It’s the dead of night and the wind has quite literally died.
My stomach gives thanks for the calmer seas as for the first ten hours of the race the Derry-Londonderry was battered as it sailed upwind in the ferocity of the North Sea. And what a full-on race it was with Derry’s points rivals Qingdao bearing down on us throughout the day. After a poor start we gathered speed and passed at least four boats to put us in fourth place behind overall leaders Gold Coast Australia, Singapore and Geraldton Western Australia in the race to Southampton from Den Helder.
The entire day was a spent at a 45 degree angle as our clipper cut through the heavy seas at speeds of up to 11 knots.
Tip tapping on a computer below deck with my leg jammed against the wall was almost impossible as indeed was standing upright for the most part.
Gravity was no friend when trying to carry out even the simplest of tasks - a trip to the toilet was a real challenge in itself.
“Always have a hold something fixed on, never trust your legs” was the best advice I had all day from a crew member.
As an unskilled sailor, I’ve been invited to get involved on board but only in the more physical stuff. Another crew member, Belfast man David Ferris and myself have picked up the tag of ‘winch monkeys’ for our strenuous endeavours on the dreaded coffee grinder. In high winds the coffee grinder - a pedestal winch used to hoist the sails - can be a killer on the arms. But in the intensity of a race you simply have to keep turning it two-handed despite a build up lactate in the forearms screaming at you to stop.
Skipper Mark Light and Mates (Watch Leaders} Tom Way (22)and Ben Turner are in control at all times and everyone knows their jobs inside out. When it’s going good - when winds are high - it functions like clockwork. The feeling of being in a close knit team is ever present and very reassuring. As we made almost 11 knots travelling up-wind in the North Sea, I got a flavour of what real ocean sailing is all about when carrying out a sail change or - as one of the crew explained to me - “hanking on a number two sail to the forestay”. For me it was pretty unnerving as the waves crashed down on top of us but Derry man John Harkin, Muff man Padraig McConway and London banking Operations Manager Emma Harley revelled in the intensity of the situation. I mucked in as best I could but for most part with just one hand. I may have been strapped in for safety and decked out in a life jacket but I still felt the necessity to hold on for dear life as the yacht plunged headlong into the sea surface before rising again on the tide. Despite being protected by water proof foul weather gear, I was drenched to the skin by the crashing waves and with just one hoody (also my pillow)and one pair of trainers with for me the trip, the first thought that sprang to mind was that I was in for a cold voyage.
We travelled around 100 miles in the first ten hours or so but as night fell so did the winds and we went from speeds of 10 and 11 knots to under one knot as we entered the busy shipping lanes of the English Channel. With little steerage ability due to the drastic drop in wind speed, tensions rose,especially for skipper Mark Light who, having gone without any down time, was preoccupied with keeping clear of the Traffic Separation Scheme (TSS) in operation in the English Channel. The yachts doctor, Derry GP Bill McConnell, explains that without wind it’s very difficult to steer away from the big vessel lane or cross appropriately, as it must be done quickly and “in one fell swoop at right angles”. And on top of that the English Channel is one of the busiest waterways in the world - so there’s a lots of other traffic to avoid. Quite enough to cause anxiety among the crew.
On the plus side, we have caught up with overall race leaders Gold Coast Australia - who are also in first place in this race. But again there’s a catch - most of the rest of the clipper fleet are all floating around beside us. Now we’ll have to see who the wind favours come morning. Under the clear night sky, in peace and serenity, anxiety and tension, we wait, we hope.