Sunday, December 31, 2006

Blog 24 - Sydney Hobart 2006 - The Story

They say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Well the same can be said for no knowledge at all. People often have a go at trying new things. But they usually start with some kind of taster; an entree to see if it whets their appetite. But to be honest, there are a lot of things to do, see and experience in life and the clock never stops ticking. If you are going to try something why not go for the biggest, hardest, most dangerous and most challenging for man and machine.

When you get on a boat and set sail there is no opportunity to say 'well actually its not quite what I imagined and I'd like to get off now....please'. If you run a marathon, you can walk or stop when it gets tough. If you are up a mountain and it get's a but nippy, you can come down. But when you are one hundred miles or more out to sea and mother nature is 'biggin it large', there is no getting off, there is no turning back, you can't stick your bottom lip out and take your ball home in a huff. All you can do is tough it out, say your prayers and hope your shipmates know what they are doing.

The first night out from Sydney was just such an occasion. The start had been a big adrenaline rush. Seventy eight yachts of all shapes and sizes blasting down the harbour. Sunshine, crowds, helicopters, wooooo hooo. Out past the Heads the fleet headed out to catch the offshore current. Our tactics were to stay inshore and as close to the rhum line as possible. It worked. For a while 'Global Yacht Racing Next' was leading the Sydney 38 class. There was a good steady south easterly of fifteen knots and the boat was slicing nicely through the swell. I went off watch at midnight and everything was working well. Two hours later I'm awake with a start. The boat was hammering into a heavy swell and the wind strength had doubled intensity with gusts over thirty knots. Feet were thudding on the deck inches above my head. The on-watch were shouting to be heard over the din of the wind and waves. Water was spraying down the hatch. The whole boat was shuddering and shaking. A shout came down for another hand to come on deck. Dave went up. I got into my foulies and waited to be called if needed.

Next minute the number one headsail was dumped into the cabin on top of me. I struggled to get it folded, too big and soaking wet to manage in a space not much bigger than your average broom cupboard. You couldn't stand up as you needed all your grip to hold on as the boat pitched and heaved. I had to sit on the floor and shove it into the forward compartment out of the way. Dressed in full foul weather gear and life jacket it was so hot. When you really exert yourself it brings on the sea sickness nausea, as if you didn't have enough to cope with.

I had the cushy job! Jim was on the foredeck trying to drop the number one and get the smaller number three headsail up. At one point he was hanging onto the forestay horizontal as the boat fell off a wave and dropped five metres with a crash, throwing him back onto the deck. He was lucky to escape with bruises. Jim's wasn't the only damage. A big gust and a heavy wave breaking over the foredeck combined to rip a metre long gash in the number one headdie as it came down. Not being able to use that sail again cost us our lead. The knot and a half extra speed the bigger sail gives you means that the other boats in the class can pull a big lead over four days. They slowly disappear over the horizon in front of you and there is nothing you can do about it. No, starting the engine isn't allowed...

That first night was a real bruiser. We had it good compared to some. Koomooloo, a beautiful classic wooden yacht, fell off two big waves in succession and split the hull. The British Army Royal Corps of Signals yacht, Adventure, turned back to help. Koomooloo couldn't have picked a better craft to come to their assistance. Adventure is a big steel boat and the crew were specially trained in man-overboard and survival at sea. Everyone was picked up safely. Maximus and ABN Amro two of the race favourites lost their rigging. The mast of Maximus falling on deck and injuring five crew. These are Volvo Ocean racers, the best there is. An indication of just how tough the Sydney Hobart is.

After the first night the weather slowly moderated. The big swell persisted through the Bass straight but the wind eased and the sailing became a little easier. By the time we got to the turn into the final run to Hobart at dawn on the fifth day, the sun was out and it was a pleasure to be on deck. We hadn't finished racing though. Kinetic was close on our heels and three more boats were in sight ahead. There were still places at stake. We were reeling in the boats ahead, with our spinnaker up for the first time in the race and we were pulling away from Kinetic. Then in the middle of the Derwent estuary, within sight of Hobart we hit a dead calm. The boat started to go backwards as the tide pushed us along. Kinetic had chosen to stay close to the North shore and were able to keep some wind in their sails. By the time we picked up some puff they were past us and too far ahead to catch. After five days and over 625 miles, I was amazed our race went right to the line.

It wasn't all nightmarish by any means. There are some great moments along the way. At night there are fabulous bright stars, luminescent water, dolphins that glow in the dark (I kid you not) and leave trails of phosphorescence. More dolphins in the day, strutting their stuff like they own the place; seals, sharks, Albatross, Stormy Petril on a stick; not everyday experiences by any means.

In a big race like this the start and finish are brilliant. The bit in the middle.... sheer endurance. We were lucky to have some experienced guys on board. Shane Kearns was completing his 11th race and Richo Holstein the boat's owner his 9th. Andy Middleton, the Skipper and Director of Global Yacht Racing, has done nearly all the big ocean and offshore races; is a yachtmaster and sea survival instructor. These guys are an object lesson in how to stay calm in a crisis. When the shit hits the fan they are there to get you through. The other guys on the boat were all pretty experienced too with years of sailing and racing experience between them. I was the complete rookie. A weekend Lazer dingy sailor twenty five years ago and a handful of races with the local yacht club on the Mersey. But that's the great thing about Andy's company. They give everyday blokes like me a chance to do something amazing. I had good training with them for two weeks prior to the race and they helped me feel confident I could do my bit and not let the rest of the team down.

We split the nine crew into two watches. Four-hour watches in the daytime and three at night. After a few sleepless off-watches where all you can do is wear the polish off your rosary beads as you listen to the boat pounding through the waves; shuddering, creaking and groaning: you get so tired you can sleep through anything. Then, when you have to go on watch, more personal shuddering, creaking and groaning as you squeeze out of your Harry Potter like bunk under the cockpit stairs to go and retrieve your wet gear from the forward compartment. 'I like getting dressed at sea ..... naart'. The sharp end of the boat is where all the violent action happens. One foot braced against the bog (sorry, heads), the other jammed under a sail bag, arse wedged under the sink. Sifting through a line of dripping jackets, trousers and boots looking for your own stuff in the near dark. You can feel the boat lifting-up sharply and you just know its coming. Some sixth sense tells you that this is not a wave you will be slipping over elegantly. There is a subtle difference in the motion but you know its coming and try to brace. When the bow falls off the top of the wave its like being in an elevator when someone has cut the cable. A bungy jump with rope instead of elastic.

I learnt my lesson eventually. Drag the gear as quick as you can onto the cabin floor and sit down while you pull everything on. You get your arse wet sometimes but its better than trying to pop rivet the mast with your forehead. The next challenge is to get it all on as fast as possible and get out on deck. Some other poor soul has been hanging over a rail getting soaked for four hours and wants to get below and sleep. Again the exertion/nausea/sweating thing kicks in. I lost count of the different number of ways I discovered to put on a life jacket the wrong way. The same counts for getting everything off. I was getting slick with it by the end of the fourth day! The old hands stay in their wet gear pretty much the whole time. Some of the bunks were designated as wet so that people could sleep in their wet gear and be available to be on deck fast if needed. It would take me a good twenty minutes to pack my sleeping bag; get dressed; get a drink of water, find gloves, hat, glasses; then there was going to the loo........

There is relief and light relief. More often than not, having to answer natures call combined both. The Sydney 38 has been described by others as a toilet with a mast. Now I know why. The two girls on board definitely got the worst deal. A bit of last minute shopping on Christmas Eve yielded a nice flexible bucket with handles, clasping between the legs for the use of. Not easy when all this action takes place in the afore mentioned forward compartment from hell. The boys had a clinical looking pee bottle freshly purchased with the luxury of a lid. I wasn't completely overjoyed at the prospect of dipping my wick in the same bottle as all the other boys. A fear justifiably confirmed at the end of the race when Richo confessed to having developed a boil on his todger - visually confirmed by another crew member (who shall be nameless to preserve the innocent ;-) - another nausea inducing experience.

As luck would have it the lid off the pee bottle was the first overboard casualty. The first of a list of jetsam inadvertently trailed across the Bass Straight, from pee bottle tops to sail bags, even the washing up bucket. The bottle filling method consisted of wedging yourself in somewhere and doing the blissful necessary. The emptying method involved teetering across the cabin sole like Bambi on Ice with the now open top container, climbing a few steps up and leaning out to the leeward side and tipping into the Briny. Avoiding any blowback. Occasionally you would be taken pity on by someone on deck and they would assist in the final tipping. Possibly just because they wanted their hands warming momentarily! Unfortunately the lid was followed by the whole bottle the next day. Big groans all round the boys. I won't say who the culprit was.... Andy. My boy scout experience and many hours watching Ray Mears was at last justified as I produced a beautiful hand crafted replacement. Well actually, I just cut the top off a water bottle. The nice new sharp edge did wonders for improving peeing accuracy and concentration.

Number two's brought a deep depression at the thought. Jim fell at the first fence when allowing the head to jettison his efforts all over the compartment from hell and several sets of foulies... how aptly named. He must have been sitting on the rail beforehand thinking, now what could I do to make that compartment a nicer place to be. He owes Kathryn several slabs of beer for cleaning it up. There was considerable betting activity on who would be able to put a cork in it for the whole trip. Unfortunately I succumbed on the fourth day ( a personal record ;-) and resorted to the bucket. The emptying of which over the back was unmercifully captured on film for posterity by the skipper. I'll be keeping a close eye on You Tube for any unwanted personal celebrity - key word search; bucket, sea, blind mole, scouser.

In the early days of the trip I just couldn't imagine how I'd got myself into such a tough position AND paid for the privilege. I had no idea how people could subject themselves to such torture year after year and keep coming back for more. When I asked the old hands why they did it, they couldn't give an answer. Now its all over, I think I know. there is a terrific sense of achievement from having come through it. You test yourself more than you can imagine and the feeling of having endured and survived makes you know for sure that you are truly alive.

I would like to thank my family and friends for their support. In the wee small hours of the night, when you are dead tired and you are hanging on to the rail, cold and wet, all your muscles aching from sitting on a hard deck littered with ropes and cleats, you think about your loved ones and the knowledge that they are willing you on gets you through it.

Now I've got the knowledge, would I do it again...... definitely.


AJPEE said...

You have my greatest admiration, I have always wondered why men put to sea in small boats. Someone once said to me it was the equivalent of standing in the shower tearing up £50 notes. I think they need to add whilst 2 bouncers kick the sh.t out of you and another one turns the fire hose on you. Even that can't be as bad as actually doing it. Sincer congratulations you are a better man than me Gunger Din. AND YOU WANT TO DO IT AGAIN!!!! I see Kathryn came in useful!

andrea said...


An inspirational example of what can be achieved, at any age, if we just step out of our comfort zone, over the threshold of our self imposed boundaries and ask ourselves the question 'Why not??'.

I'm so proud of you John. Wishing you many more adventures in 2007!!

All my love


Psychodudu said...

Nr.1 sail under one arm, DICK under the tough does one guy need to be? The Laurel crown is truly yours, Uncster, and I am proud (seriously proud) to call you my estranged Uncle. Glad you are safe and sound. Still weeing myself at Dad's comment about Kath....harsh, but funny nevertheless!

Kathryn said...

Hmmm, useful is one way of putting it!! I have to say I was sat laughing out loud with tears pouring down my face reading this blog entry! I guess I had the added advantage (disadvantage???)of having the mental images to go with it. Believe me John only skimmed the surface of one of the most amazing things you could ever do. I have to say one of the lowest points of the trip was the aforementioned 'useful moment' (but somebody realllly needed to do it) and the highlight, trimming a spinnaker with the sun coming up as we headed towards (yep literally, right up until the last minute) cathedral rock on Tasman Isle.

Thank you John, this opportunity would never have come up if not for you xxx

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