And so the BIG DAY dawns.
Quick breakfast, packing last stuff that stays and organising what has to come on the boat. The plan is to be o/b latest 8.30h. On the pontoons where only selected happy few can come today it is already busy with shore crews, well-wishers and white faced family members of the skippers.
Every boat is given a tight 4 minute departure slot, it is strictly organised and it runs like clockwork. Each skipper is visited by the Prince of Monaco, wishing each skipper good luck and a safe trip. Then it is time for a last good-bye of closest family. A hug here a kiss there, come on this is painful let’s get it over with. And off we go into the channel leading to the ocean.
Yes… I had been at a start years ago as guest of a then sponsor.
Yes…. I had seen many starts on TV.
Yes…. people had told me what was going to happen.
But no… You cannot understand what is happening unless you are in the midst yourself. Unbelievable how enthousiastic and cheerful hundreds of thousands of onlookers can be. All lined up on the banks of the channel it just goes on and on and on. Very special.
Then out to the starting area where again uncountable numbers of people are looking at the spectacle on all kind of boats. All in a fantastic ambiance and pretty disciplined! Three of my shore crew assist with hoisting sails and the last preparations. Not long before the gun they hop into a following RIB and from then I am ALONE.
The start is not bad but because of being a bit close to the line a bit too slow. It takes a while to get the jibtop out and in the meantime several boats pass. Once al is set the boat picks up speed and I have surprising good pointing.
The RIB with family hangs on for a while, then a shout , they slow, a lot of waving, surely a dry throat and they turn around and quickly, too quickly become smaller and smaller. This is the hardest moment …….
As it is expected that the wind will turn a bit West of North I invest heavily in pointing to avoid a later tack near Finisterre. But it so happens that the wind during the night shifts the opposite direction, making the investment a loss and all the boats that started footing early also lay Finisterre easily…
Ummpff, blow number one.
During the night one of the rudders kicks up from its safety lock several times. (The lock is like a safety binding on ski’s. If the rudder hits something floating in the water it kicks up hopefully avoiding big damage). On two occassions the kick-ups result in unwanted “Crash Tacks” the result of which is that the boat is heading back direction les Sables, nearly upside down with sails backed and flapping like crazy, the main pinned on the “wrong” runner, the keel canted the wrong side now inducing even more heel and the wrong foil out. All that in the dark. Both times it takes well over 20 minutes to sort out the mess and turn the boat around in the right direction.
Blow no 2.
In one of these episodes I decide winching the rudder back in is too slow, so I try by hand and give it a mighty big pull. Too mighty big and my back gives way. A terrible pain develops and for days I am practically immobilised. It takes me 3 to 4 minutes to get from the cabin to the cockpit and that in huge pain. The “best” way is to go up the steps backwards, slowly let myself fall backwards till I lay on my back in the wet cockpit, roll over on my stomach and hoist myself up with my arms. Very painful.
Blow number 3.
I have to decide to limit any reefing, sail changes, tacks or jibes as much as possible. Basically I am immobilised. It means I have to sail around the TSS exclusion zone as going inside between Spain and the TSS, means to jibe a few times, That is a detour of around 30nm.
Blow number 4.
Wanting to be safe I try the reef sail, but cannot get the sail to lock in the mast. Not on reef 1, not at full hoist, so down all the way to reef 2. Of course the wind does not increase but decrease and I am on a small sail.
Blow number 5.
For tight reaching in lighter conditions I do not have the required big flat sails o/b, I do not even have them. And for wider reaching I cannot get the 100kg sailbag with the gennaker on deck in my physical condition. And off the competition went at burning speeds.
Blow number too many…
The result of this all is that by the second day I am well in the very tail of the fleet.Painful. Medical advice is to lay flat 24/24 for a week, not move and take certain pills. Well, an Imoca at sea is about the worst environment imaginable. I can take the pills though and the obligatory medical kit contains many of them.
The bad news continues as during the Monday I receive the sad message that Sunday night late my father in law died. He had been ill for a while, but nobody had expected this to happen so quick. Rest in peace, Willem.
On board meanwhile the technical issues continue, the to-do list grows quicker than I can work it off. With the heat and the limited possibilities sometimes very frustrating. Some examples: rudder lock/ foil stuck/ watermaker/ computer issues of all kinds/ satC / video and audio/ clipway system/ decklights/ leakage in hydraulic keel system/ barber haulers / and then a whole list of minor, normal maintenance points.
The many hours spent on fixing things cannot be spent on actively sailing the boat and don’t do positive things to morale. Thank goodness for some shore team members (Antoine and Ewe), who are always reachable and available to discuss solutions. But in general it does highlight the state of affairs in the leisure marine industry where most equipment is of Mickey Mouse quality and workmanship levels can only be typified as “shoddy”. This industry lacks professionalism, quality control, responsibility and accountability. No wonder people are leaving yachting in droves: the modern person wants things to work at a fair price. For the industry as a whole: “You get what you deserve”, and thus potential clients are going elsewhere and out of sailing. Most boats are not a sailboat where some general maintenance and care needs to be done once in a while, but floating workshops with a sail stuck on to it.
So much for the philosophical part. No Way Back reached the Doldrums in a totally different way than the frontrunners: where they were screaming along reaching at 20+kn we were bashing and smashing upwind at 10kn. That means a deficit -per day!- of some 240nm (330km). And that for several days. The Doldrums themselves are a unpleasant part of the world: humid, unpredictable, no wind, wild squalls and hot. Nevertheless NWB got through not too poorly, mostly by keeping momentum although sometimes in weird directions. Once you come to a standstill you are really lost.
Some relief for the tortured mind is the voice of my concerned family:
“Pieter for you it is not a race , it is an adventure, take it easy”
Yeah, yeah, yeah, but……
Saturday evening November 19 at exactly (unbelievable, to the second exact !) 20.00UTC No Way Back crossed the equator. 13 days and 8 hours after starting in les Sables.
Due respect was paid to King Neptune and all other Gods of the Sea and Seafarers of all religions by sharing a drink of ” Fru Nielsen” and help was humbly requested to make it a safe trip. Being respectful to the Kings and Gods Pieter “showered” just before the crossing and got into fresh, clean clothes. As the skipper had crossed the equator several times prior to this event, Neptune waived the customary ritual for first or second timers that includes a lot of smelly dirt, goop and grime.
A few hours later the sat phone rings…..what can that be? It is only allowed to be used to call the ship in case of emergency.
“Hey Pieter, Neptune here. I see you just crossed the equator and I have not yet seen any offering from your side” a strange voice from the deep says .
“Oh yes ” I reply “mine was the first class Fru Nielsen”
“Ahh” said the voice with he Irish accent “then you may continue and have a safe trip through my Kingdom” ☺
Presently No Way Back is sailing on a southerly course some 200nm off the coast of Brasil in perfect stable and pleasant SE trade winds. Too bad it is upwind, hopefully in the coming days the wind will back a bit and the sheets can be eased. Beautiful sailing conditions but vey very hot, so working the job list is no mean task. Not much time to enjoy though: “the SOUTH” is nearing quickly and the boat and it’s skipper have to be 100% before getting to the “real thing”.
But again: this is beautiful sailing, the starry nights are incredible here, away from real and from light pollution. The Southern Hemisphere shows different stars and I must confess I don’t recognise much. And as for the boat: many things do work real well and sailing this machine on a reach at speed is mesmerising.
Hopefully I can soon focus more on sailing the boat and speed up a bit so as to pass a few competitors. After all it ain’t a cruise….
Next goal: Cape of Good Hope, one of the major capes in the world, steeped -as all big capes- in history. Stay tuned………