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600 mile race around some islands

Already the adventure has begun and I’m not even off the island yet. I’m up before the sun this morning, having packed last night and I’m even waiting early at the taxi stand. It was a quick trip across the island. Quick until the sudden screeching of our brakes, following my sharp intake of breath as both the driver and I spot the truck in front of us stop, a lot too close for comfort. Needless to say I am wide awake now!

Having made it to the airport alive I check in and the guy at the desk tells me “just head through at around 8.15, you’re the only person on the flight, the captain will be here soon”. Private jet to Antigua and the race starts tomorrow, somehow I’m rock-starring this already!

I get to the boat and meet the crew. I’m excited to be doing this race. I arrive at the perfect time, all the gear and sails are off the boat and on the dock, so I get straight on board and start lifting floorboards and acquainting myself with the systems on board. The memory of my last trip still firmly in my mind, through hull fittings, plugs and bilge pumps are my primary concern. We are well equipped with the yacht’s bilge pump, another roving 12 volt pump, the manual pumps and a hand pump, buckets and sponges. Safety gear is all present and correct (as indeed is has to be in order to qualify for the race).

We go for lunch at a burritos place… and after a brief education on the difference between tacos, wraps, quesadillas and burritos, the beef burrito sounds like the ideal protein and carb combo, I order one.

Lunches on the table and our skipper takes us through a team briefing explaining the route, strategy, roles on board, watch pattern and safety gear. Watches will be four on and four off, with the boat split five people on each watch. “This is a race, we’re not doing complex rotating patterns or worrying about everyone getting to know each other”.

Our crew are an interesting mix. The boat’s owner is a incredible lady, she is 70, and of course she is sailing the race with us. She sure is an inspiration to me! Our navigator is an Aussie guy in his early forties, then we have a great bunch of youngsters all aged 18 to 21, plus the skipper who is in his mid twenties. We definitely have the youngest crew in the race. Three girls and seven boys make up the full complement of 10 people who are going to co-exist at close quarters in a space 40 feet long and 12 feet wide.

There was some mention of a diesel leak in the engine leading to fairly unpleasant living conditions in the boat. Now I know this is a sailing race and we won’t be using the engine for propulsion, but we do need to run the engine to charge the ships batteries in order to keep the nav systems and instruments running throughout the race. I volunteer to have a look at it and see if anything can be done.

We run the engine briefly before we leave the dock so that I can look at the problem. One injector has a steady drip spilling out at the injector and another has a much smaller leak from what I guess is a cracked washer where the injector meets the engine block. Tightening the injector is the obvious solution, trouble is the skipper won’t let me (or anyone) touch it. “The mechanic tightened it as much as he dared, I don’t want to make it worse or break it completely at this late stage before the race”. So my challenge has been set…. Basically I need to seal this up somehow. The chandlery here is not equipped with anything that might help me. The Race Office on the other hand might just be my answer, I’m looking for elastic bands and they have plenty, they are quick to donate what should hopefully be enough to me.

Thinking the problem and my potential solution through, weighing up the pros and cons, I am hoping that the rubber will create a seal, some heat from the engine will help bond the seal. The pitfall I see is that it will be a race against the bands as I expect the diesel to perish the innermost ones as we go. If it works, I suspect I’ll be redoing it after each engine run (once a day). So, it is all lashed up and were off out into the harbour so the boys can go for a swim on the hull and keel. My repair is pretty good and a significant improvement on what we had before and while I expect to have to redo during the trip, it is good enough at this late stage. The skipper still has concerns about the bands being a fire risk, or any other risk. I send a photo to just the man for the job, who is some 5,000 miles away, his opinion is enough to reassure the crew. Phew! Studying the drip, it also makes sense to try and charge when the boat is flat or on starboard tack, that way the drip runs into the engine bilge and is better contained.

Clean bottom and clean engine room we are back into the harbour for the last bits of prep and stowing of gear, before having a crew meal. Accomodation on board is unpleasant to say the least – and we haven’t even set off yet. I take a strategy of staying up and having a few drinks, firstly to make sleeping somewhat easier and second, I figure if I feel shit the first day the race can only get better, plus I’ll be ready to get into a watch pattern early and will be feeling much better by the second day. After a sufficient amount of rum I go to sleep on a sailbag in the cockpit. This works fine until it rains – heavily, so I am forced inside the boat to find a space to curl up in.

Needless to say I’m up bright and early, we are meeting on the boat at 8am and I am determined to eat bacon and eggs before setting off for sea! We leave the dock shortly after 9am, where we all have to line up on deck wearing our lifejackets and tethers as we sail through a gate where our crew and safety gear are counted and checked off. Then it is out of Falmouth Harbour and round the corner to the entrance of English Harbour where the start line is. We are racing in CSA2 (Caribbean Handicap System) and also in IRC2, our fleet of 8 boats in CSA2 are the first to start at 11am.

The atmosphere is buzzing, there are lots of boats everywhere, the sun is shining, there is a huge committee of people lining the hilltop around the start line and, having taken everything in my stride this far, I am starting to feel a little excited. It is pretty rough out here, long swells but enough to be putting plenty of water on the deck. So while you might envision us sunning it up in shorts and t-shirts, I’m wrapped up in lightweight salopettes and a jacket, to be wet is to be cold, regardless of latitude.

We do well on the start line, getting a nice gap at the committee boat. Bang on queue as the start gun goes the helicopters appear, footage is being streamed live I believe. The first short leg is a beat to clear Antigua, heading east and then nor-east toward a mark off the coast of Barbuda. We pick our course close to shore and manage to hang on to a lead for a few minutes. At some point on this leg we slam into a wave and that will be the last time the chartplotter works for the whole trip and Navionics becomes our new best friend. Once we bear away around Antigua we hoist the Code Zero, which is not quite a spinnaker and not quite a jib, it comes out of the hatched furled like a jib, clips on to the bowsprit, hoist it like a kite, unfurl like a jib and hey presto, it is just the right sail for this leg and we are averaging 9 knots.

This leg is exciting, all the other fleets started behind us and now the bigger and faster boats are reeling us in and overtaking us. There are some beautiful and amazing boats out here, it is real treat to be right in the action watching the parade pass by. The helicopter buzzes us again, turning out to be the second time that one poor lad on our crew was standing on the transom with stage fright, trying to have wee, each time he’s tried so far the helo has flown right by us!

It is getting on for 1600, we are approaching the Barbuda mark and the Code Zero has to come down. We have a star bowman on board, who sure knows his job on the foredeck. The Code Zero is a new experience for me and I watch quietly as this team work together to get the thing down. There is obviously a knack to it and an element of timing, the sail has a strong luff which it furls around, the trick is to get it furled and down in one move, I learn as I watch our move start well, but somehow on the drop the sail begins to unfurl at both ends. It found its way into the cabin, after much effort from the crew, it wasn’t a pretty drop and it isn’t a pretty sight down below right now. We drop that for the jib and after rounding the mark we hoist the A2 – the second biggest asymmetric kite that this boat can carry. It is pretty big, and suddenly 40 ft and 6 tonnes feel like a dinghy.

Time to settle in to the four on four off watch pattern, my watch is the first to get some rest, which I am ready for after the moderate amount of rum and a distinct lack of sleep the previous night. My bunk is on the high side and sleep comes easy, the boat is fairly comfy downwind.

I wake up, it is still light outside but the light is fading fast. Sunset is one of my favourite times of day, I’ll never see it on my watch pattern, but this evening I am awake, out of my bunk and on to the deck. Sunset happens quite quickly at this latitude and as it drops the sky turns all those beautiful shades of orange. We are all watching the horizon for the moment the sun drops below, “Blink and you’ll miss it” I remember an OSTAR competitor saying to me once. Tonight I didn’t blink and I didn’t miss it – the clearest green flash I have ever seen – what an absolute treat! It is not long after 1800 so I’ve still got a couple more hours sleeping ahead of me yet.

Up at 2000 and we are approaching Nevis, kite is still up and the engine had its first run to top the power up ready for night time. I bail some water out of the engine bilge (there is a raw water leak apparently too), but I’m pleased to say it is water and not diesel I’m bailing and as long as we keep it in the engine bilge then all is good. Some appetizing dinner is being prepared by adding boiling water to the contents of a bag. Apparently this one is bangers and mash, the occasional small square chewy bit mixed with some kind of goo, essentially this is gruel, except gruel probably more palatable, I cannot swallow this, it doesn’t feel or taste like food. A banana and a packet of M&Ms will be tonight’s dinner for me.

Our main rival is still behind us, which is what we want, although in the darkness it is harder to be sure which boat is who. We gybe around the southern tip of Nevis, in front of us are the masthead lights of two Volvo 60s that passed us earlier and we appear to be catching them up! The penny should have dropped then, rather than a few minutes later when the wind went forward and it was a rush to get the kite down and the No 2 jib up and still making good speed, this will be a long white sails leg. It is midnight and I’m off to bed.

It is cramped, we are hot bunking or sleeping wherever a small not to wet space is available. There are few comforts in the two aft cabins and four pipe cot berths in the saloon, none are comfy once the boat is over on its ear pitching and tossing about everywhere. The forepeak is filled with sails, the galley is a two burner gas hob, the fridge is off to conserve power, we have a cool box. The head is just in front of the mast on the starboard side, with just a mesh screen to give the idea of some privacy, it is so windy and constantly rough that pumping and dumping is an essential toilet survival skill.

Out on deck it is wet and mostly cold, granted not as cold as home, but cold enough to make some of the night watches fairly miserable. Rules are lifejackets on and clipped on at all times while on deck, we are all good to follow the rules, it is mostly rough enough to warrant it all the time anyway!

I’m back up for the 0400 watch, we have rounded Saba and are now close hauled sailing toward St Barts. I’m finding it hard to keep track of where we are and which islands we are looking at, feeling like we’re just spinning circles round the Caribbean. One great thing about this race is you can always see an island or two somewhere and passing them makes you feel like you’re churning through the miles. This would be the last we’d see of some of our rivals, who crept by us quietly in the darkness.

Dawn delivers a sunrise over St Barts and at 0800, having eaten a bowl of cereal, I head to sleep again. We are on the making tack for St Barts. I am vaguely aware of a sail change taking place on deck, but no-one has shouted up so it must all be in control. Once again I get a decent bit of sleep as the boat levels out on a kite run.

Shortly before midday I am awoken by all kinds a clunks, clangs, crashes bangs and shouts for bowman, pitman and mate to get on deck in a hurry. I look out of the porthole window and see rocks disturbingly close to us and we are shifting at a fair old pace. We need to gybe, in fact we needed to gybe just a little bit earlier than now, I elect to let the young pups do all the panicking and stay in my cabin. I’m on watch shortly, so once the excitement has died down outside I get my gear on. We are fair shifting past yet another island “what island is this?” I ask…. Again… Our arrival off St Maartin has been somewhat lively.

To get round the next headland involved us gybing twice again, with yet more rocks aiming at us, then round the corner, kite down and we are beating around the north side of the island. A huge rain shower passes over us and suddenly there are young fellas running out in their undies to chance a freshwater rinse!

After the shower the breeze gets up and we reef for this pretty uncomfy leg, with the boat slamming in to big waves. Once round the corner we bear away slightly on to a fetch to round St Barts before bearing off again for the big leg to Guadeloupe. This was around 4pm, toward the end of my watch.

I went below and there is water above the floorboards on the lee side. What ensues is a minor outburst as I lose my patience at the lack of tidiness and seamanship below decks. There is so much gear, sails or people on the floor that access to the bilges is tricky at best. Doing anything on this boat is near impossible, everywhere is wet, slippery and frankly hazardous. I do my best to bail below decks and in the engine space, but by the looks of things after this afternoon’s run the elastic band is starting to perish. Another job on the list.

Meanwhile above deck this boat is still heavy, she’s riding bow down, we have a lot of water somewhere. I’m not going off watch… I check the forepeak, there is water in there, but again, none of significance. One of our nippers reminds us that we have an anchor locker, so the bowman goes forward to investigate. He shouts back “it is full, the fenders are floating!” Now while he’s emptying the floating contents, I’m scrabbling around bringing buckets to the bow. While our helm is trying to drive the boat on a course to keep the waves out, our bowman is waist deep in the anchor locket, bailing out buckets and buckets of water, trying to empty the space quicker than the sea can fill it. Once it is empty we attempt to fill the space with anything we can think of, fenders, plastic bottles, bin bags inflated and tied with a knot, anything to reduce the volume of water that could be held in there. Upon inspection there was nothing blocking the drain holes, the boat had gotten so heavy that they weren’t riding above the sea’s surface any more.

Below deck another sharp crewman had checked the hatches around the pole housing, suddenly a lot of water is being pumped from that space and into the head. Half the crew are manning some kind of bilge or bucket somewhere. After around an hour we are back on an even keel, I estimate we have lost at least 4 miles on this leg through ingress of water on the previous head banging beat.

I tackle the engine with the last hour of daylight, it is a grim spot to be in and this will be a two or three stage process as I’m sweating, my stomach is ready to wretch from the motion and from the diesel and cabin stench. I have to pop my head up for air the first time, the second time my stomach contents are expelled on to the deck. On more big breath and the job is done. I hope this one lasts long enough, that was not fun. We bear off the ten or so degrees for Guadeloupe and this is it for the next 90 odd miles. I watch another stunning sunset over some islands, probably ones we’ve been around, but this course is making me dizzy, still it was a pretty sight. I try and get some rest for a while before my next shift.

It is 2000, it is dark, we are still on this fetchy reach, it is damp and cold and not much going on. I was glad when the watchleader told me to go get extra rest, I didn’t argue and tucked up in the mess of sails and sleepers.

I had a whole six hours of what felt like actual proper sleep and at 0400 I put my foot on the companionway steps and then take the next step. My foot slips, the boat moves, and I fall Tom and Jerry style down the steps landing on my chin first, teeth clattering together as I slide to the floor. It hurt so much I couldn’t even swear, I stood up trying to be super brave and not cry, but holy shit that sure shocked me out of my slumbering state and now it fucking hurts.

This watch seems to go on forever, but we are treated to seeing the sun rise behind the north end of Guadeloupe. The wind will ease as we get in to the lee of the land, and what ensues is a beautiful morning of flatwater reaching in getting ever lighter airs, I enjoyed a driving spell here, trying to keep sailing fast.

The wind died completely pretty much as the new watch came on deck. We always knew there would be a light patch in the lee of this huge rock, we are hoping for the shortest root being the quickest, I am delighted to sleep through those painful two no wind hours.

I wake up to us beating around some really pretty islands, thinking it would be nice to come a visit here one day. But Guadeloupe, it transpires, is quite big, these islands take up the entire watch. It is nice sailing, but a choppy sea state again, so no real drying out in the sunshine.

Then is it bed time again, and then getting up time again. It is almost impossible to sleep down below in those conditions. It is like living inside a basketball in a washing machine. We are still staring at Guadeloupe and I’m starting to think I’ve seen enough of this place to cancel the tourist visit.

The land kind of creeps up on us and I am little surprised in our navigators faith in Navionics, we are 100m off a breaking surf line, I can make it out through the darkness. Just moments before our skipper had stood up and said “what’s that smell”….. Land! It is absolutely time to tack the hell out of here. Now we are hopefully on the long tack before the long leg back up to Barbuda.

We finally finally round the final headland on La Desiderade and bear off on to what will be a fast white sail reach in 20+ knots of breeze. It is an awesome night, enough moon to see the waves, waves big enough to get surfing on and just a lovely bit of fun. A couple of the guys produce another freeze dried meal, this time is it sati babbi, apparently it doesn’t have the foul aftertaste of the previous one and the rice actually looks and feels like rice. I chance a small taste as it is handed round. This one might be acceptable, but I’m not sure I’m ready for a full ration yet. I spend the last part of the watch at the helm, where I manage to average 9 to 10 knots boat speed for an hour or so, just under white sails!

The watch changes again at midnight, I’m still at the helm as people appear and disappear. It is such a great night out here that I stay up for a while, the boys are about to make some food (boil some water and pour in a bag). At this point, some three days in to the race, the only calories I have taken in have come from three meagre rationed wraps, a bowl of cereal, two fun-sized packets of m&m’s, a fun-size Milky Way, a banana, an apple, one solitary cup of tea, two cream crackers and two custard creams. While I haven’t noticed the hunger much, I must be starving since I’m sitting here waiting for a bag of sati babbi stodge. I eat my share while enjoying the company of the lads on this watch. I must admit my watch has been no fun really, not much spoken, we’ve missed most of the kite runs and endured two shifts of darkness each night. The guys on the other watch have a few more words about them, two daylight watches and they’re definitely having more of a laugh than we are.

At around 0130 I go to bed. At 0400 I’m up again and we are passing Antigua, it looks as though we’ll arrive at the Barbuda mark at first light and then it will be a kite run to Redonda. Needless to say I’m sleepy now, we are still on this reach, there is not much happening and my eyes are feeling heavy. This boat has been great for giving a little flexibility in the watch pattern, where people need rest and there’s not much doing on deck they can get their heads down a little longer, I take this option for a couple of hours, dozing with all my gear on.

The day is dawning, we are approaching the Barbuda mark and setting up to hoist the A3 kite. We are in for a long ride, kite is up and we are moving, the wind softens and it doesn’t feel quick enough, soon a call is made to drop the A3 and hoist the A2 in search of more power. And boom, we found it, now we are shifting along between 11 and 15 knots, the waves are big, the sun in shining and we are surfing. The next mission is to spot Redonda, which they described as being like an iceberg, some twenty odd miles away. I do spot it, at 11 o’clock off the bow, we are too low and already on the edge, trying to take more height will be tricky.

I’ve been rotating with two other lads grinding the kite on the lee side. I’m still wearing all my warm gear from the night before and now the sun is up and I’m working I’m sweating. I manage to peel down to sports bra, leggings and Dubarrys, still sporting the lifejacket on top, slapping on a ton of suncream, now it is hope for the best, we are on the edge and hanging on. The off watch guys are called up on deck in a “fucking hurry up” kind of way, everyone is needed on the rail right now if we are going to make this mark. The wind is building to the mid twenties, we are on the edge…..

Then we toppled, a riding turn on the kite sheet and there was only one way we were going, massive broach. I grab a winch handle and find the winch, while I’m up to my neck in white water, handle somehow located and I’m winding and winding trying to get this turn out, all the while the boat is over on its ear, kite and rig flog, flog, flog, it feels like a keelboat, not a forty footer! Boom, the ride comes out….. EASE EASE EASE and we are away again. Somehow the sheet has escaped the block leading it in to the winch. Now all the load is being taken on one block at the back of the boat.

I look at the position I’m trimming from and elect to move further inboard, as all I can see in this block poised, ready to fire at me like a bow and arrow if any small thing were to fail. Miles and more miles of hope and pray racing! We carry this kite a little longer, but the new lead in to the winch causes another riding turn, this one is a proper jam…

Bang, we are on our side again, this time I’m hanging on the high side watching the whole debacle. The lads lead it back to the next winch to try and winch it out from there, just when you think you’ve seen it all, now we have a riding turn on both winches and I can smell burning as the kite sheets are getting hot! Finally one ride then the next are pulled out, we are upright again and definitely not aiming at Redonda. We elect to change back to the A3 and the A2 is brought down rapidly by and adrenaline filled crew.

And now we are off, the breeze is building again getting up to 30 knots at times, everyone is on deck hiking or trimming, then there’s me, the ole girl grinding the kite while all that youth is sat on the rail. We’ve been in a pattern of swapping between three of us, it is my turn when we hit a new boat record of 18.8 knots, what a buzz, six tonnes of dinghy surfing, water everywhere, glorious sunshine and cooling waves. 26 miles that have made up for the other 570 odd. This leg is epic! I swapped out for a new grinder who was all full of biceps and youth, next thing I hear from the trimmer is “Come on now, she was using hard gear!” Aaah, showing the yoof how its done – still.

Redonda is a beautiful island, inaccessible as far as I can see, cliffs, cliffs and cliffs. We fall into a hole in the lee of the island, a momentary respite to get dressed for the long wet beat home, and then again the world is back over on a 45 degree angle and we settle in for the long haul on the rail.

We put in a couple of tacks early on in the leg toward Montserrat. This looked good initially, but we were concerned of losing touch with the fleet. I look upwind at the cloud formations, the convergence zone of Antigua is to our left now, I predict a lift on starboard all along this leg. Another band of cloud with their small anvil tops showing the gradient wind up there and I am certain of it, the wind is going to go right.

We’d been on this tack no time at all, when our helm calls for a tack. “Why are we tacking” I ask, “we’re being knocked” was the reply, “you can’t tack on every header on a thirty mile beat”, “But every little helps doesn’t it? We’ve been on this tack 15 minutes” I laugh, and put my coaching head on to try and explain the difference in mindset offshore to round the cans. We don’t tack. In fact we don’t tack for hours and hours, we are lifted all the way up and up to Antigua, meanwhile our closest competitors are on the left of the course and will have a long way to come back on a header. Things are starting to look promising. Even more so as we approach Antigua and showers are developing over the land there, I predict a left shift and the header we need to tack on. Sure enough, there it is. I breathe a sigh of relief that my calls worked out right, we may have bought ourselves third place with this leg, but it is going to be a close call. The wind softens and our foredeck crew treat us to the most lovely jib peel, the land is less than a mile off, just a few more headlands and we are home.

The last few hours of this race seem to take as long as Guadeloupe, the finish is just round the corner, but the wind is dropping, our speed is dropping and it is taking forever to get there. The final thirty minutes as the night draws in seem to last a lifetime, we hope to do enough to finish third.

The line is hard to spot, but one end is lit, but it never seems to get any closer. Until finally we are on the approach, shining a torch on our sail number, radio in to race control and then as we cross the line there is a big green circle being projected on our sails from a laser light – we have crossed the line!!! It has been a long long day!

We finally hit the dock just before 2100 to a welcoming party bringing crates of beer and a large banner which we all had to stand with for a photo call. Fortunately it is dark and I hide at the back – I’ve definitely got that “after” look about me right now, and we’ll not mention the stench produced in our squalid damp conditions in the last four days.

I am tired, the tired that I suspect only sailors, soldiers and fishermen would understand. Shower and then food are the only things on my mind right now. I am still wearing my leggings and Dubarrys from last night’s 4am shift, and I am soaked head to toe, my face is burning from salt abrasion, fresh water is a blessing. I get into the shower wearing everything, boots and all, it all needs rinsing anyway and I stand there letting the fresh water run over my head and face, it takes a long time before I can no longer taste salt around my mouth. I don’t have soap, shampoo or even a towel, but I don’t care, this feels so good right now.

Food…. We are back at the same bar we started. Breakfast burger is my choice, mostly because I’ve been hankering for egg and chips for at least two days now, I can feel the calories coursing through me. Egg and chips followed by a burger with bacon and of course the bun. Damn it is so good. We eat in silence, everyone attempting to recover the calorie deficit of the last 80 hours.

The kids head for another bar and I head to Nelson’s Dockyard to the cashpoint. It feels good to walk, stretch my legs and hips which had seized into rail shape after the final beat!

The youth go partying, I am tired, but I am not sleeping on that boat. I’m also hungry again. It has gone midnight, but some of the ladies who greeted us on the dock earlier had said that the AYC was serving food all night, I find the place, order a drink and a steak, then take a seat. This is the best wifi I’ve found in Falmouth Harbour and it is still terrible, but enough to get a safe and well message out. A huge plate of steak and chips arrives. As I chop into it I realised I didn’t specify I wanted well done. I’m guessing this one is medium, I don’t care, I look at the blood dripping from the pink middle, mop it up with chips and devour it.  After a second dinner it is now getting on for 2am, I’ve been awake almost 24 hours now and I’m at that slightly delirious mildly euphoric post race state. I am not sleeping on that boat. The dock bag, with a sail and and a sail bag over will do me for a few hours, at least it is dry and stable a significant improvement all round.

At some point early morning I move and find comfy cushions and a couple of our crew sleeping outside the RORC Race Office, I stay there until I’m woken by the phone at 8.30.

We are still waiting for official results, but it does look like we’ve secured third place in our class. Sadly I can’t stay for the prizegiving (happily I’m heading to a place with a bed!) I’ve got to fly back to Tortola in time for work tomorrow. I make it to Tortola, but my bag doesn’t. It will be two days before that arrives!

I’m at work for 8.30 in the morning, wearing a skirt, since this is all I have! “You look all mash up” one of the girls says to me. I feel all mashed up, it was a long race.

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