Sailing: Catapulting through the ocean as we play chicken with the wind

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IT HAS been like a Disneyland ride, with speeds unbelievable for a monohull as Merit Cup was catapulted down the southern ocean waves - going half sideways, half straight.

The trimmers and helmsmen have shown tremendous skill keeping us on course on this fifth leg of the Whitbread - and safe. Twice we were doing 31 knots, with the gusts coming and going.

The aim is to keep the spinnaker on through the puffs. On Thursday night they were getting up to about 42 knots and then dropping back to 32. We were playing a game of chicken with the wind, with a medium-sized spinnaker up all the time. I don't think we could have got it down even if we had wanted to.

The helmsman has to anticipate the gusts and get the bow down and feel the lift of the wave, which you can't see in the blackness. As skipper, I don't like to think of the damage we would have done had we broached at those speeds.

Compared with the run through the night, yesterday felt like we are dead in the water yet we had a westerly of about 20 knots and we were doing 13-14 knots.

There's no future staying in the north, so we've decided to head south where there's more breeze, otherwise we will be in big trouble. We hope that it won't be too expensive in terms of miles lost. The next two position reports won't be very kind to us. Toshiba will probably get away, but we should hold on to Innovation Kvaerner.

In the more moderate conditions, the crew tidied up, but everything is still very wet. The sun is out, but there's not enough heat in it to dry anything. We cleaned up all the food that had been spilled on the floorboards, and all the other gear and clothing has been stowed.

It was stark contrast to earlier in the week when we had to contend with freezing water, violent winds, a spinnaker pole snapped in two places, the top three battens in the mainsail broken, and half the crew with colds. And it's supposed to be summer down here.

It was impossible to settle the boat down. No sooner was a heavy spinnaker up than we would be flattened by a mighty gust and so the struggle would start to get the sail on board with frozen fingers and faces blasted by icy water.

You drag the sail down below, probably shipping a couple of tons of water downstairs as you open the hatch and repack the sail waiting for the squall to pass. The whole process takes about 45 minutes - it's very physical and it goes on day and night.

In addition, so much water seems to be getting below that we have had to pump out the lee bilge at least every hour - sometimes more frequently.

We haven't seen any ice yet but, like I say, it has been very cold. On deck the air temperature is only one or two degrees C and there has been driving rain. The bow is under water at times with two feet of solid water washing down the deck at 20 miles an hour. It is impossible to stand up, so everyone is secured with harness and lifeline. We cannot risk anyone being washed overboard.

Motocross bike masks protect the face from the force of the cold spray - so there is no need to duck when you see it coming, even if it is still instinctive to do so, but you can still feel the cold. Everything gets wet and everyone is soaked to the skin.

However, when you are confident of averaging 380 miles a day in this sort of weather, you have to be very happy with the boat's performance.

A lot of people thought we wouldn't be able to hack it downwind in a blow following the pitiful performance on the second leg from Cape Town to Fremantle. I even had a few doubts.

But the fact was we didn't really get a shot at the big winds on that leg. What we did recognise was possible weaknesses in that area and we made adjustments to rectify them.

But there is the exhilarating side. At times we are flying through the air with more than a third of the yacht right out of the water.

Contrary to what people think there's no fine line between maximum speed and safety. It is a line we cross only at the risk of putting the boat and crew in great danger.

Sailing at this speed in these conditions is dangerous. It is not safe at all. We calculate the risks and do all we can to minimise them, but there is always the possibility of catastrophic gear failure.

However, the Whitbread is a race, not a cruise. We all knew what we were in for. If we wanted to go cruising we would do that in the Mediterranean, or Caribbean, not in the southern ocean.

We're looking forward to getting round Cape Horn. We want to get out of this place and on to Brazil.