The Everest of Sailing

Camper with Emirates Team New Zealand co-skipper Stu Bannatyne writes about the latest events from the Volvo Ocean Race

Stu Bannatyne: Highs and lows on the Southern Ocean

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Andrew McLean and Roberto Bermudez De Castro on watch nursing CAMPER towards Chile. Photo / Hamish Hooper-CAMPER ETNZ
Andrew McLean and Roberto Bermudez De Castro on watch nursing CAMPER towards Chile. Photo / Hamish Hooper-CAMPER ETNZ

What a week of highs and lows, ups and downs, excitement and disappointment.

The leg began with one of the toughest first nights at sea in any round the world race I have competed in. With headwinds up to 40 knots plus and awkward seas it was a very difficult time for all, eating was out of the question and it was all we could do just to keep the boat in one piece and concentrate on going the right way.

VOLVO OCEAN RACE TRACKER

After a few days we eventually reached a point where we could hoist spinnakers and as the breeze built it was into the typical Southern Ocean sleigh ride with some fast and exhilarating sailing. The racing was still very intense and so close that in the middle of the night we had a port starboard crossing situation with Groupama. They were on starboard and therefore had right of way, it was our obligation to keep clear and we achieved this by furling the spinnaker and luffing up to cross behind, quite a manoeuvre in the dark!

As the breeze built we were the first to change down to a fractional spinnaker and initially lost a little to the French but then began to overhaul them as our average speeds climbed into the 20s and peaks regularly into the 30s.

As the breeze built further and we reefed the mainsail once and then a second time the game changed a little. The sailing transitions from fast and exhilarating to even faster but highly stressful.

It is hard to describe but I will try to paint a picture of a typical four hour watch for me.

I am woken up 40 minutes before I am due on deck, this gives me time to get dressed (by now in the cold taking a good 10 minutes to pile on the five or six layers). Then it is get a bowl of freeze dried from the galley. This sounds simple enough but the boat is lurching and jumping around so much it is difficult to balance let alone hold onto a bowl of food without it upending everywhere. Very cautiously I make my way back to the nav station to discuss the weather, our strategy and goals for the next fiur hours while I'm on deck.

After being on deck for a few minutes to acclimatise I get on the wheel and start to "send it". This essentially involves sailing as fast as possible as close to the edge of control as I am comfortable with. It is wet. I don't mean a bit of annoying spray either, I am talking solid walls of water crashing over the boat from all angles, sometimes a nosedive, sometimes a breaking wave from the side.

There are normally four of us on deck and all clipped on with one person's job solely to brace the helmsman from wave impacts - a bit like packing a scrum down in some ways. Unfortunately for me one particularly nasty side breaking wave knocks me off the steering platform flat on my back - it was pitch black and no chance to see it coming. Quick as I can I am back up again and retake the wheel which one of the guys had hurriedly grabbed in the interim.

It is about the fifth or sixth time in the first hour that I have been completely nailed by solid waves and I feel like I have been kicked in the stomach, head and other areas as well as bashed with a bag of cement a few times.

I have averaged a shade under 23 knots boatspeed for the hour but it is time for a rest, I just can't keep that pace up any longer. I hand over to Nico and take a breather for an hour before getting back on again. It is relentless and very stressful but the boat is responding well, fast but safe and we are feeling well in control as we lead the fleet towards the ice waypoints.

How things can change so quickly. A few bangs from down below and the news comes up that we have cracked a frame and need to slow down to assess the damage.

You cannot imagine how gut wrenching this news is. We have been working hard at keeping the boat fast and safe, conditions we have sailed in before with no problems and certainly well within our own safety limits at the time. After some temporary repairs we resume at a much reduced pace but then some more damage, this time to the longitudinal frames. Further frustration and disappointment - any chance of saving a podium place now over and the emphasis has shifted 100% to just making it safely to land, still over 2000 nm away in Chile.

Further repairs and we seem to have the situation stable and we are now sailing at around 10-12 knots towards Chile where the plan is to affect repairs and continue on racing to Itajai.

I am gutted, completely drained by the efforts of pushing hard while racing, surviving on a just a few hours of sleep at a time in between four hour sessions of being smashed around by waves while blasting through the dark at over 20 knots. Now a completely different scene, we have time to reflect and it is important that we maintain a good routine and work hard towards our next goals, one step at a time and the first one is to get the boat and crew safely to land.

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