Sailing: Six dark, desperate hours...

Gordon Maguire, watch leader on the stricken Silk Cut, looks back on a woeful week
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The Independent Online
I WOULD like to tell you that it was a dark and stormy night, but, as is often the case when these things happen, it was just another day at the office in the Southern Ocean on the Whitbread Round The World Race when disaster struck us.

During the steely grey days, visibility was down to 50 yards, at night it was zero, so we were flying pretty much blind. It was windy on Tuesday - force seven - and the seas were running big with 12-to-15ft waves. We were averaging 19 knots and settling in for a big night's run. If we had kept our speed up we could have recorded a 260-mile day and smashed the world record we set in the second leg.

Two or three days earlier while leading this fifth leg of the race from Auckland round Cape Horn to Sao Sebastiao in Brazil, we split our mainsail and had to drop it for four hours to effect repairs. We lost 30 miles, the lead and slipped to fourth place. So we were now playing catch-up, but were ever mindful not to push too hard. We were beginning to work Silk Cut into a good position for a fast run into Cape Horn; we were not far off the lead and looking forward to fighting EF Language, Swedish Match and Merit Cup round the Horn and up the South American coast in what was certain to be a monumental battle.

The afternoon of the fateful day had been good. We had taken 13 miles out of Merit Cup in third place and drawn level with her. We were pushing hard, but were well within our limits.

Just after nightfall there was a call from below that we had hit something and could we check the hull for damage. Earlier that day some of the other boats had reported seeing ice, so with a flashlight in hand and my heart in my mouth I ventured forward.

Down the starboard side of boat I could see large strips of kevlar flapping about in the bow wave. Fear took over as images of us sinking in this Godforsaken ice-strewn ocean flashed through my mind. As I got closer I could see that luckily it was only the outer skin that was damaged. A six-foot section of the skin had been peeled back, just like orange peel, exposing raw kevlar to the freezing Southern Ocean. We must have only glanced the side of the ice; at 19 knots we would have punched a hole clean through the hull had we made head-on contact. We had been very lucky.

The rest of the watch was spent scanning the pitch black that surrounded the boat in a vain attempt to spot any more ice. Sensitive sea-temperature equipment was detecting a drop from 2.3C to 2.1C, which is the only way to know that small ice is in the vicinity.

At 9.30 that evening, completely exhausted, I was glad to get below and was just crawling into my dry, warm bunk when suddenly there was a loud bang and the sound of twisted metal crashing on metal.

First anger followed frustration, and then total desperation set in. The mast had just broken. We were 2,200 miles from land with diesel for only 300 miles on board. We were out of range of any rescue flights, in the middle of the most inhospitable ocean on earth. It's at times like this that your life flashes before your eyes at breakneck speed.

When I went on deck it was just carnage. Twisted metal, ropes, wire and torn sailcloth were flying all over the place as the boat rolled from side to side in the huge seas. Worst of all, the top section of the mast was swinging from side to side. At 300kg and 15m it took us almost an hour just get it under control. The whole clear-up took six desperate hours.

This left us with an 11m stump, from which we have hung two small storm sails. We are now proceeding at a very slow speed east to make a landfall in Chile or Argentina.

The problem now is the race against time. We have to get to Brazil and fit our spare mast in time to start the next leg. To this end, the sailmaking department have been busy building some new sails to fit our "stump". As for the rest of the crew, total boredom has set in. We have made a deck of cards, fish hooks and lures and are trying our best not to think about what could have been. We have managed to rig up the boat's computers so we can have an in-crew pinball championship, and we are also staging a competition for those who do not normally helm the boast to see who can drive it best.

It's important now to focus on getting to land, repairing the boat so we can get on with the remaining four legs and restore some self-pride and dignity.

Signing off from the ex-kings of the Southern Ocean.