We were keen, after a conservative first leg, to make an impression in the second leg. We wanted to nail the start and be in pole position to lead the fleet out of Table Bay. It all came together beautifully. Silk Cut took the lead at the first mark and it all appeared to be going our way. Unfortunately, we got becalmed just five miles from the Cape Town start line.
In those situations there is nothing you can do. The first boat to find the breeze is off. The crew tip-toe around the boat trying hard not to disturb the sails, which are catching whatever wind there is. No matter how calm it appears, there is always wind. Just one knot of wind can push the boat forward at half a knot which equates to half a mile in an hour. It does not sound much but it is half a mile closer to the stronger wind. Sailing in very light air can be frustrating, just waiting for the weather to change is like watching paint dry.
Swedish Match took a huge flyer just after the start, turning away from the rest of the fleet, heading offshore. It was a massive gamble but within days it was paying huge dividends. They were quickly joined by Innovation Kvaerner and Toshiba, all diving south. It was soon apparent that the leg had developed into a two-group race. The boats in the south began to find the breeze and pull away from the rest of the fleet. We were unable to get south, being stuck on the edge of a high pressure system. So within two days we were locked in a race for fourth place with EF Language, Merit Cup, Chessie Racing, Brunel Sunergy and EF Education.
It took a day or two to rationalise the situation. The leg victory is gone and you are not going to be in the first three. It is only the second day out but you have to push as hard as you can to take fourth place. Steve Hayles, our navigator, did some quick calculations and told us that if we took the fourth slot it would move us into third position overall. Fifth would give us an overall sixth. We had to take fourth, nothing else would do. By the time we got to the Kerguelen Islands we were about 60 miles behind EF Language, the leg one winner. It soon became obvious to us that we were very fast down wind. When the next six hourly "sked" came out, we had taken four miles out of them and soon we were taking miles out of them at every report.
The only way we were really going to get past them was if they broke down or "crashed and burnt". The best way to do this was to keep pushing them, knowing they would be looking at the sked and pushing just as hard as they dare. Every time they had a good run we had a better one. They would sail 106 miles and we would sail 109; we just kept chipping away. This went on for two and a half days, until we suddenly made more than 25 miles on them. They must have a problem. We just sailed past. We had pushed EF Language beyond their limits and taken fourth place.
It was during this time that we had our world record run of 449.29 miles in a day, making Silk Cut the fastest monohull in the world. After sailing flat-out for 18 hours we soon realised that if we kept going the record would not just fall, it would be blown apart. For two and a half days we sailed over 1,000 miles. It was absolutely fantastic sailing. I think it is the most awesomely scary thing I have ever done.
The conditions in the Southern Ocean are extreme. It is the coldest, wettest and windiest place on earth. When on board, water gets everywhere. There are times when you hit a wave and you are travelling faster than it so you surf down the wave and plough into the wall of the one in front. This sends a wall, perhaps five feet high, of ice cold water flying down the deck at 28 knots. If you are not harnessed on it will knock you flat. When it hits, it knocks all the wind out of you. It is one hell of a body blow, and that happens at least every minute for the six hours of the watch. It is like standing in the street in front of a fire hydrant.
The freezing Southern Ocean conditions remained with us until we were 500 miles from Fremantle, all of us still constrained in our survival suits, struggling to stay warm. Then, as the water temperature rises, the steely grey skies lose their clouds and turn blue - relief hits you. We have made it through the Southern Ocean.
With the warmth comes the ominous growth of bacteria, which has been held in abeyance by the freezing water temperatures. All the debris from 12 men living in a space no bigger than a small caravan begins to cook in the Australian heat. The smell is awful. So when we finally got to the dock in Fremantle we were very pleased to close the hatch and walk away. After all, we had something to celebrate - we are third overall and we have the fastest boat in the world.Reuse content