Yachting: It's like trying to sleep inside a kettle drum

Gordon Maguire anticipates a damp, smelly, grindingly tough month aboard Silk Cut
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The Independent Online
As I write this we are in the final countdown to the 1997-98 Whitbread Round the World Yacht Race - we start at 2pm today. The 10 yachts have been docked in Southampton for the past week, and Silk Cut looks resplendent in her purple livery and open-mouthed shark logo.

There has been a palpable tension in the air during this last week, but we have tried to remain calm and focused as there was still a lot to be done. The job list covered all the final preparations such as loading food and diesel; race-packing the sails and finishing some minor repairs.

All the big decisions, such as which mast to use and which sails to take, have been made. The die has been cast. It's up to the crew now to sail the yacht to her full potential.

The yacht has been weighed and measured to ensure it complies with the rules. Our 17 sails have also been measured and stamped with an invisible marking. They will be rechecked this morning to ensure they have not been changed.

Whitbread have also been scrutineering this week, which includes checking the safety equipment and procedures. We carry life jackets: a life raft; an emergency radio beacon; harnesses for attaching ourselves to the rail in extreme conditions; and "grab bags", which contain emergency supplies for survival in a life raft - torch, knife, flares and a hand-held desalinator to make seawater drinkable.

We are also required to simulate a man-overboard incident. We had earlier practice at this when our navigator was flicked 15 feet into the air by the spinnaker and thrown into the North Atlantic. We were 400 miles west of Ireland at the time and it was blowing 20 knots. We managed a textbook rescue and had him back on board, albeit cold and wet, within five minutes.

I have been making the most of home comforts this week, as life will be spartan for the month it takes to complete the first leg to Cape Town. My warm and comfortable bed will be swapped for a cramped canvas bunk. We have sleeping bags for cold conditions and a sheet for warmer climates. When the weather is wet and windy these are impossible to keep dry, and you end up sleeping in clammy dampness. In the cold you sleep with your clothes on. These too can get sodden and, after a few days, are somewhat smelly and unpleasant.

So far as the hard work is concerned, we run six-hour watches to 6pm while at night we run a four-hourly shift change. Sleep is difficult when you are off-watch. You are only 18 inches beneath the crew working on deck, and their movements and voices resound loudly around the hollow interior. Added to this is the continuous creaking and groaning of the yacht as she is pushed to her limits in the pursuit of every last ounce of speed. It's a bit like trying to sleep inside a kettle drum. If we change direction - which can happen perhaps a dozen times during a watch - the sleeping crew have to wake up, and race to the bunks on the opposite side so that as much weight as possible is on the high side of the boat to keep it balanced and moving as fast as possible. They also have to hurl all the sails and any other portable equipment to the high side as fast as they can - speed differences of a fraction of a knot will be decisive.

We eat three times a day, at 6am, midday and 6pm. Breakfast is cereal or porridge with reconstituted powdered milk; lunch is a carbohydrate dish, usually pasta, with a bolognese or pesto sauce; and dinner is a rehydrated freeze-dried meal containing meat. We have snacks for the evening, such as a chocolate bar or a packet of Jelly Babies (chosen for their high carbohydrate content). The only drink we have is desalinated water. This contains no minerals so we add these in powdered form. Although the food is carefully chosen to provide an adequate diet we can lose up to 5kg on a leg.

In warm weather we wash as best we can using special salt-water soap and shampoo. You go to the back of the boat, scoop a bucket of water from the sea and empty it over your head. Towelling down quickly stops the salt from causing skin irritations. In cold weather we just make do with antiseptic wet wipes. And, with only one change of thermal underwear we become a pretty niffy bunch.

There's one toilet on board for 12 men. If you block it you have to unblock it yourself. This involves dismantling the pump, clearing it and putting it back together again. It can be a 30-minute procedure and is not pleasant. We tend to flush the toilet before using it to ensure it's not blocked and, if it is, the offending previous user is found and made to do his duty.

The inside of a Whitbread 60 is not a place where the off-duty crew sit and chat and socialise. You can't stand up straight and you have to crawl over sails and equipment. It's simply a place to eat your food quickly and get into your bunk. The only relaxing we get is to read a few chapters of the one paperback we are allowed to take before trying to get some sleep.

These will be my living conditions for the next 30 days. There will be times when I will question why I'm doing it. And then it will come back to me. To win.