Sailing: MacArthur's task no stroll in the park

First steps around the world are tough
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It's surprising what looks attractive when you are hungry. Early on Saturday morning as the freeze-dried porridge was being served up hot, I was working on communications equipment maintenance. By the time I got to the galley the single pressure-cooker pot aboard Kingfisher2 had been sluiced over the side and the freeze-dried chicken lunch was soaking in water to reconstitute it for cooking.

You could get quite depressed about this, given that food is restricted and the future is not exactly cordon bleu. But one thing I have discovered in the first two days of the Jules Verne record-breaking attempt with Ellen MacArthur is that somehow you deal with it.

Here we are just three days in and we are all already soaking wet after the 60-knot kicking we took over the first 36 hours. Nothing inside the boat is dry and we have barely started our two-month endurance test. But somehow my sub-conscious is holding it all in check. My mind and body have closed down to functional level. Several people on the boat are ill with colds and sore throats and in my hull, the port one, only two of us have yet to go down; we do not expect to escape.

But the positive aspect to the discomfort is the speed at which we are travelling. Kingfisher2 is a 110-foot catamaran and so far our top speed has been 38 knots. In the two days to yesterday morning we had covered nearly 1,000 miles. While that puts us about 100 miles behind Olivier de Kersauson, who started three weeks before us on Geronimo, we are ahead of Bruno Peyron's record time and gunning along with full main, our largest gennaker and staysail at 25 knots in 25 knots of wind.

By the end of today we should be at the latitude of the Canary Islands and thinking about getting the shorts out. Very soon after that it will become unbearably hot!

Life on board is settling into the ocean-going routine with the three watches starting to develop their own personalities, led by three formidable watch captains – Hervé Jan, Neal McDonald and Guillermo Altadill. While the off watch are sleeping, the standby watch clean the boat, sponge the wet floors and prepare the next meal – we expect to lose between 10 and 15 kg each over the trip.

For Ellen the start has been particularly tough. As we got to the start line from Lorient last Tuesday morning after hammering into 40-knot headwinds, we found we had a problem with the equipment that holds the top of our mainsail to the mast.

Ellen had to make the call to sail a further 80 miles into winds of 60 knots to Plymouth to effect repairs. And she was getting ill. The responsibility of getting Kingfisher2 safely berthed in the middle of a stormy night with no engines (they and their propellers were removed to save weight and drag) took its toll, as did overseeing the repairs and consulting with our shore-side router, Dr Meeno Schrader in Kiel. We eventually hurried out of Plymouth less than 24-hours later to get the best of the weather. As we left, Ellen was being sick. She was drained but fighting hard.

And as the navigator she is out of the watch system but awake most of the time working on tactics (as I write this the boat speed has just settled on 30 knots). It is a continual struggle to make the best of the conditions and on Friday night, still ill and weak, she was awake all night waiting for the wind to shift as predicted to call for a gybe. It eventually complied in the early hours.

But Ellen is tough; we all knew that. "I just feel pleased and relieved to get back to sea," she said yesterday, her head nodding with tiredness. "I think we've got an amazing bunch of people and it's great to be out here with them."

While leaving in mid winter in a 40-60 knot northerly wind is not most people's idea of fun, it was our best chance to make a fast start. It was not an ideal weather window but we are in touch with the pace and are happy with progress.

The key will be how our transition to the Trade Winds develops. So far we it has been relatively smooth and the Trade Winds should now be steady right down to the Equator. The good news is that our track has been straighter than Geronimo's and if we can maintain 25 knots to the Equator we will have made some ground. After that? Well, we don't think that far. It's not good for peace of mind.