24 hours to race finish
The final hours of any ocean race are a test of endurance, grit and tactics, as I learned in the Clipper Race from London to Rio.
And this race to Australia is no different. Except for the fact that, this time, we have a good shot at first place. And we want it. Bad.
But, by now, most of the boats have engaged their 24-hour stealth mode, so we have no idea if our competitors — OneDLL and Great Britain — are behind us, ahead of us, or how fast they’re going. All we can do is keep sailing as fast as we can and hope no one catches us.
“What the hell is that?!” Someone shouts and points at the faint glow of what appears to be a mast light just off our starboard bow. “Is that OneDLL?” Last we checked, Great Britain was 25 miles south, and OneDLL was 17 miles ahead before they disappeared off our radar. “Did we catch up with them?”
Our navigator disappears below deck to see if he can detect an AIS signal on the charts. But whoever it is has turned off their transmitter.
Meanwhile, I’ve been drinking coffee nonstop, preparing myself for the inevitable: no sleep till Albany. I have enough experience to know that there’s no way in hell I can rest when the finish line is this close.
But the next several hours will be a true test of the crew’s endurance, especially considering the statistics of the last 24 hours:
Spinnaker changes: 4
Injured crew: 2
All-hands-on-deck situations: 4
Time it takes to retrieve a spinnaker after halyard snaps: 45 minutes
Time it takes to wool and rehoist spinnaker: 16 minutes
Boats in the lead pack: 3 (Henri Lloyd, Great Britain, OneDLL)
Record miles covered in 24 hours: 311 (PSP Logistics)
Highest wind speed in the last 24 hours: 40 knots
Lowest wind speed in the last 24 hours: 4 knots
6 hours to race finish
I’ve been on the helm sailing downwind with the kite flying for four hours now, focused on keeping one particular star between the mast and the shroud in an effort to keep the boat moving smoothly at the perfect heel. Any jerking motion on the helm flattens the boat out instantly and slows it down, costing precious time until the boat is able to regain speed. So I’m staring at that star in the sky with my arms locked on the helm like my life depends on it.
Looking out across the cockpit, I can see the crew all concentrating on their jobs as hard as I’m staring at my star. Dawn is starting to break and through the binoculars, we can finally see the logo on the boat just off our starboard bow: it’s Great Britain, not OneDLL like we thought. And radar tells us they are now 1.7 miles ahead of us and OneDLL is nowhere to be found. Which means there is 1.7 miles standing between us and first place.
Two crew are standing at the grinder, poised and ready and as soon as the trimmer screams “GRIND!”, their arms spin in perfect unison. It’s like watching the inside of a clockwork mechanism: the boat sways, the spinnaker flutters, the trimmer screams, the grinders spin, the boat sways, the spinnaker flutters, the trimmer screams, the grinders spin. And, like clockwork, the crew silently rotate positions every thirty minutes.
The Skipper comes up on deck and announces that we’ve covered 15 miles in the last hour. “If we keep hitting these numbers, we’ll break PSP’s record,” he says.
But we all know we don’t have another 24 hours to break that record. We have 6 hours at best and this race will be over. And with Great Britain looming sometimes larger, sometimes smaller on our bow, we can practically taste the victory. “Just focus,” I tell myself.
My eyes are growing bloodshot from lack of sleep and too much caffeine and the muscles in my shoulders are starting to heat up with a prickly ache, but I dig into my past and try to think of the most painful moments of the hardest marathons I’ve ever run. I think of the mile-long hill I ran up at the finish of the Adirondack Mountain marathon and all the swearing I did under my breath as I fought through the pain in my hamstrings. “You’ve done harder things than this for four hours,” I tell myself, as I grip the helm. “Just keep going.”
As the sun comes up on the horizon, Eric watches the crew operating in perfect unison and breaks the intense silence. “No matter what happens in the end, I want you to take a moment and remember this,” Eric says, as we look at him, surprised. “You guys should be really proud. You’re witnessing something really special here. Something to remember.”
Whether we’re all too tired, too stunned or too focused to respond, no one says a word. We all just slowly nod our heads.
“GRIND!’ Someone shouts, as the arms spin again. “HOLD!”
Eric continues. “I know it’s coming up to the end of your watch, but there’s only a few hours left in this race and you’ve got something really good going here. If you want to stay up and continue racing, that’s up to you. If you want to go down and sleep in your off-watch, you’re welcome to do that, too.”
No one says a word. No one has to. We’ve already made eye contact with each other and nodded our signs of approval. The message communicated silently across the deck is, “I’m not sleeping until this is over. Let’s get ‘em.”
The final hour
In the end, we draw a little closer to Great Britain, and they pull ahead again, and we draw closer again, and they pull away again. And we do this war dance all the way to the finish, until Henri Lloyd crosses the finish line 27 minutes behind Great Britain, in second place. 5,000 miles across the Southern Ocean and the race is won or lost in a matter of 27 minutes.
When it’s that close, 27 minutes can haunt you forever. What if we didn’t snap the halyard on our spinnaker? What if we wooled those spinnakers a little faster? What if those sail changes were a little smoother?
Anything could have made the difference of 27 minutes over the course of 5,000 miles. But, in the end, I’m not thinking about that. Instead, I’m thinking of something I said on Leg 1, in the Race to Rio. “As long as we cross the finish line having honestly fought to the last minute with everything we have, I will be happy. I just don’t want any regrets.”
As we pull into Albany, Australia, all of us on Henri Lloyd are rubbing our bloodshot eyes and giving each other hugs. And as I think back to the last three weeks, and everything we put into this race, I have no regrets. We laid it all on the line and pushed every last ounce of speed out of our boat.
We may have come in second place across the line, but we can proudly say that Henri Lloyd is in first place on the round-the-world leaderboard. And, though I may be biased, I know we belong there.
No regrets. That’s how we finished the race to Albany. And I couldn’t be more proud of my team.
Tasha and Ryan both raced in Leg 1 of the Clipper Race from London to Rio de Janeiro and Leg 3 from Cape Town, South Africa to Albany, Australia. Tasha competed on CV21 Henri Lloyd – ahem, the winning boat — with Skipper Eric Holden and Ryan competed on CV28 PSP Logistics – ahem, NOT the winning boat — with Skipper Chris Hollis. You can read more about the crew and the boats here at www.clipperroundtheworld.com/crew