Sailing: Breaking into the food packs on crazy journey of `Yellow Submarine'

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The Independent Online
The skipper of Merit Cup had wanted wind. And now he has got it, he is not so sure, even though his boat is in second place in the Whitbread Round the World Race.

A few days out from the finish of the first leg of the Whitbread at Cape Town. We are power reaching in a wind that's gusting over 40 knots and it's not really a time to get philosophical about life. I am wedged into the navigation station and still find it difficult to stay on the seat. It's a major effort to type even a dozen words as the computer seems to move crazily out of reach even though its fixed firmly to the bench by Velcro.

On deck, walls of water wash over the crew, flinging them the length of the deck. It's almost impossible to stay on your feet and there will be more than a few bruises to show for it at the end of this.

No one was able to sleep for one 24-hour period, so everyone was on deck the whole time except the navigator, Mike Quilter, and myself when I joined him for a council of war. I hope those safety harnesses hold.

We think about safety all the time. Next to going fast, it's the only thought in our minds. And we have been going fast. Top speed has been nearly 30 knots with long periods over 20. It's just like being in the southern ocean, except that we were less than 30 degrees south.

There is so much water about that it's almost like being in a leaking submarine. In fact the Beatles song "Yellow Submarine" could be our theme song. It fits our colour scheme and most certainly Merit Cup is surfing off huge cresting waves.

They look like the big ones in the Hawaiian travel brochures. I have seen a lot of waves and these are the biggest. We are not quite sure why they should be so large. However, these are the conditions we wanted for three weeks but now they are here I am not so sure.

For one thing there are the broaches, when the yacht careers out of control and up into the wind to be knocked flat on to its side with everyone hanging on. We have lost count of the number of times that has happened and it has cost us a spinnaker, ripped twice but now having to wait to be repaired because the sewing machine has packed up.

Paul Cayard, skipper of EF Language, is sailing a great race. His yacht's display has been truly remarkable. We are just over 100 miles behind him as I write this - and that will be a difficult 100 miles to reclaim. We could well need a major change in the weather to do it.

The forecast from here to the finish is that the wind direction will move around - but there could be quite a lot of it. There is a low pressure area in front of us and a high pressure area pushing in behind us. So we are getting squeezed in between them. That is why we are getting all this wind.

While we are keeping an eye on EF Language, were also looking over our shoulder to Innovation Kvaerner. We need to keep them out as well as trying to advance on EF. Were happy to be in second place, because the alternative at this time is third or worse. The name of the game is preserving our position and improving on it when the opportunity arises.

I wonder what is going through the minds of Lawrie Smith and the other skippers further back in the fleet. They will have written off leg one by now - unless they believe in miracles - and they will be thankful that the race will not be decided on elapsed time.

Who would have suggested even two days ago that we would put 100 miles on Dickson in 24 hours while we lost 35 on the race leader? That there would be 200 miles between third (Innovation Kvaerner) and fourth (Silk Cut)?

We have learned a few things since we sailed from Southampton on September 21. We know EF Language's strengths. Kvaerner's too. They have probably learned a bit about us.

We have also learned that we have been a little too mean to ourselves with the food, even though we tend not to eat much in the tropics. Portions will be larger for the next leg. With the increased speed we calculate that we will be in Cape Town a day earlier than we expected only a couple of days ago, so we have broken into the food pack that was earmarked for Day 33.

We have decided it is important to keep energy levels high. When conditions are demanding there is no doubt that the guys perform better with more food.

On the warm legs we eat less and the work is not all that hard. But right now its quite cold and the work is really hard. Some of the boys have been working on deck without a decent rest for more than 30 hours.