Sailing: A painful search for southern comfort

Gordon Maguire, watch leader on Silk Cut, waits for a tactical choice to prove a master-stroke
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The Independent Online
I'M writing this in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, somewhere between Newfoundland and France. Over the last couple of days it's really begun to get really cold, even below decks. All of us are wearing full thermal gear and for the first time in months we are sleeping inside sleeping bags. Hats and gloves are standard issue. I hope it's warmer in La Rochelle when we finally get there next week.

We left the sailing capital of the United States, Annapolis, Maryland, just over a week ago, and in that short time this eighth, penultimate, leg of the Whitbread Round The World race has taken us through every emotion. We have led and we have been at the back. Now we are in eighth position, around 60 miles behind the leader.

Leaving Annapolis and sailing just over 100 miles down the Chesapeake Bay was an incredible experience. At the start there must have been well over 6,000 boats on the water, the best turn out for a re-start so far, all clamouring for a view. The US Coast Guard did a superb job and the spectators were kept at a reasonable distance, allowing us to make full use of the limited space in the bay. It was tight, close racing and it was great to have so many spectator boats following us through the night.

Silk Cut managed to avoid all the crab pots and other debris as we made slow progress down the bay. The Chesapeake is famous for its seafood and round every corner we faced a minefield of pots and fishing devices, difficult to get past during daylight and almost impossible at night. Somehow we escaped without incident, but others were not so lucky. BrunelSunergy were snagged by a pot and lost nearly three miles wriggling free.

Every boat was dogged by the light and fluky conditions, several times we fell into our own private holes and had to sit and watch the fleet pass by. The bay was hard work and involved countless sail changes: one minute we were hard on the wind and five minutes later we were flying a full masthead spinnaker screaming towards open water at 18 knots. No one slept on that first night, and we were all glad to reach open water on the second day.

Once into ocean, the race was on to get to the Gulf Stream as quickly as possible. This warm current flows up the North American coast and can provide a magic-carpet ride of up to four knots half the way to France.

Well that's the way it's supposed to work. So far it's not quite happened. The fleet has split in two. We've opted to stay south with Chessie Racing, whilst the rest of the fleet have gone north. The big problem at the moment is a high-pressure zone standing in our path. Our navigator, Vincent Geake, has been plotting its course for several days and fingers crossed we'll get past without falling into another hole.

It's really a bit of a lottery out here. In midweek we were right up there with the leaders, trading places with Toshiba and Merit Cup, and then we were hit by a massive cloud - no wind and lots of rain. Our speed was reading 00 knots on the dash, and there was nothing we could do. The only consolation was that Chessie was behind us and was also stuck in the car park. After about half an hour the rain eased and the cloud passed. But the fleet had pulled away from us: Silk Cut was nearly 100 miles behind with 2,200 miles to go - plenty of time to catch up if we're lucky.

We now spend much of our time studying the water temperature, which helps us identify the Gulf Stream current, and we are on ice watch.

The wild life out here is simply wonderful. The other morning, whilst sound asleep in my bunk after a full night on watch, I was brought back to reality by our skipper, Lawrie Smith, screaming: "My God, we're being attacked." As I emerged from the hatch, ready to repel boarders, I saw the back end of a huge whale as it plunged back into the sea, sending a shimmering wall of water towards us.

This immensely powerful creature had jumped clean out of the water and landed just three feet from Silk Cut, drenching everyone and everything on deck. I think the whale was dozing on the surface and the sight of the shark painted on our bow hurtling towards it at 18 knots, gave it one hell of shock.

So here we are in the middle of the Atlantic pushing as hard as we can, hoping for a break in the weather. If the high pressure pushes north, as we hope, the guys up there could be parked for some time. That should give Chessie and us time to pull back some miles. The others are also north of the Great Circle route and so have to come down to us at some point.

Sometimes this sport just does your head in. Someone once told me that this sort of thing is all good character-building stuff, in the face of adversity and so on. Well, I was hoping at the grand old age of 36 that my character was sufficiently well built - God obviously thinks not. But we'll keep on driving as hard as we dare. Our desire is still there. It's not over yet.