After experiencing one of the largest storms yet, the crew of Gold Coast Australia begin our third and final week at sea as we race from Geraldton to Tauranga, New Zealand , competing in the 5th race in the Clipper 2011-12 Round the World Yacht Race. Battered and bruised our thoughts turn to port as we close in on the 600 nautical miles left to race, dreaming of land food, warm weather and a stable bed with a good night’s rest. Unfortunately for us these land pleasures are not yet ours as the weather turns unpredictable.
Expecting a nice spinnaker downwind run along the coast we were in for a challenge as the winds shifted to the North, already cold and tired the head winds was unwelcome. 100 nautical miles ahead of the rest of the fleet we start the beat up the New Zealand coast line. 0300 am sail changes are on the cards with 20 knots of breeze throwing every wave in your face and down your neck. Cold and wet we battle as the water tries to pull the sail from your hands, but eventually we get there with the sail change only to have the winds die a short time later.
One particularly difficult 4 hour watch involved us going from our largest sail plan all the way through the sail wardrobe to the smallest sail plan and back to the largest sail plan as the winds increased to 50 knots and then dropped down to 10 knots. All of this variation in the winds became very taxing on the crew taking away our normal levels of strength and tolerance.
On day 15 the battle continued as we reefed the main sail, changed the head sails and tried our best to keep up with the ever changing wind conditions. Later in the evening we were completing yet another sail change when the Yankee sheet snapped the tricing line on the Running Back Stay, a section of our running rigging. This was on the leeward side of the boat and needed to be repaired for the next tack so I scrambled down to run the repairs.
Water was gushing over the gunnels as we powered up in the gusts but repairs were needed. I clipped my safety line on and scrambled down to get the tricing line. I just about had it in my hands when I felt the boat power up through a particularly large gust. I was looking around for something to hold on to when the a wall of water came down the side of the boat, in a second I was thrown meters back down the deck of the boat only to land with a grunt of pain as my shin collided with the stanchion taking my full weight and the pressure of the wave still trying to tear me off the boat. Hissss… goes my life jacket as it explodes and expands locking my head in place, I didn’t care as the pain in my leg was all to consuming.
I stopped thinking of the pain long enough to realise that I was still on the leeward side of the boat so I scrambled back to safety. Nina had witnessed my dramatic fling across the deck and was asking if I was okay, all I could get out was ‘no it hurts and I am going down below’. My main concern was that I had really hurt myself, like a broken bone and that would mean my race was run which would absolutely devastate me but lucky for me it was a great bruise but nothing more severe, Phew. Poor Nina and Annelise ended up swimming as well as they continued to fix the tricing line but no more injuries.
On day 16 we were getting optimistic with only 340 nautical miles left to run. We were expecting to arrive in port by the following evening. Unfortunately this was not to be the case as we spent another three days at the end of our strength battling to arrive. After 18 days at sea we experienced our longest and most challenging night at sea yet.
We had been on watch for four hours completing a series of sail changes, the Yankee 1 was hoisted just as we went below to receive our lovely hot meal. I was all striped out of my foul weather kit and in my base layers ready for bed when the commotion started. The winds had dropped to a lovely 15 knots but only 10 minutes later we were slammed with 40 knots out of nowhere.
Skipper Richard Hewson shouted ‘All hands on deck’ as we needed to drop the Yankee 1 on the deck. I threw on my boots and life jacket as I ran up on deck. The winds were so strong now that they were tearing the tops of the waves, throwing spray in your face so hard that it felt like little bullets striking every piece of exposed skin. The leeward side of the bow was lined with crew all trying to get the sail down but there was just too much wind.
The forestay was bending alarmingly so as the force of the winds stretched it. Moving up to the bow I tried to help Barry with the hanks. Both of us were trying our hardest to get the sail down but for every inch we managed to get in the sail would tear out of our hands another foot. It seemed impossible until finally we went over a wave as the sail decided to play nice, falling down the forestay allowing us to gain control of it. Now completely soaked to the bone we went to shorten the main sail as we were still overpowered.
I had climbed part way up the mast to pull down the main sail for the reef but like the Yankee 1, the main did not want to come down. Finally after much struggling we managed to get the sail down enough to reef. Now more than an hour later, completely soaked to the bone and freezing cold, those of us still in our base layers went below to get warm. I took off my boots only to poor out a bucket full of water, soaked. A few minutes later Rich was asking for us to come back on deck to help flake the Yankee 2 and the Yankee 1 as there was still too much wind for just one watch to complete this.
Annelise went straight up on deck only to be told that we needed our foul weather kit on so back down she came and we geared up however there was no time to change out of our soaked base layer so we just put the other gear on top. Some two hours later the sails were flaked and stored safely below, a quick look at the time indicated that my watch had now been on-deck for 7.5 hours and would be starting our watch again in 30 minutes. With permission we went below to put a dry set of cloths on and get ourselves ready for another 4 hours on deck.
Coming back on deck Rich called for another reef to go in as the winds were still not abating. In order for us to put the second reef in we needed to tack the boat due to the system on-board. ‘Ready to tack’, the running backstay was brought back only for us to realise that the Check Stay (the lower line) was no longer attached, nothing that we could do about it now so we went on with the tack.
Now that we were on the right tack we could put the reef in, only one problem, when we lowered the main sail we realised that the check stay rope had tangled it’s self around the reefing pennant preventing us from putting in the reef. We re-hoisted the main sail and debated about what to do next. Leading to more frustrations we realised that the Main sail was now torn just above the top reefing pennant along the batten pocket. What else could go wrong… The next thing that happened was the loaded sheet on the stay sail broke free and our tear in the main sail increased to a foot long in length…… too long.
After some deliberation we decided that the best thing to do was to drop the main sail and sail under out storm tri-sail. This would mean that we would be at a severe disadvantage and that the other boats would have a good chance to catch up but it would also mean that we would save our main sail that we still needed it to sail the next 20, 000 nautical miles around the world. With the main sail down we repaired it as best as we could on a bouncing boat at 0300 am in the morning by bolting it together. Not game to push it we waited until it was daylight to hoist the main sail again unfortunately the repair only lasted until the next big gust so the tri-sail was once again hoisted.
By the evening of day 18 Gold Coast Australia was within 40 nautical miles of the finish line, so close yet so far as the winds continued to come from right on the nose. With less than 8 hours to go we felt that we had secured the podium position. The middle section of the fleet were all within 10 nautical miles of each other all joshing for second place. Earlier that morning we were only 40 nautical miles ahead but by that evenings sked we had once again increased our lead to 78 nautical miles. Finally the exhausted and ecstatic crew of Gold Coast Australia crossed the finish line at 0330 am to be welcomed by a glorious sunrise over the New Zealand coastline.