the one that blocked the galley was the most popular as it was the driest – the benches to starboard kept copping splashbacks from the stern. I went down below and slept on the sodden bed in my wet weather gear – there seemed no reason not to apart from the fact that it did make it hard for them to call me back onto watch. The Genie ended up doing the same on their side, just to keep a little bit out of the way of the water on board. We knew that the swell was due to drop the next day and indeed by the end of the 19th it was much quieter and less hectic; easier to stand on deck without being thrown around or having to hang on for dear life.
But we were sincerely over it. In fact later that afternoon I had just woken up from a sleep to go back on deck when the GC came down to change into dry clothes. I also had managed to dry my salopet in the door of the engine room and so had dressed completely in warm dry gear. Coming up the hatch, a stray wave slapped me bang on the ear and went straight down my neck. Half my shirt was wet beneath and I was RAGING angry. I shot back below and started to swear at the top of my lungs. The poor GC – who was stuck down in the tiny cabin with me – didn’t know what to do with this raging maniac. I tore off my jacket and wet t shirt; dried myself as best I could, re dressed again and, still swearing like a trooper, hit the deck, snarling. I just needed to VENT!!! It was all so bloody awful! Wasn’t it bad enough that we were tired and all the rest of it, but the WET and the BANGING …. And the WET … the bloody wet. Sigh. The issue of salty hands when one went to bed somehow faded into insignificance ………
Thank god, that night not only the wind but the swell dropped too and by the time it was morning, the sea was as calm as glass. We were all up early and spent the day first getting things into a modicum of order and then washing. As we were so close to port the GC had told us we could use as much water as we wanted to after I’d been rationing us to 10 liters of fresh water a day – so Betrave and I even rinsed and conditioned our hair. It took me nearly half an hour to try and work the tangles out; I’d had it in a single plait since the night before the storm and there were all sorts of tiny little knots that just didn’t want to loosen. I really had the thought that having resisted having it cut before I left, perhaps it would all have to go when I arrived, just because it was such a complete mess.
My advice to anyone with long hair wanting to undertake a trip like this, by the way, is don’t. Not unless you are prepared to put in an inordinate amount of time and energy into trying to keep the stupid stuff out of the way. I’m very vain about my hair, and ten years in Oman have made me incapable of washing or drying it myself, so perhaps I’m not the best person to speak, but frankly I wish I’d followed through in Las Palmas and had it put into corn cobs. Next time; for sure. Either that or I’ll cut it. Who hasn’t heard that threat from me before ….
I can’t explain the bliss of that day of peace! The sun was shining so we took out the mattresses and both the GC and I managed to sleep just on the bare boards of the bed in the cabin. After the wet and wind of the benches on deck, it was a haven of peace and calm. I thought back to how uncomfortable I’d been on the first few nights in that bed, back in La Mede and thought how far I’d come in terms of recognising physical comfort. Maybe it will come back quickly, but my personal pretensions of having to have a comfortable bed, my feather pillows and blackout curtains are well in perspective. Believe me, when you are tired – really tired – none of that matters a hill of beans. I slept sweetly on that bare board and will be happy to do it again.
Try as he might, the GC couldn’t fix the autopilot. It had taken humidity and just wouldn’t stay on. At least helming in these calm conditions was easy and relaxed. We had raised the main and were flying the genoa as well, tricky with very light head winds but we were making good time and had just enough fuel to make it under both engines. We just wanted to get there as quickly as possible; and were averaging less than 10 kots in the fickle winds. Late in the afternoon, the GC called me. ‘Hey, come and look at this …’ – he was looking over the back of the bimini, up at the main. It had given way right across the middle, the stitching undone.
We lowered it and the guys managed to take it up to the third reef again. On a tack that morning, the port sheet of the genoa had snapped and whacked the GC a nice one on the inner thigh. Ten years in the heat of Oman and the last month permanently on port tack had done it in. Fortunately we’d been on starboard tack for the winds of the cyclone otherwise it may have given way during the heat of the storm and it would not have been cool to recover the sail with the seas that were coming through the nets in front … The starboard front net had completely gone in the storm. We were in good shape but Aquarius needed port, and some TLC.
Our arrival the next morning into St Pierre waters could not have been written for a movie. Heading due north; we had the rising sun to starboard, with a bank of clouds on the port horizon. As I looked – the GC was at the helm – a rainbow appeared directly opposite the sun, to port. The waters were completely calm as we traversed this beautiful scene, sun rising to the right, rainbow to the left.
The Genie was on deck with us, and Betrave fast asleep from her watch below. After about half an hour, the Genie called me. Dolphins! Oh, great.
Two dolphins had appeared, on starboard. Leaping and swimming alongside, they started to surf our bow; coming back around, jumping up as though to look at us (which I am sure they do), then going back to the bow. Suddenly, there were four of them and I shouted to Betravel to come up to see, we had been wanting to see dolphins surfing the bow since, well, forever. I’ve only ever had the experience once, coming back from the Dimanyats, many years ago.
By the time she was on board, we had an escort of perhaps 20 cetaceans and I can’t begin to describe the show they gave us. As an escort into St Pierre we could not have asked for better. The view from the big hatches in the loo, as they swam around, under, between the hulls and then close to and rising off the bow only to leap and then return again is something I’ll never forget as long as I live.
Beautiful to be home.